Opus 1774 An Odyssey
Much of what we know about the organ known as Wurlitzer Opus 1774, a Model B Special, is known from research in the Wurlitzer shipping records and stories passed down by word of mouth. The B’s story, while not unique to many of the theatre instruments surviving today, does demonstrate how often these organs are relocated and re-defined. This is a chronology detailing the journey to her new home.
Wurlitzer records indicates the B Special was shipped to Athens Show Shop, New Bern N.C. on October 28, 1927. The organ would have been an upgrade for the theatre from its original 1911 opening. To keep this story in context to the day’s current theatre news, on October 6th, 1927, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was released. This was one of the new films with the audio synchronized to the picture. New sound technology developed by Bell Laboratories had made it possible to place an audio track on the film itself. Films like Don Juan released in 1926 had to this point used music much the same way silent films had used live musicians to accompany them. The Jazz Singer was the first film to use a sound track for music and dialogue. Jolson’s dialogue was not scripted. Apparently, he ad-libbed his lines. The director liked it so much, he had Jolson ad-lib for the 2nd reel too. This one film, after its release, relegated silent films as a viable, profit making endeavor irrelevant and obsolete. Even producers like Charlie Chaplin could not overcome the overwhelming popularity that the new “Talkies” had with the public.
In 1929 The Athens Show Shop was renovated. We suppose this is when the theatre changed its name to the Kehoe Theatre. The gilded side boxes were removed, the main stair case re-located and a new metal lined projection booth was installed making room for the new sound projection equipment. So by 1931 it would appear the little Wurlitzer was out of a job. The Athens Show Shop or now the Kehoe Theatre, we assume, sold the Wurlitzer to First Baptist Church in New Bern. We think this was likely the time when the tonal percussions and toy counter on the organ were removed and a roll top added to the console by Wurlitzer. Here the little B played for First Baptist Church congregations for 30 years.
Fast forward to 1962. Theatre Pipe Organs were still plentiful. Hidden away in dark pipe chambers of many movie theatres, long silent and mostly forgotten pipe instruments languished. The American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts was enjoying a new interest in this re-discovered musical art form. Membership was growing and new affiliate chapters blossomed everywhere. The hunt was on for these hidden and forgotten pipe organs. The goal was to restore them in their current homes when possible and to remove them from harm’s way when they could not. “Preservation” was the watch word.
Erwin Young, a charter member of A.T.O.E. as it was known then, better known as “Cap” to his friends, was one such person hunting theatre pipe organs. As a pilot for United Air Lines, Cap was able to travel across the country. When he was not flying, he liked to, as he put it, “..see the ground I fly over..” by touring in his car around the country. He always made it a point to seek out theatre locations wherever he went in search of theatre organs. On one such trip, he discovered the Kehoe Theatre and New Bern’s First Baptist Church.
Cap confirmed there had been a Wurlitzer in the Kehoe theatre. Following the trail to First Baptist Church, he found a Wurlitzer did still exist and was in the process of being replaced with another organ. A Wurlitzer 2 manual horseshoe console, 5 ranks in size was perfect for a small basement installation! Cap knew Paul Abernethy was looking for an organ and gave him a call.
Dr. Abernethy bought the Wurlitzer and had it moved to his basement in Burlington N.C. While doing some of the work himself, most of the installation was performed by a Greensboro pipe organ technician, E. C White. From 1962 till 1969, the organ played in the family’s basement. Piedmont Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts was formed the same year the B Special came to Burlington. The little 5 rank played for many Piedmont Chapter and Burlington Music Club meetings. While visiting nearby friends, Mr. Van Cliburn came and spent the afternoon playing the Wurlitzer. The door was always open to anyone interested in seeing and playing her.
By 1967, a newly acquired 8 rank Robert Morton (See the story on the 2/8 Robert Morton) replaced the B Special in a new organ loft built at the back of the house. After languishing in the basement for a time, the little B was bought by a nearby church organist. He planned on putting it in his basement and having it for his personal and professional use. An impending marriage, however, changed energy and direction and the little B was looking for a new home again.
Then in 1973, she relocated again to yet another basement in the little college town called Elon College. The new owner was a church organist and Faculty member at the local college. Here the organ’s regulators were recovered and installed in his basement and played marginally for a time.
Near disaster struck in 1980. The Console’s den area suffered a fire, most probably by a shorted extension cord under the room’s sofa. The house and the organ were saved having suffered mostly smoke damage. The console cabinet’s finish was scorched and worse, all of the stop keys and manual coverings had flash burned from the intense heat leaving only a black powder residue. Thanks to home owner’s insurance and a lot of volunteer work from PTOS, the console was restored with new key coverings and authentic Wurlitzer replica stop keys..
Fast forward now to 2004. The B’s odyssey continues with a move to Bristol Tennessee. This time she was bound for a grand parlor instead of a basement overlooking the city of Bristol. Things change and grand plans never came to be and she languished again in storage, this time outside of Bristol Tennessee. Three opportunities for a new home failed at the last minute. From a small theatre in Columbia S.C. to a wedding chapel in Elon College, hopes were raised and dashed. It became apparent that a 2 manual anything in today’s market, never mind a 5 rank theatre organ, just did not have a chance of finding a good home.
Extended storage for pipe organs is never easy on their integrity, and we worried about her future. So, in July, 2012, the decision was made to adopt the idea that preserving “some” is better than “none”. Parting her out was very undesirable. We wanted to keep her intact if at all possible. The Williams High installation needed all of the pipe work the B offered, so making this leap from storage to chamber seemed a good idea. We were looking for pipes and chest to replace MIDI voices for a Flute Celeste, Main Tuba, Main Tibia, Main Vox Humana and Salicional. The B had all of these.
The B is comprised of a 5 rank manual chest, five offset chests and a Harp. All of the chest work has been restored. The Harp is currently waiting for shop space to begin its restoration. The ravages of time and multiple moves have taken its toll on the organ. Fourteen 8’ Tuba pipes have gone missing from the last storage site. While all the remaining pipe work’s condition is generally good, there have been a few pipes damaged and they will need repairing or replacing. While contributions to affect their replacement and repair, we continue to restore and install the B’s components into its new home.
2014 should be the year all of the Main Chamber’s newly re-leathered chests including the addition of the B Special’s chest work will come together. A total of 19 ranks have been recovered and placed in to service. The little B Special has its own chamber all to herself now, just as if she were the only organ there. Even though she is part of a greater whole, the argument can be made she still exists as an intact, original Wurlitzer B Special. We are happy to have her as Williams High School and Piedmont Theatre Organ Society’s newest addition to our “flagship” Kimball/Wurlitzer.
Charter Piedmont Chapter member Dr. Paul Abernethy tunes the Tuba on his Wurlitzer B Special
Charter Piedmont Chapter member Frank Netherland play the B for a meeting
Chapter members Buddy Boyd and Al Bowers load some of the B for moving. Yes, it is a horse trailer!
The original relay in storage in Bristol TN. Note the Morton Xylophone and Orchestra Bells
Storage room in Bristol. Note other organ parts like the Marr&Colton harp and percussions at the back of the room
Main chest is here being prepared to enter the shop. Note the vermin nest in the Salicional chest.
8' Flute and Tibia Clausa offset pipes in their new home at Williams High
Chapter member Jeff Perrier sorts and places pipes on the newly rebuilt 5 rank manual chest