May 30, 1998

George Wright, 77, Theater Organist With a Cult Following


George Wright, a master theater organist with such a deft touch it was said he could make a mighty Wurlitzer swing when it wasn't actually jitterbugging, died on May 10 at a Los Angeles hospital near his home atop the Hollywood Hills. He was 77.

Friends said the cause was congestive heart failure.

In an era of rock and rap it's easy to forget that the Wurlitzer was once the dominant musical instrument of the land, underscoring and heightening everything from tense cliffhangers to tender love scenes in the silent movie palaces of the 1920s.

It is a tribute to the powerful appeal the soaring, multi-faceted music exerted on movie audiences that when the advent of talkies rendered the Wurlitzer redundant as instant sound track, theaters continued to schedule organ concerts before, between and after movie screenings.

Wright was born too late for silent movie work, but it is a tribute to his artistry that he was packing them in at the Fox Theater in San Francisco in the 1940s, playing at sold-out houses at the Paramount Theater in New York as late as the 1950s, touring through the 1970s and turning out the most recent of his some 60 albums this past February.

Along the way, he, like the Wurlitzer, acquired a cult following. And if that is another way of saying that theater organ music does not have mass appeal, it had enough for Wright to do quite well for himself.

Wright, who grew up in the Sacramento Valley, was born in a small town, Orland, Calif., where his mother, a piano teacher, gave him the only formal keyboard lessons he ever had. He demonstrated enough natural talent to sustain a career as a pianist, but when he went to high school in nearby Stockton, Calif., he discovered a pipe organ used for ball games and the piano was all but forgotten.

When his family moved to Sacramento and he discovered that the local Grant High School had an actual Wurlitzer in the auditorium, his career was set.

Although he spent some time at a local college, Wright apparently had little interest in continuing his formal education. By the time he was 18, he was playing organ at a Chinese restaurant in Oakland. At 20, he was a fixture on the old NBC Blue network in San Francisco.

In 1943, he began a four-year stint at the 5,000-seat San Francisco Fox, then came to New York, where he became organist and musical director at the old Paramount on Times Square, where he shared billings with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Frankie Laine and began his recording career, turning out 78s for King Records, continuing his radio work and playing concerts at Steinway Studios on 57th Street.

Remaining at the Paramount until 1950, he then moved to Los Angeles, where he became the regular radio organist for the ABC soap opera "General Hospital." Wright, who composed the program's original television theme, continued at the "General Hospital" keyboard throughout the era of live broadcasts until the shift to videotaping made prerecorded music possible.

By then, Wright had found a new audience, and a large one at that. With the development of so-called high fidelity long-playing records, the music industry needed a way to impress potential buyers with the improved clarity of the new format and Wright and the Wurlitzer, with its incredible sonic range, became the natural solution.

Beginning in 1955 when he began an eight-year stint with Hi-Fi Records, Wright's music was heard at virtually every hi-fi sales show and in virtually every music store in the country. His 20 hi-fi albums, often sold in bulk to manufacturers like Magnavox, racked up enormous sales, with his "My Fair Lady" album alone accounting for more than one million sales.

He switched to Dot records in 1963, but when a Santa Monica warehouse where he kept his organ burned in 1968, Wright's recording career went up in flames along with it, at least for a while.

A flamboyant performer who developed an easy rapport with his audiences, Wright continued his concert career, playing theater organs at the dwindling number of movie palaces in the United States and abroad.

Aside from his onstage personality, what added to Wright's appeal was his renowned inventiveness as an arranger and his huge repertory, which ranged from a snarling, brassy "Love for Sale" to what was once described as a colossal "Stars and Stripes Forever."

His recording career resumed in 1980 when a friend founded a company, Banda, to record his music, now played on a mighty Wurlitzer Wright installed at the Hollywood Hills house he had bought not for its spectacular panoramic views but because it had a room large enough to accommodate the organ.

Wright, who never married, is survived by an adopted son, Tom, of Hollywood.

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