Fox Special 4-manual Wurlitzer found crated in Sydney warehouse

Reported by Ian McIver, 1 April, 2000


Amazing though it may seem, a complete mint condition Wurlitzer organ was discovered still in its factory crates by workmen clearing an old warehouse near the Homebush site of Sydney's 2000 Olympic Games.

The twin gold consoles gleamed, even though the keyboard ivories had yellowed over the years. The pipework, chests and other accoutrements glistened when unpacked, just as they would have done had Wurlitzer's agents installed the organ in 1930.

"It was like stepping into a time-warp", said Sydney organ identity Warren (Wazza) Burleta, a friend of the workmen, Jose Inocenton and Pesce Daprile, who had first opened one of the dozens of dusty crates piled high in the warehouse and found it packed with organ pipes.

Documentation that accompanied the instrument indicates it was initially intended for the Fox Theatre at Newark, NJ. However, it seems that project was abandoned and the theatre did not go ahead. As there was no market for the organ in the USA, and customs duties would have made its importation prohibitively costly in England, it was sent to Australia, where Hoyt's theatres had plans to install it in their last great Regent (to be known as the Fox-Regent, following the amalgamation in 1930), at Darwin in the country's north. That 4000-seat theatre was never completed, and the organ languished in the warehouse in Sydney, initially unwanted, then quietly forgotten, for 70 years.

It is also clear that the organ was paid for by a transfer of Fox stock rather than in cash, and this appears to be the reason why it never showed up in the Wurlitzer accounting records or the factory lists. Ironically, it would seem that an instrument which turned out to be worth nothing to Fox was paid for with shares that were soon worth nothing to Wurlitzer.

Close secrecy was maintained after the discovery of the organ, which Wazza acquired for a nominal $1 (a moment's rummaging in his pockets produced the wherewithal), provided he cleared it all out of the warehouse. Then began the tedious process of transporting it, firstly one crate at a time, using his faithful old ute, then in an old double-decker bus he borrowed from the Sydney Bus Museum, to the family home at Mount Redfern.

As he finally sorted out all the many parts of the organ, he discovered it had a number of differences from the earlier 4/36 Fox Specials. It seems the organ has an additional ethereal chamber that is most peculiarly designed. It houses a 4-rank Vox Chorus (16,8,8,4) like those in three very early Wurlitzers, and a most unusual Fern Flute and Fern Flute Celeste (2 ranks), giving a total of 43 ranks. The documentation contains copies of correspondence showing that this was because Fox did not want the organ for his greatest of all theatres (at Newark) to be outranked by that in the Fox Theatre at Atlanta.

However, what is unique about this ethereal chamber is that it is airtight, with a sound-transparent membrane behind the shutters. The regulators actually suck air OUT of the top of the chamber, creating a partial vacuum equivalent to -6" wind, so that the pipes sound on negative pressure, thus creating a very special and ethereal sound. The chests on which the pipes stand are open underneath to the ambient air, and the partial vacuum in the chamber draws the air through the pallets and pipes and causes the latter to speak. This arrangement was not repeated on any other organs; one significant drawback became apparent to Wazza when he first attempted to tune the pipes, as not only did his hat get sucked into the blower, but his cat, who slipped into the chamber with him, had a very narrow escape from a similar fate. The cat (and no doubt Wazza also) is lucky the pressure was not -30".

Other unusual or unique features of the organ include:

The whole organ has not yet been assembled, but Wazza intends to install it in Queensland, at the Paramount, Thargomindah, (main chamber), Roxy, Birdsville (solo chamber), Eureka, Camooweal (foundation chamber), Gaumont Palace, Weipa (orchestral chamber), Koala, Mooloolaba (ethereal chamber) and Flix, Goondiwindi (percussions, traps and 32ft diaphones).

Wazza acknowledges that installing each chamber in a different theatre over an area equivalent in size to most of western Europe is probably not what Wurlitzer had intended when they built the instrument. But needs must, and that is all that can be accommodated in each of the theatres where he has negotiated to install it. Intermissions and concerts at all theatres will be synchronised, and all will be linked by satellite so that in each theatre one chamber will be heard "live" and all the others through a loudspeaker on the opposite side of the proscenium. It is not yet decided whether the two consoles will be installed in one theatre or two.

It is planned to hold a state-wide grand opening in exactly one year's time, on 1 April, 2001.

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