Wurlitzer Theater Organ History:
America’s silent movie era began in the early 1900s. Recorded sound wasn’t possible at the time so the movie industry added title cards to explain important parts of the movie. To keep patron attention, a piano was played throughout the movie. At first, the music did little to match action in the movie but in time, players worked to better understand the movie and incorporate music to enhance audience interest.
Pipe organs have been around for several hundred years and were mostly known as church instruments. But during early development of the movie industry, organs began being used in theaters replacing the piano. Many sound effects useful for movie action were available from the organ. And a tremendous variation in tone increased success of ticket sales for theaters who were able to purchase and advertise a new organ to the public. The Wurlitzer company built and installed 2300 theater organs from 1920 to 1930. The company was a household name and built nearly half of all theater organs ever made. In the Golden Era of silent film, there were over 20 theater organ companies in America building and selling organs to theaters across the country. Nearly 6000 organs were built during the silent movie era but now, approximately 200 are known to exist.
In 1927, “The Jazz Singer” was the first “talkie” movie and so began the downfall for theater organs to accompany silent film. Some theater owners were still paying for their organ and found other uses for it including the audience Sing-along and intermission music. But as time went on, more and more theaters ended the use of such music. Many magnificent theaters, large and small, were torn down to make room for business buildings and parking that was part of our growing country in the 50s and 60s. People who loved the theater organ and its sound began collecting entire instruments or parts here and there as they could. These were then installed in their homes so they could continue to enjoy the music they had experienced in the theaters. Some instruments were scrapped. Others were stored for many years and as owners passed on, the instrument parts and pieces disappeared.
Our father attended Weber College in the 40s and took organ lessons to improve his playing. (The picture below is Don Clark from his 1947 yearbook and shows him at the theater console at Weber College). His teacher introduced Don to the Egyptian Theater building staff in downtown Ogden Utah and made sure they would let him in to play the Wurlitzer whenever he knocked. Dad told many stories about practicing at the Egyptian and explained one thing after another about how a theater organ console is setup to play. He was always excited to understand and talk of every aspect controlled by a Wurlitzer including the pipes in the chambers.
In 1980, dad and mom purchased a theater organ to install at their house. It was the beginning of what has become 43 years of acquiring, moving, installing, uninstalling, re-installing, acquiring more parts, and so on, for many years. That first organ is a Robert-Morton 6-rank theater organ that is part of the Foundation’s Wurlitzer. It was built in 1924 and shipped to Idaho Falls Colonial Theater where it was played until the 50s. It was then taken to Salt Lake City and installed in the attic of a home in the Avenues and played until 1980 when it was purchased, moved to Liberty Utah and installed at Don and Ruth’s home. Interestingly, it made its way back to Idaho and is only 35 miles from its original home. Organ blower serial numbers are used as evidence for original installations of the 6000 theater organs that were built. The same blower company made most of the blowers for these instruments.
Theater organ parts have been located through the years and travels to various states have occurred gathering cherry-picked items for the Foundation’s Wurlitzer. Most of the parts are Wurlitzer which gives the instrument its primary sound. Other companies, well-known for certain sounds, have been incorporated as possible. This latest installation includes a 4-manual Wurlitzer console and 41 ranks of pipes representing nearly all sounds necessary for a big-scale theater organ. In addition to pipe ranks, theater organs utilize many tuned percussion sounds common to that of an orchestra. Nine tuned percussions are installed including Marimba, Xylophone, Glockenspiel, Chrysoglott, Chimes, tuned Sleighbells, Vibraphone, and a Grand Piano…all of which play from the console. Because sound effects are needed for silent movies, much color can be added with bells, whistles, sirens, bass drums and snare drums, wood blocks, bird chirps, cow bells, door bells, horse hooves, wind surf, rain pitter/patter, etc. Even champagne music can be played while bubbles fall from above. Air to power pipework, percussions, and effects is provided by a 20HP blower that is 52-inches in diameter housing twin turbines 4-inches in depth attached on a 40-inch shaft that is 2-1/4 inch in diameter.
View specs for the console, electricals, and blower here.
Learn more about Jim's journey building The Mighty Wurlitzer here.