From: Scott F. Foppiano, June 2008
I grew up on that WurliTzer and my writing here is based on first hand experience I had playing it in the Summer of 2004, but THIS Wurlitzer was the first theatre pipe organ that I ever saw and heard. I grew up playing that organ.
As of Summer 2004 it is/was in VERY SAD condition. Dead notes everywhere, it doesn't sound like it's been
tuned in 25 years, the trems and winding are off,
there is (still) no combination action. An ancient
solid state system was installed in the mid 1980's, the console completely gutted
of course at the time, and now even it (the combination action) doesn't work.
I know that John Hiltonsmith has/had
been "maintaining" it for many years, as was he the Saenger in New Orleans, long
after the days of my friend the late Bill Oberg and Marlin Mackley before him.
(I shall not go beyond the word "maintaining" as I wrote above, and to be honest- what I saw and heard does not even deserve that title sadly).
It was through Vincent Astor in 1978 and then Bill that
I was allowed to go in and discover the wonderful world of theatre pipe organ.
In fact my 8th grade yearbook has a photo of me at that console as I won the "Most Musical" award that year.
Other Hall of Fame winners' photos were also taken in and around the Orpheum that day thanks to Vincent letting us in and allowing us to wander around for the perfect Kodak Moment spots.
Had I stayed in Memphis, I had begun the steps of forming a "Bluff City" chapter of the ATOS, with the hopes of restoring and getting that organ not only in proper playing condition, but also getting the theatre management behind it as well and getting it USED more.
The organ is only used for the summer movie series now apparently - and then for only 10 minutes or something ridiculous like that. When I subbed for John that evening in 2004 I said I would play it but for no less than 30 minutes as it NEEDED to be seen and heard!
When they restored the Orpheum years ago (and a GORGEOUS restoration it is - I still say the Memphis Orpheum is perhaps the most beautiful remaining original movie palace in the US today, no doubt at least in the top 5) they expanded the stage, opened up the shops on either side of the then rather restricted "grand" lobby space and this and that to make $$$ for the theatre. The theatre itsels is DROP DEAD GORGEOUS in every single respect- it IS something to see and walk through - it's incredible!
They (whoever) did a decent cosmetic job on the console, I wouldn't exactly call it Carlton Smith quality, and they put the console on a band-cart type of platform so that it could be wheeled on and off its original Peter Clark lift- which is still there. They put a beautiful glass music rack in the original frame and had "WurliTzer" etched into it British style, in a crescent. It looks VERY nice. It even still has its original Howard Wonder Organ Seat, repadded and re-fringed, the same one used by Milton Slosser when he played there in alternation with the St. Louis Ambassador. It, too, sits very well and looks great.
BUT - to play it and hear this historic and very important organ is another story all together. Getting the theatre behind it (read: Mr. Pat Halloran, who DID save the theatre from the wrecking ball in the late 70's) will probably take an act of congress and a Papal dispensation. Of course, it makes noise- therefore it's fine. Could a concert or a GOOD overture be musically and artistically played on it? Absolutely not. When I played my one and only overture there in Summer 2004 I walked out afterward in great despair because it has slipped SO badly. The last time I played it previous to that was in high school in the mid 80's and it ALL worked, in fact it ROARED in that house. Rapp and Rapp really knew how to build theatres with good acoustics and where the organs' sound egress was at its maximum potential. This theatre is no exception and is, in fact, a sister to the Riverside (formerly Orpheum) in Milwaukee though much more ornate. It is nothing short of a grand opera house in every respect!
A gorgeous theatre and a very nice website, but I do not recall one word about the organ, or anything beyond maybe a sentence.
I can't say anymore than this as I have not been back. I did vow to myself that night that I would not return to play it until at least some tuning and regulation work had been done. It was that bad, and that sad actually. The other REALLY STUPID thing that was done was that the pit access to the console is now no more. One has to climb down into it from main floor level on very temporary-looking wooden slats, fashioned into a crude ladder type of arrangement, that have been nailed to the extreme left corner of the pit by the console. Also, there is a 16' Open Wood Diapason rank somewhere in there that was INTENDED to be hooked up decades ago. If anything, the 12-pipe extension of the Tibia for the Pedal, an English Horn rank and expanded unification would really make that organ cook. Even if totally RESTORED to its original spec and condition (pistons and all) it would still be one hell of a good organ, not to mention an EXTREMELY IMPORTANT historical reference instrument of how they truly were "back then." Yes, i'ts ALL there and it's ALL intact thank God- even the glass-encased relays are still there on the left side in the lower chamber.
WHAT'S THIS? You ask........well, the Orpheum was originally supposed to have a 4-manual Publix, 20 or 21 ranks, but I had always HEARD that it was supposed to be a deluxe 21-ranker. The four chambers ARE there as planned, but only two were used as it was shipped so late and talkies were already eminent and, of course, budgetary restraints. But the Orpheum was always a deluxe and very important house- especially because of its port location on the Mississippi River and its proximity to other big cities with such theatres.
Obviously- though the organ is there, it's nothing more than a nostalgic fixture right now. Very sad considering what it could be.
Interestingly- THIS is the organ that was delivered and the crates places in the stage in reverse order. The console is in the left side of the pit (stage right), with the Solo above it instead of on the right as is traditional. The Main chamber instead is on the house right side. But in the room and especially in the balcony, it absolutely roars for 13 ranks in a 2500 seat house! The only change that I know of, and it has been this way since the very first time I saw and played it in 1978, is that the Solo to Great coupler has been changed into a Great 4' super coupler. And it IS useful, especially on "the big stuff." The organ truly does sound much beigger than it is.
I just hope that one day someone somewhere gets to management, gets funding to properly get the combination action going and get that organ up and playing as it should be.
Having grown up there and having such a love for that theatre and its organ in my heart, I would do whatever I could to benefit and help that cause- believe me!
From: Scott F. Foppiano, Oct 2009
Yes, the Orpheum (AKA Malco from about 1940 to 1975-76) has an ORIGINAL and EXTANT Wurlitzer, model 240 containing 3 manuals and 13 ranks,
Opus 1956, shipped and installed in 1928. This is the "reverse" organ that many know of where, when delivered, the crates were laid out on stage in reverse order,
hence the Solo chamber being on house left and the Main chamber on house right. At least that's the story for the last 79 years!
The only change that was made to the instrument, and this is far from an alteration in my book, was that the Solo to Great coupler was turned into a Great Octave coupler,
and this happened decades ago apparently at the request of Milton Slosser (more on his association there to come...)
In the mid 1980's they installed a very early, minimalistic solid state combination action which has already died, so the pistons do not work.
When I was a kid playing there the console still had air and it did work, I remember it well and being fascinated by the ka-THUNK of those pistons and the setter boards on the back of the console.
Now, interestingly: the Memphis Orpheum WAS to have had a Publix 1 organ, but finances during the construction of the deluxe house (for Memphis in those days) required cut backs,
hence a stock/base 240 being installed. Many have referred to this particular organ as a "235 Special" but it is in actuality a standard 240 with no frills and no piano.
Now, interestingly, it DOES have the Trumpet unified at 16' on the Great whereas most other 240s did not.
It also has a 2' Tibia Piccolo, again a unification which some other 240s did not from the ones I have seen through the years.
It seems that many if not most of the Orpheum (or Orpheum Vaudeville) theatres had 235s or 240s. Since the theatre was built with the four chambers for a Publix 1, they are still there.
The Solo is in the top left chamber, the original glass-encased Wurlitzer relay in the bottom left chamber, and the Main is in the upper right chamber.
The lower right chamber sits empty to this day. Wouldn't a Publix have been really something though???
And, being a really FINE example of a theatre designed by Rapp and Rapp, who KNEW how to build auditoriums into which organs could speak well with good egress,
the organ absolutely ROARS in that room - even for its modest size!
When the Orpheum was restored (and a full, authentic restoration it was!) and stagehouse enlarged in the late 80's, of course ALL money went to the building
with not one cent toward the organ other than the aforementioned solid state combo action.
Pat Halloran was the gentleman that spearheaded the project to not only save the Orpheum from demiolition in the mid 70's but also its subsequent restoration.
He ran the place for many years and still has influence there from what I understand. Had I still been in Memphis at the time the organ would ave been fully restored,
but my family and I had already moved to N.C. They don't mind the organ, and use it when they can, but they don't DO anything for it per say and, other than it's being
there and an original, historic fixture of the theatre, really doesn't enjoy the featured, spotlighted status it COULD have.
It's not in any danger of being removed, and the console, which has its own, original lift, now sits on a band cart and can be taken out of the pit and stored when necessary.
(I don't like this, but cest la vie. When I was a kid playing down there it sat on that lift all the time as originally installed and could be used all the time.
Removable consoles mean less playing time and far less exposure in my book!) Sadly, it's main playing time are short overtures for the classic movie series each summer.
John Hiltonsmith plays for those.
For years this organ was played by a local Memphis personality named Vincent Astor, who nicknamed the organ "Louise." He also is the perpetuator and general source of
the legend that still floats around about the ghost of the Orpheum, a little girl named "Mary," who even has a Facebook page all to herself with a huge following!
The organ was maintained for many years in the late 60's, 70's and early 80's by Marlin Mackley and the late Bill Oberg.
Both of them also maintained the Municipal Auditorium's V/115 W.W. Kimball as well as the big 1922 Casavant at St. Peter's Catholic Church on Adams,
where Bill played each Sunday and was buried from. Bill was a good friend and mentor to me and I was the last person to see him alive the afternoon before he died
when we were at the now demolished Auditorium playing and working on the Kimball. It was on that afternoon that my first publicity photos were also taken, in a tux
at the Kimball console! Bill's wifel Linda, hated Vincent Astor and used to get just furious when she heard him refer to the Wurlitzer as "Louise."
She would raise her voice and say in a rather defininte tone: "QUIT naming the thing - it's an INANIMATE object!" Ha!
After Bill's death Marlin took over for several years until he moved to St. Louis. The organ then sat and was, at some point, worked on by John Hiltonsmith who
still "maintains" it to this day. He is the same fellow that works/worked on the big Robert-Morton in the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, at least prior to Hurricane Katrina.
The console is in beautiful cosmetic condition, including its original Howard Seat which was used by Milton Slosser, alternate house organist in the early days.
He went back and forth between Memphis and St. Louis's Ambassador Theatre as a headline organist. My grandparents and father even remembered him BY NAME, so that's the impression he made.
The original glass music rack, which shattered years ago, has been replaced with another glass piece with the British-style, sunburst "WurliTzer" sandblasted into it
on the rear side, and is REALLY pretty! The console was painted ivory (of course!) from its original mahogany shell with "Wurlitzer beige" interior horseshoe.
The horseshoe interior now is a striking black enamel and looks rather good actually. The theatre itself is sumptuously beautiful, and I dare say one of THE prettiest intact,
original movie palaces remaining today anywhere - it truly is stunning and is Rapp and Rapp's "French Baroque" style.
I was asked to play for a show there in the Summer of 2004 when I lived there and, when I saw the condition the organ was in, would not return pending some work and tuning.
Sadly, I left town the following year. Again, the console looks gorgeous, what's in the chambers is all intact but sounds like it hasn't been tunes in 25 years.
There is not one rank that has all notes playing, so a solo line on any stop alone is impossible. The regulation is atrocious and, again, there are more dead notes than I can even describe.
Also, the trems are way too slow and deep (which seems to have been a problem down there for decades, but when I was a kid in Jr High and High School
and played overtures down there all the time I didn't know better). Bill Oberg had gotten hold of a 16' Open Wood rank which, if I understand, still sits in one of the chambers unwinded.
Thankfully it was never hooked up and would have bled the air from the rest of the organ - it's small blower couldn't handle that rank and the other 13 ranks.
Had I stayed in Memphis, which was my full intent before getting cut to a fractional salary as my church was not able to maintain a full time staff, I was already
working on getting others in to help revive the Wurlitzer and form a "Bluff City" chapter of ATOS. I have always been sorry I was not able to follow through with that
as I had already spoken with a lot of folks on it and drummer up a lot of interest.
Hope this helps. Getting in to see and/or hear it would not be that difficult if you approached the box office and nothing was happening in the house right then.
But they do all of the big Broadway road shows and other types of concerts, and it's a busy house and "the place" to perform in Memphis.
Access to the Box Office, which is in the left side of the lobby, is right on Main Street under the marquee or, if those doors are closed,
use the door on Main immediately to the left of the Marquee.
This is the very instrument, the first TPO I ever saw and heard, and the very organ that got me into playing theatre organ.
It is an instrument WORTHY of restoration and being spotlighted, but it would have to be done by the right people.
Its lack of use and the lack of theatre organists in and around Memphis now make me feel, very sadly, that it is doomed to remain in the minimalistic role
it currently sees and has for the past 30 years or so. If that ever turns around and it gets revived- I would be absolutely thrilled to perch myself on that Howard Seat
again and play that organ for its rededication. I will always consider that "my first theatre organ" and one I will NEVER forget. My 8th grade Hall of Fame pic was even
taken at that organ, as were the rest in the Hall of Fame with me. I got us in to go down there that day and take the pics.