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» Film-Tech Forum   » Operations   » Ground Level   » Pipe Organs in your theatres

Author Topic: Pipe Organs in your theatres
Bruce McGee
Phenomenal Film Handler

Posts: 1776
From: Asheville, NC USA... Nowhere in Particular.
Registered: Aug 1999

 - posted 02-16-2001 12:33 PM      Profile for Bruce McGee   Email Bruce McGee   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 

Just wondering how many of the old theaters still have a pipe organ installed? How many of them are still playable, what brand are they, and how big are they? (How many keyboards, etc.)

There are no old theatres here in Western NC anymore. I did find out that the old Imperial theatre (demolished 1977) had a 2/8 Wickes organ (2 manuals, 8 ranks of pipes) that was removed just before the demolition. In all the years that I went to the Imperial, (Blazing Saddles was the last,) I never had any idea that there was an organ there. Previous renovations had hidden the elaborate plasterwork grilles behind ugly drapes, and a false stage level floor was built over the console/lift.

The Wickes is installed in a small church in Weaverville, NC. I have seen it there. It has been painted to match the church, and to cover all the gouges in the original finish. Some of the stop keys are marked "rain," "happiness," "sorrow," "love," etc. I have not had a chance to hear the organ in action, but hope to do so in the future. It was installed in the theatre in 1926.

There were others here that had organs, but they are gone DESTROYED when the buildings were demolished.

When I lived in Atlanta, the FOX was the place to go to see the summer movie series, and to hear the huge 4/42 Moller organ shake the walls. I cant begin to describe it!

Randy Loy
Expert Film Handler

Posts: 156

Registered: Aug 1999

 - posted 02-16-2001 02:09 PM      Profile for Randy Loy   Email Randy Loy   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Both of the performing arts centers that I'm affiliated with still have working Wurlitzers. Both are former movie palaces.

The Maryland Theatre, Hagerstown, MD, gave its original Wurlitzer away in the 1950's, also to a church, when the theatre was a commercial first run movie house. It was without an organ for many years until several years ago when someone donated another Wurlitzer and retirees from the local Moller Organ plant restored it and installed it in the theatre.

The other performing arts center, the Weinberg Center for the Arts, formerly the Tivoli Theatre in Frederick, MD, had a Wurlitzer that remained in use until a flood in the 70's lifted the organ console up and left it lying on its side on the stage. The console was replaced with another one (I'm not sure where they got it) but the old one has been spruced up and is on display on the mezzanine level that overlooks the concession area. Fortunately the city has conquered the flood problem that used to plague downtown so the new(er) console should be safe.

I love the sound of a theatre organ. It's indescribable the emotion such an instrument can bring about if played by a master. I get goosebumps! I got my introduction to theatre organ at the beautiful Byrd Theatre in Richmond, VA. What a thrill!

Richard C. Wolfe
Master Film Handler

Posts: 250
From: Northampton, PA, USA
Registered: Apr 2000

 - posted 02-16-2001 03:28 PM      Profile for Richard C. Wolfe   Author's Homepage   Email Richard C. Wolfe   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
We have a 7 rank 2 manual WurliTzer, Opus # 1416 Style B in our theatre. It is the third installation for this theatre as it had an American Photoplayer when first opened in 1921 which was replaced shortly thereafter by a Marr and Colton in 1924, and then finally by the present 1926 WurliTzer.

We use it every Saturday evening before each show. It is very popular, and when those rare times happen that we don't have an organist, we hear about it.

It has been under ongoing restoration for years...there is always parts of it removed to be rebuilt. About 75% of it is playable at any given time. I can't wait until the day comes when it all works. There is nothing else quite like the sound of a theatre pipe organ to set the mood for the evening.

Paul Mayer
Oh get out of it Melvin, before it pulls you under!

Posts: 3835
From: Albuquerque, NM
Registered: Feb 2000

 - posted 02-16-2001 05:13 PM      Profile for Paul Mayer   Author's Homepage   Email Paul Mayer   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
The Disney-owned/Pacific-operated El Capitan in Hollywood has a Wurlitzer. They use it as part of their stage/movie combo shows, and of course it provides the non-sync as well On April 24, 2001 they will be screening the 1924 silent "Peter Pan" with the Wurlitzer providing the score. Should be a blast.

Once a year the Los Angeles Conservancy runs a program called "The Last Remaining Seats" in which they open and run (for one night only) a couple of the downtown movie palaces. Last June I was able to snag a seat to see the Lon Chaney "Phantom of the Opera" at the Orpheum accompanied by a pit orchestra and the theatre's Wurlitzer. That organ is the last working one in downtown LA. A great show to catch from the front of the balcony with 2200 fellow silent film/live music/movie palace fans!

Mark Lensenmayer
Phenomenal Film Handler

Posts: 1580
From: Upper Arlington, OH
Registered: Sep 1999

 - posted 02-16-2001 06:24 PM      Profile for Mark Lensenmayer   Email Mark Lensenmayer   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
The Ohio Theatre here in Columbus has a wonderful theatre organ. Well maintained and in great shape. They have a summer movie series there, and they show at one silent film each year. Last year it was Douglas Fairbanks in THEIF OF BAGDHAD. I took my wife, my 17 year old son and 13 year old daughter, we sat in the 3rd row right next to the organ and had a GREAT time. It was their first experience with a silent film, and they really enjoyed it. I've seen a lot of silent films there with that organ, and it is always a joy.

Speaking of organs, this week brings the release of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, which opens with the good Doctor rising from the pit playing what I recall to be the WAR MARCH OF THE PRIESTS. A great opening for a great film. Too bad no stereo track on this would be great fun.

I'm glad a number of great theatre organs still exist and are maintained, many by groups of volunteers. I hope the same fate is not met by film projectors.

Mark L.

"As a moral to young men who come down to the city, don't go round breaking people's tambourines."

Adam Martin
I'm not even gonna point out the irony.

Posts: 3661
From: Dallas, TX
Registered: Nov 2000

 - posted 02-16-2001 11:33 PM      Profile for Adam Martin   Author's Homepage   Email Adam Martin       Edit/Delete Post 
Check out the website for the American Theatre Organ Society at . They have a list of current installations and even indicate whether it's an original install and number of manuals/ranks.

Greg Pauley
Expert Film Handler

Posts: 173
From: Huntington, WV, USA
Registered: Jun 2000

 - posted 02-17-2001 01:40 PM      Profile for Greg Pauley   Author's Homepage   Email Greg Pauley   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
We are getting ready to reinstall an organ in the Keith Albee Theatre in Huntington WV. There is a local guy from the University (Marshall) which is donating and installing the organ at his own expense. The Keith was opened in 1928 at the cost of 1.5 million dollars with an outdoor amphitheatre design by the famous theatre architect, Thomas Lamb. I think it was only one of two that Lamb used the outdoor theme. I've been trying to find time to take pictues of the theatre in place on the site, I think everyone would enjoy this theatre. We had a fire in the front of the theatre in one of our tenant stores and caused alot of smoke damage to the Keith. We are now getting a 200K plus cleaning job to remove the odor. There is a nice set of naked ladies over the arch above the screen that all the contractors are bidding to clean! You can see a couple of pictures on our website at

Paul G. Thompson
The Weenie Man

Posts: 4718
From: Mount Vernon WA USA
Registered: Nov 2000

 - posted 02-19-2001 03:48 PM      Profile for Paul G. Thompson   Email Paul G. Thompson   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Bruce, the Lincoln Theater in Mount Vernon, Washington (State) has an operational Wurlitzer that was installed many years ago by the orginal theater owner, Mr. Eldon Pollock. He mounted the organ on a hydraulic platform so it could be elevated while the organ was played. However, I don't know all the details you requested. I have never seen it raised, as the hydraulic system which was used to do that is apparently no longer operational.

Bruce McGee
Phenomenal Film Handler

Posts: 1776
From: Asheville, NC USA... Nowhere in Particular.
Registered: Aug 1999

 - posted 02-20-2001 07:13 PM      Profile for Bruce McGee   Email Bruce McGee   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Mr. David L. Junchen wrote an incredible 3-volume set of books called "Encycopedia Of The American Theatre Organ."

I have the first 2 volumes that are around 500 pages each, and are richly illustrated. I was impressed at how many different organ builders there were in the USA between 1900-1928.

The third volume is devoted entirely to WurliTzer, since they made far more organs that all the other manufacturers. Hopefully, I will find a copy of volume III soon.

It is interesting to see all the different organ console styles that have been tried over the years.

The books author states that of all of the units written up in the encyclopedia, his favorite builder was the Hinners Organ Company. I've seen a Hinners tracker church organ upclose and personal. The service man there told me that this organ was a dream to service. Incredibly well-designed, and executed. This Hinners is 70+ years old, and has never been rebuilt.

The Moller in the Atlanta Fox was rebuilt in 1963 under the leadership of Mr. Joe Patten, who I met in 1981 at a showing of Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 70mm!

Mr. Patten has done regular maintenance on the Moller since then.
I wish Mr. Patten a long and healthy life. He is the life-force behind the Fox Theatre, and the "Mighty Mo."

William Hooper
Phenomenal Film Handler

Posts: 1879
From: Mobile, AL USA
Registered: Jun 99

 - posted 02-20-2001 11:16 PM      Profile for William Hooper   Author's Homepage   Email William Hooper   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
You can join the ATOS, & you'll receive their ATOS Journal. Frequently, in the classifieds in the back, are listings for TO's for sale. They often cost less than you'd think; they get white-elephanty when a theater decides they just want it gone or private owners get old, die, or otherwise cannot maintain TO's transplanted to their homes.

So, if you want a TO in a theater near you, get together a non-profit organization, approach the theater with a deal to install & maintain the organ (but keep ownership, in case new management gets strange). Or get one & install it in your home theater. Many people have residence organs that were asked to leave theaters. Many new installations have midi interface for playback, etc.

TO's can be high-involvement playtoys, but like just about anyhting else, if you do it right the first time things will bump along reliably for a long time. The things were grinding out accompaniment to movies day-in, day-out back in the day. Also, the larger a TO, the more complex, & the more complex, the more stuff to watch. And, after messing with a 10 hp or larger Spencer Orgoblo or non-Carlsted TO chests, Simplex & Century pedestals look like things you could juggle in your sleep.

There's a weird, high concentration of model railroad enthusiasts & various engineering types in organ crews & residence organ owners; it's doubtless all the fun Rube Goldberg stuff. Electropneumatic relays & pneumatic motors, everything on 12v dc! Snort, fun.

The ATOS is a neat organization; & they've got semi-annual meetings & conventions crawilng around installations in various cities - in theaters, homes, concert halls, conference facilities, etc.

You can find a list of ATOS chapters on the ATOS site at

Call or e-mail, they'll probably be glad to have you visit next time they go listen to or fool with one of the organs.

The Garden State chapter is putting a Wonder Morton back in the Loew's New Jersey!
Woo Hoo!

Hey, you know you want a little 2 manual 4 rank Wicks in your home theater.

Bruce McGee
Phenomenal Film Handler

Posts: 1776
From: Asheville, NC USA... Nowhere in Particular.
Registered: Aug 1999

 - posted 02-21-2001 12:17 PM      Profile for Bruce McGee   Email Bruce McGee   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
I almost choked on my FG cocktail...

IF I installed a TO in my house, where would I go?

As for being low-rent now, I have a "Mighty Hammond" (Mighty Ham) spinet that I traded a VCR cleaning for...
It's great for supplying music when the exciter lamp dies...

I have found that most organ enthusiasts that I know are (sort-a) the geek types. I should know. I had thick glasses and sported a pocket protector, AND ran the projector in school!

**The previous remarks are not aimed at any one person that may be reading this. No two geeks look alike.

Bill Enos
Film God

Posts: 2081
From: Richmond, Virginia, USA
Registered: Apr 2000

 - posted 02-21-2001 03:34 PM      Profile for Bill Enos   Email Bill Enos   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
At the Byrd Theatre in Richmond Va. we still have the original Wurlitzer opus 1948 installed in August 1928. It's 17 ranks with 4 manual console. The organ is in good condition, having had necessary maintenance since the beginning. It was played nearly every night from 1928 until 1981. It is still used to accompany silents on occasion and is played every Saturday evening for a 10 minute concert before each movie. A C.D. is being planned for sometime later this year.

William Hooper
Phenomenal Film Handler

Posts: 1879
From: Mobile, AL USA
Registered: Jun 99

 - posted 02-21-2001 11:08 PM      Profile for William Hooper   Author's Homepage   Email William Hooper   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
IF I installed a TO in my house, where would I go?

I have a friend attending some organ performance classes at a local university --
He owns a 2 manual, 4 rank Wicks inherited from a church, & he brought it with him to school.

The University has no organ, & they arrange the offsite use of organs at churches for student practice, recitals, etc.

So he brings this Wicks, & gets an agreement to set it up unenclosed in the organ prof's office. The chests & pipework are using space only about 3 feet deep along an approx 12' wide wall: he's got the 2 2-rank chests end to end, so if he wanted to save space in the other dimension he could have put one chest in front of the other for about an installation of approx 4' deep across 6' of wall. He's got another 2 rank chest he's about to stick on it anyway, with a clarinet & a vox.

So a Wicks 2 rank chest is only about 6' long, 2 1/2 feet wide! You've got room for a couple of those! Stick the console anywhere you like.

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