The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, usually referred to simply as Wurlitzer, was an American company, formerly a producer of stringed instruments, woodwind, brass instruments, theatre organs, band organs, orchestrions, electronic organs, electric pianos and jukeboxes.
Without a doubt the most famous instruments Wurlitzer built were its Theater Pipe organs (from 1914 until around 1940), which were installed in theaters, homes, churches, and other public places. "The Mighty Wurlitzer" theatre organ was designed, originally by Robert Hope-Jones, as a "one man orchestra" to accompany silent movies. Wurlitzer built over 2,200 pipe organs, ( more than the rest of the their competitors combined); the largest one originally built was the 4 keyboard, 58 rank (set of pipes) instrument at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The Music Hall instrument is actually a concert instrument, and along with the organ at the Paramount Theatre in Denver Colorado are the only Wurlitzer installations still in use that have dual identical, but independent consoles.
Other large Wurlitzer organs still in their original locations include the Chicago Theater in Chicago Illinois (the oldest); Byrd Theater in Richmond, Virginia; Fox Theatre in Saint Louis, Missouri; Lorain Palace Theatre in Lorain, Ohio; Weinberg Center in Frederick, Maryland; Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan; Shea's Theater in Buffalo, New York; Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, New York, Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, New York; the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee; the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama; Coleman Theatre in Miami, Oklahoma; the Denver Paramount Theatre in Denver, Colorado; the Egyptian Theatre in Coos Bay, Oregon and the Paramount Theater in Seattle, Washington, The Plaza Theatre, El Paso Texas, the Rose Theater (originally Riviera), the Orpheum Theater in Sioux City, Iowa, and the Orpheum Theater in Downtown Omaha, Nebraska. The Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, Iowa was home to an impressive Wurlitzer organ on a lift that raised and lowered it from beneath the stage however, the console, lift, and blower of the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ were destroyed by the 2008 flood. Smaller instruments in the UK exist in their original installations, such as the Gaumont State Cinema, Kilburn and the Blackpool Tower Ballroom in the UK. These instruments are still being played several times a week.
Another example of the large scale Mighty Wurlitzer can be found in the Instrument Museum in Berlin. The large four manual, 16 rank Mighty Wurlitzer type 250 special was purchased by Werner Ferdinand von Siemens in 1929 and installed in the Siemens' concert hall in August of that year. At the end of World War II the organ and the concert hall became property of the German Reich. The Mighty Wurlitzer survived the war, but was seriously damaged in 1962 by a fire. From February 1963 to December 1963 Marvin E Merchant, a Berlin stationed G.I. repaired the organ at his own expense. In 1982 it was given to the State Institute for Music Research - SIM, in Berlin, where it was restored completely and installed in the museum by Eberhard Friedrich Walcker GmbH & Co. in 1984.
New digital recreations of these instruments have also reached technological peaks in the last few years. Companies such as Walker Theatre Organs, Allen Organ Company and Rodgers Instruments have utilized high-level, digital sampling of original pipe organ sounds to incorporate into their electronic instruments, resulting in very close duplications of these original musical wonders (with the usual electronic-organ limitations).
There were a number of Wurlitzers in Britain in the period before the Second World War (1939-45). The first was a very small, six rank instrument installed at the Picture House, Walsall in the West Midlands. The organ is now located in the Congregational Church in Beer, Devon , a small fishing village on the south coast, where it is now being lovingly restored to its former glory. The percussions and "toy counter" division were removed and re-cycled when the organ was installed in the church, since it was not considered necessary for church purposes; although compatible replacements are now being sourced and fitted to replace those which were removed. The Toy Counter and Percussions of the Wurlitzer pipe organ recreates a variety of special effects needed for accompaniment of silent films. Before the instrument was bought by the church it had been in a private residence in Sedgely, Staffordshire, after its removal from the cinema.
Many Wurlitzers were in the larger cinemas and broadcasts were made by the BBC on a regular basis. The more famous of these organs were at the Empire Cinema in London, The Tower Ballroom Blackpool and at the Granada cinema in Tooting - which is currently undergoing a lengthy restoration. It was recently played in public for the first time in 33 years. British organist Reginald Dixon was well known for his performances and broadcasts on the Blackpool organ.
The Trocadero Elephant and Castle Wurlitzer, was the largest organ ever to be shipped to the UK, installed in 1930 in time for the grand opening of the 3,400-seater Cinema. Organist Quintin Maclean is always associated with the instrument. This was closely followed in size by the Paramount/ODEONS at Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. The Cinema Organ Society has an extensive list of British cinema organs.
The Blackpool Opera House organ was the last new Wurlitzer to be installed in the UK in 1939 and was designed by Horace Finch. The Granada, Kingston also received a Wurlitzer in or around 1939, but most of this came from an earlier installation in Edinburgh. This was the last Wurlitzer installation to be opened and Reginald Dixon was at the console.
The Worthing Assembly hall houses the biggest Wurlitzer organ console in Europe, this console was installed in 1981 after being brought from Blackpool. This organ was originally built in the late 1890s and was re-conditioned and brought back up to service in the 1960s, it was then bought by the national organ trust in the 1980s and installed in Worthing in 1981, the organ has been slowly upgraded to an electric air pump system, programmable pre-sets and a full pipe system.
Many of these organs have survived and are installed in private homes, Town Halls, Concert Halls and Ballrooms all over the country. The largest fully functioning Wurlitzer in a British cinema today is the four-manual organ in the Gaumont State Cinema in Kilburn, London.
The St Albans Organ Theatre offers monthly concert demonstrations of a three manual, ten rank instrument. Originally installed in the Empire music hall (later the Granada) in Edmonton, North London in 1933 and opened by American organist Don Baker, this WurliTzer was regularly featured by the famous Granada team of top organists. Fully restored in 1992; an unusual feature of this instrument was the provision of a dedicated chamber for percussion, controlled by an additional expression pedal. The installation at St. Albans boasts a Weber Duo-Art grand piano; playable from the WurliTzer console.
From 1955 to 1982 the company also produced the highly regarded Wurlitzer electric piano series, an electrically-amplified piano variant. The Wurlitzer brand was applied to several lines of electric guitars during the 1960s. The first family of solid body electric guitars and basses were manufactured by the Holman Company of Neodosha, KS, from late 1965 until 1967. Models included the Cougar, Wildcat and Gemini, all of which had different body shapes. The majority of the Kansas made instruments were guitars, with only a handful of basses being manufactured. The second family of guitars debuted in 1967, and were manufactured in Italy by the Welson company, and were semi-hollow in construction.
The Wurlitzer was also the legendary jukebox of the Big Band era, and the name Wurlitzer became synonymous for any jukebox. Wurlitzer's success was due to a first rate marketing department (headed by future Indiana Senator Homer Capehart), the effecient Simplex record changer, and the designs of engineer Paul Fuller who created many landmark cabinet styles. Although Wurlitzer ceded the crown of industry leader to rival Seeburg in the 1950s, Fuller's designs are so emblematic of jukeboxes in general that 1940s era Wurlitzers are often used to invoke the Rock n' Roll period in films and television.
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