Z’Scoop gets the remarkable inside story from music expert Mark Andersen about the Mighty Wurlitzers, rare theatre pipe organs, literally one-man orchestras. Run, don’t walk to find a concert near you.
Extraordinary theatre pipe organs generate a multitude of orchestral sounds among them: woodwinds, brass, percussion, chimes, marimbas, pianos, xylophones, castanets, cymbals, gongs and vibraphones. They also emit singular sound effects: crashes, thunder or the clip-clop of horse hooves.
Exceptionally talented artists such as Mark Andersen, who are trained to play these organs are much more than musicians alone. They are arrangers who understand the complexities of harmonies and rhythms of music. Fixtures in theaters, churches, civic auditoriums, sports arenas and homes from 1913-1943, the Wurlitzers and their organists’ main reason for being, however, was for silent film.
Andersen tells us, “During that era, theaters were movie palaces much larger than today’s multi-show cinema-plexes. Instead of the spoken word, the clarity, power and reverberation of the organs evoked strong emotion with audiences, and provided auditory cues to the film storyline. The demise of the Wurlitzers was eminent when ‘talkies’ became commonplace after 1927’s. Sound was technologically synchronized to film, and the need for live music ceased. Then, with the destruction of downtown centers in many cities, several majestic theaters were also torn down.”
Now cherished rarities, Mighty Wurlitzers were originally housed in famous theaters including New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theater on Upper Broadway, Fox Theaters in Detroit and Saint Louis, the Troxy in Blackpool- UK and the Old Town Music Hall in Segundo, California,
Radio City’s still-in-existence “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ is the largest theater pipe organ built for a movie theater. Identical consoles with four manuals (keyboards) are installed on both sides of the Great Stage. Each console operates independently, with the one on the audience’s left being the primary one of the two. The organ’s 4,410 pipes are positioned in chambers on either side of the proscenium‘s arch.
When installed in 1932, the instrument was the largest produced by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company of North Tonawanda, New York; it was built as a serious concert instrument rather than to accompany silent movies, capable of playing many styles of music including classical organ literature. A total rebuild of the historic organ was completed in time for the theater’s restoration in 199.
At the Beacon Theater on upper Broadway, the Wurlitzer organ has a factory date of June 6, 1928, and is known as a “250 Special” due to the addition of a Tuba Mirabilis, Solo String Celeste, Horn Diapason, and a second Tibia Clausa to the standard “Style 250” specification. All of the pipes, percussions and mechanism are housed in two chambers above the proscenium, while the white & gold Empire-style console is on its own lift in what has been described as one of the deepest orchestra pits in the city. Sadly, when the theatre was restored in 2008, the orchestra pit was covered by a thrust stage, entombing the organ console below. Says Andersen, “Hopefully, someday the stage will be reconfigured so that the console can once again be raised to playing position.”
Along with these examples, Mark can nearly count the Mighty Wurlitzers’ existence on one hand telling us, “The Paramount Theatre in Seattle still has one of the country’s few working movie theater organs. Other spectacular examples still exist at the RKO Iowa Theater, an ornate organ in the Alabama Theater-Birmingham, Alabama, and Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater.”
Mighty Wurlitzers require a lot of care. Mark Andersen likens the pipe organs to very fine racing cars that require continual adjustments to keep in top shape. Pipes require a huge amount of space, housed in three rooms, 60-80’ wide, with 30’ ceilings.
Who is the driving force behind Wurlitzer preservation? According to Andersen, “The American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) has had the mission of saving as many of these instruments as possible. While there were originally thousands of theatre pipe organs, as we’ve discussed, today only a few hundred remain, and fewer still in their original locations, so these organs are truly an endangered species.”
Devotees travel long distance to hear concerts in exclusive locations that still have them, like Washington DC, Seattle, Atlanta or Lumberton, North Carolina, where Mark is from. He says, “North Carolina alone once had hundreds of them, and now has only two: one in Greensboro and one at the Carolina Civic Center in my home town of Lumberton, that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.” It’s there in Lumberton that Mark Andersen plays sold-out concerts a few times a year.
What does it take to play one of these musical behemoths? Mark’s training and experience is impressive. He majored in pipe organ at the Governor’s School for Performing Arts in North Carolina, E. Carolina University, The American Conservatory-Chicago and the Paris Conservatory-France. He even played at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Andersen was artist-in-residence for the John Hayes Hammond Museum Gloucester, Massachusetts and played organ for the Boston Symphony. And he performed concerts for international artists on theater pipe organs and classical organs.
As Mark Andersen tells it, mega pipe organs have played impressive historical roles. He relates, “Al Melgard was staff organist at the Chicago Stadium on one of the largest organs every built (a Barton) for forty years and, played for the circus, hockey games, and other events, including political conventions. He is credited with ”Happy Days are Here Again” becoming the theme song of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, only the console of this organ still exists, in the hands of a private owner. The rest was burned in a fire.”
Mark Andersen’s recordings can be heard on YouTube.
Watch the video of Jack Moelmann playing the 6/54 Barton Theatre Pipe Organ in the Chicago Stadium in 1994 before a hockey game and just before they tore the stadium down.
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