Wurlitzer Organ Trust of
C/ - The Playhouse Theatre, Glen Eden,
Auckland New Zealand
Our Wurlitzer Organ
By Jelani Eddington, © 2004 RJE Productions LLC (reprinted with permission)
3/15 Wurlitzer, Opus 1475 – Hollywood
Not surprisingly, the center of gravity of theatre organ activity in New Zealand is located in Auckland, the country’s largest city of over 1 million inhabitants. The 3-manual 15-rank Wurlitzer that now resides in the Hollywood Cinema in Avondale (a suburb of Auckland) began its life as a 2-manual 8-rank Wurlitzer “Model F” Opus 1475. Shipped from Wurlitzer’s North Tonawanda factory in October 1926, Opus 1475 arrived in New Zealand in December of that year and was installed in the 1,700-seat Regent Theatre on Auckland’s Queen Street – the city’s most elegant thoroughfare.
The installation of the instrument was not completed in time for the official opening of the theatre in December 1926, and the organ was not heard publicly until February 1927 in a dedicatory concert played by American organist Eddie Horton. The theatre engaged Mr. Horton as house organist for the next year, followed by Australian organist Knight Barnett. As was often the case, the advent of the “talking” pictures in the 1930s temporarily silenced the instrument, and it was very rarely heard in public. Additionally, with the arrival of the much larger Wurlitzer Style 260 “Special” at the Civic Theatre only a few doors up the street from the Regent (see below), the novelty of the Regent Wurlitzer all but vanished.
After sitting virtually unplayed and unheard for several years, the instrument was offered for sale in 1944, and the parents and pupils of Hutt Valley High School, located in a dormitory suburb of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, purchased the instrument. The organ was installed in the school’s assembly hall where it became a feature of the music department and played for various school functions for many years. Sadly, in 1968 a deadly tropical cyclone struck the area which, at its apex, blew apart a portion of the roof of the school hall, exposing the instrument to torrential rains and wind. (In fact, this same storm was responsible for the sinking of an inter-island ferry, the Wahine, at the entrance to
Wellington Harbor, with the tragic loss of 51 lives.)
Due to the significant damage to the Wurlitzer, the school considered the instrument to be unplayable and sold it to Wellington businessman and organ enthusiast Lindsay Anderson who in turn sold the instrument to Auckland enthusiast Les Stenersen in 1978. Mr. Stenersen, with the assistance of the late Mr. Jan Grefstad (owner of the Hollywood Cinema), Mr. John Parker (an organ builder from Sydney, Australia, then resident in New Zealand), the Kiwi Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, and a host of volunteers, brought the organ back to Auckland in August of that year and began the process of installing the instrument in the Hollywood Cinema. [FN1]
The instrument was repaired and painstakingly rebuilt under the direction of John Parker. Because the Hollywood Cinema was used exclusively for motion pictures, it was possible for the instrument to be installed in three chambers (Main, Solo, and Percussion) behind the movie screen. The console was situated to the left of the proscenium on a turntable lift. The opposite side of the proscenium houses a Wurlitzer upright piano console which was once the piano-console organ at the Cozy Theatre in Masterton (see below).
In addition to the original eight Model F ranks (Tuba Horn, Open Diapason, Tibia Clausa, Violin & Celeste, Clarinet, Vox Humana, and Concert Flute), four more ranks were added, including a Solo String, Tromba, and a “pseudo” Kinura and Post Horn. Mr. Anderson retained the organ’s original toy counter and percussions before the instrument was returned to Auckland, and, accordingly, the traps from Cozy Theatre Wurlitzer were incorporated into the Hollywood organ. Additionally, Wellington organ enthusiast Michael Woolf loaned a Glockenspiel and Xylophone from his residence installation (see discussion of the Nelson Paramount below).
The installation and restoration of the instrument was completed in late 1982, and November of that year saw the re-inaugural concert with Australian organists Tony Fenelon and Margaret Hall at the console. Following this gala re-opening of the instrument, the Hollywood Wurlitzer was used very regularly and could be heard in as many as eight public concerts each year.
In 1993, Mr. Stenerson announced his intention to sell the Wurlitzer, and with the spectre of the instrument being sold for parts overseas, a group of eight enthusiasts formed the Wurlitzer Organ Trust of Auckland (WOTA) – a charitable trust that purchased the instrument from Mr. Stenerson and assumed responsibility for its preservation and maintenance. Once the Trust was established, the first priority was to focus on the condition of the instrument. Since 1984, the instrument had been a very active organ with 6-8 concerts each year and was in need of refurbishment and upgrading.
The first phase of the renovation included locating a full set of percussions to replace those loaned by Mr. Woolf. With the assistance of Russ Evans from Seattle, four Wurlitzer percussions (the Glockenspiel, Chrysoglott, Xylophone, and Chimes) were obtained, restored, and installed, and the units on loan were returned to Mr. Woolf. In addition, WOTA was able to re-acquire the original toy counter and that had been retained by Mr. Anderson, and those traps were reunited with Opus 1475. Moreover, the Kinura and Post Horn were replaced with more suitable ranks, the Solo String was replaced by a pair of Salicionals, and a Trumpet was incorporated into the instrument. With the recent installation of an Orchestral Oboe, the Hollywood Wurlitzer is now complete at 15 ranks.
The second phase of the restoration came with the rebuilding of the console, as the organ had literally outgrown its original two-manual console. To this end, and again with the assistance of Russ Evans, a three-manual Style 235 Wurlitzer console was located, originally from Opus 1256 that had been shipped to Loew’s Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia. John Parker rebuilt the console and modernized the specification. John Andrews, also of Sydney, installed an electrified combination action with seven levels of memory, plus a complete solid-state organ relay to replace the original pneumatic relay. The organ’s original two-manual console and relay were acquired by Michael Woolf in Wellington to control his residence organ.
In May 1998, the newly refurbished console and relay arrived in Auckland. The premier concert series took place over the course of a three-month period between June and August of that year with organists from around the world, including Ken Double from the United States, Chris Powell, from the United Kingdom, and Margaret Hall, from Australia.
that time, the Hollywood Wurlitzer has become a focal point of theatre organ
activity in New Zealand, regularly welcoming numerous artists from around the
world. In fact, the Hollywood Wurlitzer
is often the starting point for organists embarking on tours throughout
[FN1] For an account of the return of the Regent Wurlitzer from Wellington to Auckland, see Dawe, Norman, "A Kiwi Wurlitzer In Flight." Theatre Organ Dec. 1978-Jan. 1979: 23-25.
(all ranks are Wurlitzer unless otherwise noted)
SOLO CHAMBER (RIGHT SIDE)
Solo String (Robert Morton)
Kinura (Robert Morton)
Trumpet (Robert Morton)
Orchestral Oboe (Brand X)
PERCUSSION CHAMBER (CENTRE)
Toy Counter and Effects
Master Xylophone (re-iterate)
Metal Bar Marimba Harp (Christie)
MAIN CHAMBER (LEFT SIDE)
Harmonic Tromba (Crofts)
Xylophone (single tap)
Tower Chimes (Church & Carillon Bell Co. - England ex-Auckland Town Hall Organ)
Since this article was written the organ has now reached its final total of 16 ranks with the addition of a digital 16’ & 32’ Bass String & Violone – June 2007
2015, the Hollywood Cinema was sold and the Trust was requested to have the
Wurlitzer organ removed by end-September.
The organ performed its final show at the Hollywood on Sunday August 30 with USA organist Jelani Eddington at the console.
The organ is safely in storage pending installation in a new home.