The Mighty Wurlitzer sits
The Oroville State Theatre is remodeling to accommodate a 1924 theater organ
In the lobby of the Oroville State Theatre sits a relic of the silent-film era, a powerful and innovative instrument that delivered unprecedented versatility in an era pre-dating computer chips and synthesizers. Roped off by red felt, an original 1924 Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ appears ready for a grand stage.
Unfortunately, this Wurlitzer’s first performance since being relocated from the California Auto Museum in Sacramento is still likely more than two years away. About a dozen volunteers from the Oroville area have joined forces with the Sierra Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society with intentions of redesigning the theater to house the organ’s massive components by Christmas 2013.
Overseeing the project is the curator for the city of Oroville and Theatre Organ Society member Dave Dewey, who is thrilled by the prospect of a fully functional theater organ in Oroville.
“We’re very fortunate to have this organ donated to us,” he said. “The console is beautiful. I like to call it a human interface module.”
That’s because the Wurlitzer’s theater-organ design represents a precursor to synthesized instrumentation. Much like a synthesizer, the organ allows a single musician access to thousands of sound combinations.
“The difference is you’re playing all real instruments,” Dewey said. “When you select the ‘bass drum’ key on the organ’s interface, a mallet hits a bass drum upstairs. It’s rather like a mechanical computer because it had a bunch of ‘if-then’ buttons, like binary code.”
The organ console will relay signals to a PC and then to the acoustic instruments—which also include things like a grand piano, xylophone, tambourines, among others—through a series of tightly bunched cables. A high-volume air system in the theater’s basement will provide the pressure necessary to operate the organ’s massive 16-foot pipes. Instruments and pipes will be housed in two raised chambers on either side of the stage equipped with automated shutters to regulate sound volume.
The interface itself is of equally admirable design. Three levels of keyboards are encircled by dozens of multicolored tabs, each with the name of an instrument or effect. Press one of the tabs and your keystrokes manipulate the lumbering sound of a tuba. Select another tab and you’ll have a reedy oboe at your fingertips. Yet another tab adds a layer of kinura, which Dewey describes as “basically a bunch of angry bees.” When one realizes the sheer number of sound-combination possibilities, it’s easy to see why the Wurlitzer was billed as the “one-man orchestra.”
Wurlitzer theater organs haven’t been produced since 1940. The demise of the silent film was a big factor, as they traditionally accompanied showings with music and sound effects like a train whistle and taxi-cab horns.
“They were still built for social halls, Masonic lodges or anywhere you needed an orchestra but you couldn’t afford to have an orchestra,” Dewey said. “But not under the Wurlitzer name.”
In 1954, the Oroville State Theatre remodeled after deeming its original theater organ unnecessary. An updated heating and cooling system took the space that originally housed the organ’s pipes, and the grill covering the chamber was plastered over. It seemed as if the theater had heard a true one-man orchestra for the final time.
That changed last February, when the Sierra Chapter voted to donate this “new” organ to the State Theatre Arts Guild and volunteers began raising money for the remodeling process. A little more than $13,000 has been raised through donations, but Dewey hopes to reach about $100,000 before it’s all said and done.
“I’m hoping we won’t spend half of that,” he said. “We can use that for any repairs and promotion for the organ. In an old building like this, you never know what you might uncover. We might run into something big.”