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The Mighty Wurlitzer Lives!

…by Jamie Snell, President, Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society | Sep 1, 2017, 9 p.m.
(left) Close-up of the console of the Paramount Theater's mighty Wurlitzer (right) Oboe, sax, trumpet and kinura pipes on the CCA's Kimball-Wurlitzer

The phrase “Mighty Wurlitzer” conjures up visions of organ pipes as tall as a house, ornate 1920s-era movie palaces and a spotlighted console eerily rising from the orchestra pit as the organist recreates music exactly as movie fans heard it a century ago.

These unconventional old instruments, also known as theatre organs, work on the same principle as church organs but are designed for popular music. They have pipes that imitate orchestral instruments like clarinets and tubas, and include real percussion instruments like xylophones, castanets and drums.

Looking back, it’s a small miracle that these low-tech musical machines have survived for a hundred years and are still delighting audiences for silent films, pops concerts, ballroom dancing and more. But it’s no accident. Restoration and maintenance have required untold hours of work (much of it volunteer) and a lot of money (much of it donated). There are now very few organists who know the particular style for playing these organs and, sadly, very few young organists interested in learning.

But, fortunately, there is a national organization, the American Theatre Organ Society, whose mission it is to preserve these instruments and promote their playing. And Seattle has a very active chapter, the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society (PSTOS).

We in the Pacific Northwest are blessed to have quite a few theatre organs that are in fine condition and played regularly. The largest and most famous is the Wurlitzer at the Paramount Theatre, where it was originally installed in 1927 to accompany silent films. This truly mighty organ has four manuals (keyboards) and 20 pipe ranks (sets of pipes with the same timbre). As silent movies were supplanted by “talkies,” the organ was used less and less until, by the 40s and 50s, it was hardly played. But in the 60s it was revived and since then it has been restored and maintained at a high level, largely by PSTOS volunteers. Over the years, concerts have been performed on this organ by every top-tier organist in the world. The Paramount presents “Silent Movie Mondays” every February and April, with most of the films accompanied by the Wurlitzer. As it happens, this organ will not be playable for the next few months while the console is being rebuilt, but it will be back in time for the silent film series next April.

Meanwhile, if you’ll settle for a smaller theatre organ, there are several at public venues in the region. PSTOS maintains two others that are used regularly for concerts and other events. The larger is the 25-rank Kimball-Wurlitzer at Seattle’s Calvary Christian Assembly (CCA). Although it’s in a church, it is 100% a theatre organ and secular music is encouraged. In fact, it’s the venue for PSTOS’ concert series—three or four concerts each year by world-class performers. PSTOS recently completed a major renovation and upgrade, and the sound is utterly spectacular – it has to be heard to be believed.

The other, smaller PSTOS organ is the 10-rank Wurlitzer at Haller Lake Community Club, used for more intimate events with table seating. Other regional organs include the 17-rank Wurlitzer at Kenyon Hall in West Seattle, the 12-rank Wurlitzer at the Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham, the 16-rank Kimball at the Everett Theatre and the 25-rank Wurlitzer at the Washington Center in Olympia.

If you’re intrigued and would like to hear a fabulous theatre organ concert, there’s one coming up on Saturday, October 14 at 2pm, Calvary Christian Assembly, 6801 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle. There is plenty of free parking and no stairs! Jerry Nagano, who received the prestigious ATOS Organist of the Year award, will be at the Mighty CCA Kimball-Wurlitzer.. (When not playing the organ, Jerry is a computer systems engineer at Stanford University.) For more information, visit www.pstos.org/events/ticketing/TOP2017/TOP2017.htm. We hope to see you there!

MORE INFORMATION

• More information about the Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society can be found at www.pstos.org

• For information about theatre organs in the region, visit www.pstos.org/instruments/inst-pub.htm.

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