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Martin Fennelly Columns

Forum getting formidable face-lift

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 02:57 AM
TAMPA -

Let there be light … and we mean light.

Let there be music … and we mean music.

"I've never seen an organ like that," a construction worker said.

Although the hockey team apparently hasn't received the memo, things are generally looking up at the Tampa Bay Lightning's crib. People are everywhere at the Forum, still, pounding nails, applying paint, all that stuff, to unveil a brand new building at the Lightning's home opener Monday.

Among the unique aspects of the renovation is that the arena's roof now retracts and can be easily expanded to 32,000 feet for baseball games. That's not really true. We just wanted to make sure Mayor Foster was awake.

Where were we?

I was in the upper reaches of the east end of the Forum on Thursday, staring at: the organ.

Or I was peeking as city and county inspectors and officials, in top secret, watched: the indoor lightning.

"Have you seen the Tesla coils?" asked Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke.

All 20,000 Forum seats have been replaced with cushioned beauties with cup holders. There are refurbished suites and resurfaced concourses, new fan vistas, new art on the walls, Lightning art, Tampa Bay art, a mammoth party deck to overlook the Forum plaza, and on and on.

But the show-stoppers either hang from the ceiling or sit on a raised platform.

First, we'd like to introduce you to the coils, the Tesla coils, originally named for Nikola Tesla, who is not a right winger for the Vancouver Canucks, but one of the fathers of electricity and invention, who roughly 120 years ago, bored out of his skull, no doubt, designed a coil that produced high voltage, low current, high frequency electricity, or: lightning.

The coils hang, 20 feet long, like death rays from the ceiling in the northwest and southeast corners of the Forum, though they apparently are quite safe. Still, when the switch is flipped, each Forum coil generates 1.8 million watts of electricity in two directions, producing lightning bolts last seen in old or young Frankenstein movies, plus an all-its-own buzz that sounds like the world's two largest bug zappers. It's quite the electrical deal.

"How can you be named the Lightning and not have a special effect for your team?" Leiweke asked.

A new kind of Forum was a burning idea for Bolts owner Jeff Vinik, who is spending $40 million of his own dollars to update the county-owned building. CEO Leiweke, the idea man, Mr. Can Do, took it from there with his staff.

"We always said the test of this building is if we blindfolded someone from somewhere else, and we took it off here, would they know where they were?" Leiweke said. "I think now they'll say this could be only one place, Tampa Bay."

It's forward thinking, but there's traditionalism in there, too, which brings us, with all apologies to our man Kez and his coils, to the real granddaddy of the new Forum, up there on its own stage: Them pipes.

Leiweke grew up in St. Louis and remembered the St. Louis Arena and Blues hockey games, serenaded as they were by organ music. Anyone who ever went to old Chicago Stadium for a Blackhawks game heard the monster pipe organ.

"I would get goose bumps just being there," former Lightning star Brian Bradley said.

Say hello to our little friend ...

It is reportedly the largest theater organ of its type in the world, a righteous digital pipe organ, though not a true pipe organ like you'd find at the nearby Tampa Theater. The Forum's large LED-lighted pipes are merely for show. But it has the look and feel and the sound … oh, does it have sound.

The organ, designed by Walker Technical of Zionsville, Pa., is filled with computers and fiber optics and is connected to several hundred speakers in the Forum rafters, enough to raise the roof. "Several hundred thousand dollars" is the cost figure you get from the Lightning.

"We wanted to do the best one in the world, and I think we did," said Bob Walker, who founded Walker Technical 39 years ago.

The organ has 305 keys and 32 pedals and the man who'll be tickling all of them is a nice man named Ray Horsley, an accomplished organist from St. Petersburg when he isn't a software developer.

Horsley, 58, is no Phantom of the Opera. He has played all over the country and world, churches, concerts, weddings, orchestras, jazz bands, Dixie bands, all sorts of gigs. He played the pipe organ at Mormon Tabernacle when he was just 15.

"But I've never played before 20,000, Horsley said. "It's going to be exciting."

Rhapsody in Blue or Black Eyed Peas, Bach or The Chicken Dance, Ray's your man, Lightning fans. Look for him to knock out the national anthem Monday night.

Horsley mentioned the organ's "thunder" buttons – sound effects from recordings of actual thunder. The most demonically spooky was recorded by Walker's crew in Zionsville. Walker is a quiet man who looks like just the type to build organs all year long, but watch out. Sitting at the organ in a white shirt and tie, Mr. Walker smiled.

"There's one button on here, if I push it, people are going to (wet) their pants," he said.

It's a whole new Forum come Monday night.

Bring a camera. And ear plugs. Oh, and a diaper.

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