Our friend Vincent Astor passed away Monday, January 16. We are republishing this article in his honor. This was originally published in November, 2020
MEMPHIS, TN – After over a year of undergoing a complete restoration by JL Weiler Inc. in Chicago, the Orpheum’s Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ has returned to Memphis. In conjunction with the Orpheum’s 92nd birthday, the theatre will host a free homecoming celebration for the organ on Thursday, November 19 at 7pm.
“Back in 2017, Memphians answered the call to restore our crown jewel,” said Brett Batterson, President & CEO. “We can’t wait for Memphis to hear and experience what their generosity has provided. And we look forward to utilizing this instrument even more throughout the years.”
The public will get to hear the Orpheum’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ at a free limited capacity concert where attendees will learn tales of the Wurlitzer’s legacy, listen to 1920s tunes, and enjoy live accompaniment to scenes from Buster Keaton’s hit silent film The Cameraman. This event will feature local Historian and Organist Vincent Astor, Orpheum House Organist Tony Thomas, and will be hosted by Orpheum President and CEO Brett Batterson.
“We can finally play it like the instrument it was intended to be – a unit orchestra,” said Tony Thomas. “To finally hear all of the voices available to this instrument was thrilling and brought me great joy.”
“I have been playing this organ for a long time,” said Vincent Astor. “It now sounds better than it has since it was brand new. Probably even better than when it was brand new. It is truly astonishing.”
For more information and registration for this free event, visit orpheum-memphis.com. This event has limited capacity to ensure socially distanced seating. For a complete overview of the Orpheum’s COVID-19 procedures and practices established under the Shelby County Health Department’s guidance, visit orpheum-memphis.com/covid19.
Related: Our interview with Vincent Astor, on location on the Orpheum stage
About the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ:
The Orpheum’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ was bult in North Tonawanda, New York, in 1928 and was shipped to the Orpheum on September 25th of that same year. The $19,000 instrument was originally purchased to play for vaudeville shows and silent movies and was most recently enjoyed by patrons through the Orpheum’s annual Summer Movie Series. After a study of the organ was commissioned by the Orpheum Theatre Group and completed by JL Weiler, Inc. of Chicago, the nation’s most noted restorer of theatre organs, it was determined that approximately $500,000 worth of rebuilding was needed to fully restore the instrument. They estimated that without the major improvements the organ would have been inoperable within the next year and a half. Generous Memphians then rallied to “Save the Wurlitzer” in 2017. In June 2018, the organ was packedup and shipped to Chicago for a full restoration. It is a registered 3 manual, 13 rank 240 style Wurlitzer. Its horseshoe console rests on its own hydraulic lift that can raise or lower it out of the orchestra pit. Noted organists have included Vincent Astor, Bill Oberg, Art Hays, John Hiltonsmith, Milton Slosser, Tony Thomas and more.
The Mighty Orpheum Wurlitzer Fact Sheet
3 Manuals (that’s keyboards to you and me)
6 tuned percussions
10 adjustable combination pistons
12 trap and silent film effects
13 Ranks (sets of pipes)
90- In 2018, the Orpheum and the Mighty Wurlitzer will both celebrate their 90th birthdays.
222- Tuned percussion notes
949 individual pipes
1956- Opus Number
4,792 pneumatic motors
65,000- Patrons over the last 5 years that have enjoyed the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Summer Movie Series
Endless ghost stories
The Orpheum Organ contains an actual Glockenspiel, Marimba, Xylophone, and a set of tuned Sleigh Bells.
The Orpheum Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ was built in North Tonawanda, New York in 1928 and was shipped to the Orpheum on September 25th of that same year. The curved console organ is a registered 3/13 240 style Wurlitzer that rests on its own hydraulic lift that can raise or lower the organ out of the orchestra pit. The Mighty Wurlitzer was originally purchased to play for vaudeville shows and silent movies and is now enjoyed by patrons during the Orpheum’s Summer Movie Series.
Of the more than 5,000 organs manufactured in the early 1900s, only a few hundred remain in public venues. (Smithsonian.com)
This Wurlitzer Opus List contains details of the Theatre Pipe Organs and Church and Residence Pipe Organs produced by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company between 1911 and 1943. Each organ on the list has its own opus number. (Our number is 1956)
The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, usually referred to as Wurlitzer, is an American company started in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1853 by German immigrant Rudolph Wurlitzer. The company was famous for their production of pianos, pipe organs, nickelodeons, and jukeboxes.
Out of 2,234 similar instruments built by Wurlitzer from 1910-1943, ours is one of approximately 12 such instruments worldwide that remains largely as originally installed.
Listen to our special StoryBoard 30 interview with Vincent Astor and his demonstration of the mighty Wurlitzer, recorded on the Orpheum stage, in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, November 5, 2020.
About the Orpheum Theatre Group:
The mission of the Orpheum Theatre Group is to enhance the communities we serve by utilizing the performing arts to entertain, educate, and enlighten while preserving the historic Orpheum Theatre and the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education. For more information, visit www.orpheum-memphis.com.