Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ making comeback at Fox Theatre

(Source: KOLD News 13)
(Source: KOLD News 13)
Updated: Nov. 16, 2018 at 8:11 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -- What might have seemed unimaginable in downtown Tucson two decades ago, is about to become a reality.

In 1930, the Fox Tucson Theatre installed a Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ to provide sound and context to the silent movies of the era.

Talking movies put the organ to rest so in the 1930s, it was pieced out and sold across the country.

Now, in a culmination of the theater's restoration project, the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation is bringing back the historic Wurlitzer pipe organ.

The idea was first conceived when the project was started in 1999 but a lack of funds made the task all but impossible.

It was difficult enough to convince skeptics at the time that the theater should be renovated at all.

"People, including big-money donors, would ask, 'What are you thinking?'" said Andrew McWhirter, who has been a member of the theater's board of directors since Day 1. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd get the acts and shows we get now."

Kansas, Three Dog Night, Arlo Guthrie, Dionne Warwick, have all played the venue in the past year.

It seems the right time to go the next step.

"I think this is a huge event for the whole music scene in southern Arizona," McWhirter said. "It's that big and that significant."

The restoration of the organ, which was donated by a doctor from Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, 15 years ago, is being led by Grahame Davis, one of handful of people in America who restore theater organs.

"It's a calling, I believe," Davis said. "It's something I believe happened when I was very young."

Davis, who is native Australian, was sent to an Episcopalian boys school "and they had a chapel with a pipe organ," he said.

Forced to sing in the choir, which he says he learned to love, he also soon became enamored by the sounds of the organ and began to study with the masters.

His expertise - the pipes.

"Most people don't know much about organ pipes, but fortunately, I do," he said.

Fortunately, because the Mighty Wurlitzer coming to Tucson will have 3,000 of them. Some as small as a pencil, some as tall as 16 feet.

"We polish everything," he said. "We don't do it because it looks good, we do it because it does affect how the pipes sound."

After 10 years of restoration, the past two and a half with some intensity, they have finally reached the critical stage.

"We have reached a point now where we're unpacking all the pipes, going through everything, washing everything, repairing everything, and making sure it's just so," Davis said.

About two-thirds of the work is done, leaving a year to finish restoration and installing the organ in the theater. It's hoped the organ will play its first notes in April 2019.

It will be a delicate and time-consuming process, in part, because the Fox is a working theater so they'll have to work around shows and events.

"The organ works so well in this particular environment," he said. "There's nothing like a theater organ in a theater."

But the work is not just to get the organ is shape and tune for the audience. There's another goal as well.

"We're not out of the woods yet. We still have to raise a big chunk of money to get it installed," McWhirter said. "We're hoping to raise about $150,000."

That would pay not only for installation but for upkeep as well.

Because of weather changes, the organ needs to be tuned at least once a year, a task which can take a while.

"We'll have an expert organ player come do that," Davis said. "It will take about four days on an organ like that."

The theater organ is not a church organ. Because it is used to convey a wide array of emotions, pratfalls and sounds that are likely to show up in the old silent movies it needs to be versatile.

Train whistles, car horns, clapper horns, face slaps, crockery smashes and even cow horns can be reproduced on the organ.

"A cowbell is very important, believe it or not, for silent movies," he said. But no self-respecting church organ would have the need for one.

The theater board will announce the kickoff of its fundraising effort Sunday, April 8, starting at 4 p.m. More information can be found HERE.

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