Posted by Gary Stratton on Jul 15, 2020
The Wurlitzer theatre organ was developed to accompany silent movies.  Although expensive, they replaced the various theatre groups of musicians in the larger theatres.  They were very popular in Britain and a very few made it to NZ. 
 
In the late 1970’s the civic theatre in Auckland put their Wurlitzer up for sale and fortunately for it, it was purchased by Sir Len Southward with a vision of installing it in the theatre of his proposed new car museum at Waikanae. 
 
The Paramount Theatre in Wellington had a Wurlitzer, which ended up at Hutt Valley High and the Embassy Theatre had a much larger model, which is now in the Tauranga Town Hall.
 
Many of you may not know I was a pipe organ builder and tuner by trade in the first 15 years of my working life.  Our firm of 3, took on the voluntary job of overhauling and reinstalling the organ in Southwards new theatre in the early 1980’s. 
This Wurlitzer was originally built in 1929 for the Civic Theatre at a cost of $38,000.  It was in need of re-leathering of it’s many bellows, along with new electrical wiring through, plus refurbishment of the keyboard console and the cleaning of it’s more than 2,000 pipes.  The “switch-room” to control all the action between the 3 keyboards and the pipes need the size of an average bedroom.  This could have been replaced by modern solid-state electronics and fit into a shoebox but Len Southward insisted the original system be retained.
 
The organ has a so-called “toybox” section where various mechanical devices could duplicate bird-whistles, horses’ hooves, bells, xylophone, train whistles, thunder, etc., to accompany the silent films.  (To experience the sound click HERE.)
 
After many hundreds of manhours working mostly on weekends for about a year to complete the enormously satisfying job, I had the honour of being asked to play at the opening recital and at subsequent birthdays for Sir Len at 5-yearly intervals,  The Wurlitzer has a unique sound and will never be built again due to it’s enormous cost, and of course its original purpose of manufacture is now obsolete.  
(Originally written December 2010)
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