Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ

Last Saturday evening Dear Husband and I went to an organ concert, but it was unlike any of the other organ concerts we have attended before. You see, DH is a pianist/organist/keyboardist, so he is always very interested to hear other organists play pieces on different instruments. You may remember that last spring he came to visit Bach's churches in Leipzig and stayed with me. This year we discovered a local campus church does a series of Thursday-noon concerts during Lent and attended two of those. He can tell the difference between "French" and "German" pipe organs, and even if he hasn't played a particular piece before, he often knows about the composer. Being a classically trained musician, he can follow all the melodies and variations and things. Me, I spend a lot of time looking at the decorations in the church. For instance, this is what I remember of the recital we heard in the Nikolai (katholische) Kirche in Leipzig (May 2011):

But Saturday's concert was different, because rather than going to a church to hear a pipe organ, we were at the Virginia Theater for the re-dedication of their "mighty Wurlitzer" theater organ. It's an old vaudeville theater (1921) that the local Park District currently owns and is renovating. DH had actually played this theater organ for one of The Chorale's New Year's Eve concerts about three years ago, but it was in such bad condition that it was hard to figure out what key and registration in which to play the songs so that enough of the notes would sound! So he was very impressed by the work the local Buzard organ company did in refurbishing the organ. Not only are all the bells and whistles working again (literally!), but they re-finished the console in beautiful, natural wood AND added two extra ranks of pipes that the original theater owners intended to install but never did for lack of funds.

To celebrate the re-dedication, the Park District invited nationally recognized theater organist Chris Gorsuch to play a concert--but not of traditional pipe organ works by Bach or Dupré. Rather, he showed us the different kinds of orchestral sounds and sound effects the organ can imitate, played some movie music and some Gershwin, and ended by accompanying a 1929 Laurel & Hardy silent film, Liberty--just what the Wurlitzer was originally intended to do. The short by "da boys" was a stitch, but for the first 3/4 of the evening there was little other visual stimulation. So I was amused to note how entranced our seat neighbors were by the wooden shutters used to control the volume. All the pipes are on the right side of the hall, behind this decorative lathed grill (left); the light-colored slats behind them opened and closed as Gorsuch pedaled. They didn't make much noise, but their constant movement caught the eye. I guess I'm not the only one who looks around a lot during an organ concert!

During his remarks at the start of the evening, John Paul Buzard twice referred to the Wurlitzer as "our municipal organ," and I confess I felt a bit of civic pride to have elected to spend a Saturday evening with other arts-minded citizens listening to a historical theater organ. It made me wonder, Is this what it feels like to live in a small town??

You can click here for a 2-minute video about the refurbishing process and actually hear the organ.


  1. Lisa from Dresden now HalleJuly 3, 2012 at 5:53 AM

    Read your article today. I thought it was interesting. Organs have never been something I thought much about before, but I wish I had been there.

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I've always been sort of interested in instrumental music, but with DH, I get more of opportunities to experience it. You might like some of my other organ posts, such the recent one on the Karlskirche organ; in a few days I will post about the 1702 organ DH played in Prague. Mozart also played on it way back when!


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