She brings pipe-organ music to life A Trevose woman, blind since birth, can play it all on a pipe organ.

Posted: May 10, 2001

Candi Carley-Roth's fingers tap rapidly over two tiers of ivory keys on a vintage theater pipe organ while her feet crisscross and dance over 32 pedals.

She wants more harmony from the violins, snare drums and sax.

By pushing a few tabs that replicate sections of an orchestra, she gets it. Her lively rendition of "Onward, Christian Soldiers" blends imperceptibly into "Dancing in the Streets," and Carley-Roth is in her groove.

Blind since birth, Carley-Roth, 47, of Trevose, is known in theater-organ circles as an accomplished musician who has proved that organ music can mean pop music.

"Everyone thinks every organist plays church music and that's it," she said. "It can be whatever you want."

To prove her point, she launches into her version of "Who Let the Dogs Out," pounding her palms on the keyboard to emulate dogs barking.

"When it comes to the theater organ, she has a style all her own," said Al Derr, president of the Theater Organ Society of the Delaware Valley. The organization has between 110 and 125 members, Derr said.

He said Carley-Roth had helped to involve younger folks in theater-organ music by playing tunes they know.

"She's able to take the modern music and play it on the theater organ and makes it sound very good," Derr said. "Candi has really broken out of the mold and has sold the theater-organ music to a younger audience. Country-western, rock and roll. I've heard her play the Grateful Dead on the theater organ."

On Mother's Day, she will play a 1927 Marr and Colton theater pipe organ at Pen Ryn Mansion in Bensalem, fresh from her weekly commitment on the keyboard at Christ Episcopal Church in Eddington.

The theater pipe organ helped convey emotion and drama through music and sound effects during the silent-movie era at the Academy Theater in Lebanon, Pa.

Forty-four multicolored tabs above the keyboards represent sections of an orchestra. Carley-Roth memorizes each of the tabs and quickly flips them up and down without missing a note, whether she is playing Glenn Miller or gospel.

"You name it, she can play it," said Bill Haas, managing partner of Pen Ryn Mansion.

Carley-Roth, a native of Southern California, learned to play piano by ear when she was 6. A year later, a neighbor invited her to try out a Hammond spinnet organ, and Carley-Roth was hooked.

She took piano lessons with the help of scholarships and studied under Richard Purvis, a staff organist at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, from 1971 to 1975.

She met her future husband, Mark Roth, a draftsman and tool designer, at the Great American Wind Machine, a pizzeria in California where she had an organ gig several times a week.

They married in 1986 and moved to Bucks County in 1990. Their son, Gabriel, 6, likes to sing, Carley-Roth said, but has not taken to the organ yet.

Carley-Roth also has appeared in concerts in Canada, Australia and across the United States.

"I'm very liberal with my music. I play it with soul," she said. "I think classical music tends to be very stodgy and stiff. It sounds like a finger exercise. You're not really caressing the keys - you're just pressing them. I want to hear a pretty melody with some feeling."

Stephanie Doster's e-mail address is sdoster@phillynews.com.

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