The Birth of the Theatre Pipe Organ
In the early decades of the last century, the silent cinema became an entertainment mainstay for Americans. The 1920s saw the creation of Motion Picture Palaces in all major cities' downtown areas and smaller, yet still palatial, theatres in the outlying neighborhoods. In the "Nickelodeon" (early) days of the silent screen dramas, a sole piano player would provide musical accompaniment suitable to the action on the screen.
As the new entertainment industry grew, so did the need for a more workable method of accompanying the silent films, newsreels and stage acts in the larger, cavernous movie palaces. Many of the major Motion Picture Palaces employed orchestras, but it wasn't feasible to use an orchestra for every performance. The theatre pipe organ or "Unit Orchestra" was developed to allow for one musician to provide the music for all the theatres' needs.
The magic inside
The Wurlitzer being restored
The MPAC Wurlitzer
The Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ housed in the McKinney Performing Arts Center (MPAC) dates back to the late 1920s. There are only a very few remaining complete theatre organs of moderate size as is needed for the MPAC. The North Texas Chapter (NTC) of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) acquired carefully selected components over a period of years to create the instrument that is now a permanent fixture in the Courtroom Theatre. Members of the NTC volunteered their time and talents to assist Dallas Organ Works, LLC in the restoration and building of the organ.
The core of the MPAC Mighty Wurlitzer comes from the Poncan Theatre in Ponca City, Oklahoma. This modest Wurlitzer was a Style (model) 190 instrument. That is, it was a two-manual (keyboard) organ consisting of eight ranks (sets) of pipes plus tuned percussion instruments, traps and special effects. The organ’s Opus (serial) number was 1632 and it was shipped from the Wurlitzer Factory in North Tonawanda, New York, on December 5, 1927. In 1946, Mr. Paul Williamson of Oklahoma City acquired the organ and it became the basis for the pipe organ installation in his home. The organ remained in Mr. Williamson’s home until 2004, when, after his death, the organ was acquired to become the nucleus for the "new" Wurlitzer for the MPAC.
The NTC wanted to design an instrument that would be musically complete and well balanced for the MPAC Courtroom Theatre. It was decided that the organ would be expanded from eight to 17 ranks of pipes, and that a three-manual console would be required.
A suitable console in extremely poor condition was found and secured. The console was dismantled to its smallest component parts and restored from the base up to the top of the capitals. The console is an original Wurlitzer from the First Baptist Church in Dothan, Alabama. The organ was Opus Number 2071, and the organ shipped from the Wurlitzer Factory on September 25, 1929.
The saga of the console restoration was complicated. All of the walnut veneer was coming loose and there were many component parts of the console missing. The console also was styled to fit an ecclesiastical rather than theatrical setting. The console has been restyled to a more theatrical set of lines. The console case has been totally re-veneered with beautiful walnut veneer, stained and finished to compliment the wood finish in the restored courtroom. Missing components were recreated by the skilled craftsmen of Dallas Organ Works, LLC. The 183 keys have been restored with new "ivories" and ebonies. The 32 pedals have been restored. All of the nearly 200 stop keys and the action behind each of the stop keys are new.
A theatre organ is like an iceberg in that the audience only sees the console on the stage. The console is merely the control center that activates several tons of equipment installed in the pipe chambers.
The Magic Inside
There are two chambers on MPAC’s third floor containing all the pipes, tuned percussion instruments, traps (drums, cymbals, castanets, etc.) and special effects.
Facing the stage, the chamber to the right is the Solo Chamber. In addition to the ranks of pipes listed, there are the following tuned percussion instruments: Marimba, Xylophone, Glockenspiel and Cathedral Chimes. In the Main Chamber, on the left, there is another tuned percussion instrument: the Chrysoglott Harp. It has a sound much like a Celesta in an orchestra. These are the real instruments, and each bar is struck by pneumatically driven hammers.
Also in the Solo Chamber, the "Toy Counter" is found. This is where the non-tuned percussions and the special effects of the organ are located.
There are 1,241 pipes in the organ ranging in size from more than 16 feet in length to smaller than a soda straw. There are 197 total bars of tuned percussion notes, 10 Special Effects and 14 Traps.
Additionally, on the third floor, to the right of the Solo Chamber is the Blower Room. In this room are two blowers with an aggregate of 10 horsepower. These two blowers generate the high pressure wind that makes every sound you hear. There are no speakers, amplifiers or electronics generating any sound heard from the Mighty Wurlitzer.
Layout & Components of the Organ
|Main Chamber (Left)||Pitch||Pipes||Solo Chamber (Right)|
|Open Diapason / Diaphone||16’ - 4’||5||Tibia Clausa|
|Concert Flute / Bourdon||16’ - 2’||97||Trumpet|
|Oboe Horn||8’||61||Orchestral Oboe|
|Viol d’ Orchestre||8’ - 2’||85||Saxophone|
|Viole Celeste||8’ - 4’||73||Salicional|
|Quintadena||8’ - 4’||73||Salicional Celeste|
|Harmonic Tuba||16’ - 4’||85||Vox Humana|
|Chrysoglott Harp||49 Bars||English Post Horn|
|Cathedral Chimes||25 Bars||Glockenspeil|
|Toy and Trap Counter|
The North Texas Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society
When interest in theatre organs was revived in the 1950s, an organ enthusiast, Richard Simonton in California, and others started the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts (ATOE) at a charter meeting February 8, 1955. From that, other groups across the United States formed, and in the early 1960s, a Dallas organization evolved called the Theatre Organ Association of Dallas (TOAD). On June 1, 1968 the club reorganized and became known as the North Texas Chapter of American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts (NTC-ATOE). In 1970 when the National organization became the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS), the local group applied for a charter and became part of the renamed national organization. By January of 1976, the group was given 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
A more complete history of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) and the history of the Theatre Pipe Organ can be found at the ATOS website.
The chief purposes and goals of the NTC-ATOS are: To restore, maintain and preserve theatre pipe organs and to promote the theatre organ and its music. This non-profit organization brings together people who enjoy good organ music, whether or not they own or play an instrument.
Through the 1980s the Chapter met in private homes where there were theatre organs and held fund raising marathons. Other special events were held and a few organs were donated or purchased with the goal of installing them in any remaining large theatres and/or other suitable venues in the Metroplex area.
The Lakewood Theatre
In the 1980s an opportunity arose for this goal and after much discussion, the NTC restored a 3-Manual, 8-Rank Robert-Morton that was placed in the Lakewood Theatre in 1984 when it was re-opened. The Robert-Morton theatre organ was originally from Dallas’ Old Mill Theatre which, until the theatre’s demolition, was located on Elm Street in downtown Dallas.
In 1994, when the Lakewood Theatre closed again, the Chapter continued meeting at private homes, music stores and occasionally at the theatre. New management took over the Lakewood in 1996. The Chapter presented programs and silent films accompanied by the Robert-Morton. The public was able to come and enjoy real theatre organ in the setting it was designed for.
In January 2001, failure of the Lakewood Theatre’s sump pump resulted in flooding of the subterranean pit where the organ console resided on its elevating lift platform. The console was severely damaged by the water. It was a Herculean task of eight months to restore the console. The original 1920’s vintage lift was damaged beyond repair and a new hydraulic lift system was installed. To the delight of audiences, the organ played until 2002 when the sump pump failed again, flooding the console and lift even deeper this time.
The NTC realized that the theatre’s infrastructure was deteriorating and that the organ was in peril. The decision was made to remove the organ from the Lakewood Theatre and place it in safe, dry storage until a new, suitable and safe home could be found in Dallas. This instrument is in the process of being expanded in size and will, when installed in a new home, will be doubled to 16-ranks.
The Chapter also continues to host meetings and open concerts in members’ homes and other local venues where organs are located.
For membership and event schedules, please visit the North Texas Chapter American Theatre Organ Society.