Something Old -- Something New

= Contents =

1) Something Old
Time For Something New
Real Organ Sounds
Custom Components
Historical Roots
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Historical Roots:
The Mighty WurliTzer

By the brass nameplate rendering up top (you may have to scroll to see it) a teensy minority of you will be able to guess what's next (but note the Roman Numeral II). In the early part of the 20th Century, when motion pictures were still a flickering, black & white, SILENT new art form. The silence part was greeted without enthusiasm, even as the moving play of shadows on a wall sprang into instant hit status. In the new photoplay theaters what you'd hear was the clattering of a more or less hidden projection mechanism, originally hand-powered by a crank (although some operators were cheerful). Mix in the jostlings and murmurings of the other members of the audience surrounding you in the dark, and that's about it for ear candy. Hmm... what to do? It was a small step to hire a few musicians to play some kind of "suitable accompaniment" to the moving images. Traditions of opera and the musical theater were freely borrowed. Actual selections from the classical operatic and ballet repertoire, and other dramatic symphonic forms, were lifted or adapted to provide aural cues and emotional underpinnings, as staged dramatic events often require.
If you owned a movie palace in a large city this presented only a modest complication to your enterprise. Musicians were easily available, as were instruments and scores, not to mention professional arrangers and conductors -- eventually even composers. But away from the large urban centers the music fared less well, most of the time handed off to a lone pianist, or during the main evening showing, perhaps with an additional string or wind player, too. The cliche of the ricky-tick piano in the background of a silent movie stems from these days, and was devised independently by many theater managers of the time.
Within a few years some enterprising souls came up with the notion to use a small organ to accompany the films. Church style organs seemed out of place, funereal. But automated band organs with their pop tunes, waltzes and marches were popular throughout the world. Since they were operated via punched holes in wide paper rolls, the music they played had its own rigid tempo, and could not be synchronized easily with the rapidly changing onscreen images. A live performer was necessary, and small companies like the Rudolph WurliTzer (more on the capital "T" later...) began to evolve their automated instruments into new devices which appeared as the unholy offspring of band organ with upright piano. Most had a single keyboard, a few special pedals and levers, to operate the additional sounds. A paper roll reader was typically retained, though, to provide musical interludes between films or when a player was not available.

Large Band Organ

A Keyboard Instrument

The sounds? Well, if you've heard a real olde-tyme Carousel organ in an amusement park, something like that, you'll have the idea. There were smooth basic flute pipes, some brighter "string toned" variations, too, and often a reed rank with a "trumpet" quality (note the 20 angled brass trumpet "bells" which face us in the left photo, across all three upper compartments). You'd also hear a few basic percussion instruments, bass and snare drum, cymbals, and some mallet percussions, like xylophone and glockenspiel (note the two drums in each photo). Even a set of piano strings might be provided. These were transferred into the new movie theater instruments. If the musician was decent, the results were no doubt better than hearing a solo piano, or the less suitable sounds of a harmonium or church organ. For the romantic and melodramatic music of the period the latter were particularly ill-suited.
The new instruments provided a versatile solution to the problem, and became common in theaters small and large. WurliTzer's early print ads featured the concept that here was a new way to attract movie audiences, something which no successful cinema installation could afford to ignore. These advertisements still seem surprisingly modern in outlook, as you'll see in but one example below. The rapid advancements away from church style pipe organs can be traced to one particular innovator, Robert Hope Jones. British-born, this self-taught polymorph emigrated to the USA and started his own organ company bearing his name. He was driven more by the passion for these instruments and their novel improvements, than by any evident business acumen. When his fledgling firm in Elmira, NY, was forced to close, he landed in the WurliTzer company, who was eager to try his approach to creating something ideally suited to cinema musical instrumentation.
I won't describe all of Hope-Jones' innovations here. But you'll appreciate the breadth if I simply list without further description: fast responding full electrical action on every valve, high pressure pipe chests, enclosed chambers with expression shutters for every rank, ranks organized by family of sound, unification of each rank over all the manuals and pedals, second touch, curved consoles to follow the human arm's natural reach, stop tabs that flipped up/down quickly to replace slower and bulkier push-pull drawknobs, and many wonderful new pipe organ ranks and timbres. By all accounts he was a striking person to meet, tall and thin with a shock of prematurely gray hair, always nattily attired, a bit of a dandy.

Robert Hope-Jones

Early WurliTzer Ad

While Rudolph WurliTzer & Sons was not the only company to compete in the rapidly changing new industry, they had the advantages of Hope Jones's creative input, even if they had to keep their passionate and impractical associate aimed in the most profitable directions. Despite the tensions and friction between both parties, the new line of keyboard played orchestral instruments prospered. Eventually it was rare to find a city of any size which did not have at least one theater equipped with some kind of cinema organ. Until sound swept the silents away (and many actors' careers, with it, if their voices did not match their visual acting skills -- ever see "Singing in the Rain"?), it was a bull market. Even afterwards for some years these unique instruments continued, if only for intermissions, or evening concerts, especially in Britain. There just seemed to be a kind of magic about the sounds a skilled performer could produce. You can detect that spirit in the mature ads WurliTzer ran just prior to the talkies. Here is one is my favorites (definitely give it a click for a bigger view). Great pen and ink Deco artistry, too!

Classy Advertising

Aha! There you can see where the distinctive capital "T" came from. It was the company's trademarked name, a stylized version of the family name, as seen on the engraved brass and bronze plates on each of their instruments of any kind. It persisted even as they abandoned theater organs around the time of WW II, into the line of fine jukeboxes many of you will well recall from your youth. It was then that the slogan was heard: "Gee, dad -- it's a WurliTzer!" With good reason, the company manufactured superior music making machines for many decades. Other excellent instruments were produced by several competitors: Robert Morton, Barton, Kimbal, Wicks --but none were better. Those who wish to search further into these topics will find many good sources on the web, and also in any good library. There are clubs in most parts of the USA and abroad. While most of the original organs have long ago been removed and destroyed, a surprising number of them were carefully saved and restored, and play to this day in the homes and halls of collectors, pizza restaurants (really) and TO clubs!

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We all have our heroes, men and women who inspire us, catch our attention and passions deeply, and often inspire us in ways which fill our lives with delight and wonder. Although I've became firmly associated with electroacoustic music making, and it has defined my lifelong career, the good and bad ways of being typecast, some of what inspired me was from the world of electropneumatics and the pipe organ. I knew of the early electronic organs as they existed during my adolescence, and certainly was eager to try as many of them as I might manage. It was an example of the old story, a youthful acolyte falling under the spell of ideas, talents, and creations by individuals you'd never meet. Then life intrudes. The inspirations add their influences, usually unconsciously. It's only much later that the thread which connects us with those special people and events of the past becomes appreciated more clearly.
I love a story told by SF author Jerry Pournelle, recalling an afternoon that he spent chatting with one of his heroes, Robert Heinlein. The older man had been struck by something in the younger, and granted him this unusual favor, a couple of hours at his home. Pournelle was rather abashed, and while leaving blurted out something about "I sure wish there were some way I could repay you for your time and help, Mr. Heinlein." "You can't," came the terse reply, "you pay it forward!" So it is. We absorb the lessons and move on. Years later the debt of gratitude is felt.
I'd fairly well forgotten my youthful fascinations with pipe organs of all kinds, but especially the grand orchestral timbres of a well maintained cinema or theater organ. Through a random stroke of luck, I was invited by a organist friend to attend a WurliTzer organ concert in town one Sunday afternoon over a dozen years ago. It was great fun. When I got home I dug out some of the old LP's I had saved from my adolescence. And there I came across the first such album I'd bought, something I'd read about in a record magazine. I'd nearly worn the thing out back then, and not heard it in many years. This is its cover:

My First TO Recording

The organist was one of the best ever, George Wright. At that time there was no synthesizer -- aside from the clumsy pioneering affair RCA had assembled in NJ in the mid '50s. So it seemed rather like magic, what could be done by one very skilled musician on such a versatile instrument. I was spellbound. Somehow my path never went into that direction, although I did take a couple of months of organ lessons during high school (after many years of piano lessons, and just before learning the little I know about pop music, chord charts and jazz improvisation). My family couldn't afford an organ of any kind, so the short-lived effort was pretty much wasted. Yet the ideas took hold in other ways, as is obvious now. It was a significant influence in my seeking out the latest of electronic music making devices, trying to find an innovative way to satisfy my need to create timbrally rich new music. For that side of music making the piano seemed rather limited. It still does, imho: timbrally monochrome, despite being a wonderful instrument in other ways.
I'd begun to draw up plans for a small electroacoustic studio of my own while I was a student of Ussachevsky's in graduate school at Columbia. At the time I thought I'd build a series of kits from either Artisan or Schober, two electronic organ kit companies very popular in the '50s and '60s. (Ah, but where have all the electronic kits gone -- or are folks just too lazy these days?) By then, you see, I'd moved on from wanting to have a real pipe organ's worth of sounds to something more open ended. But such components didn't HAVE to be wired only to reproduce facsimiles of pipe ranks. I knew enough electronics to realize I could build a kind of super-organ synthesizer prototype, and get a lot of other interesting musical sounds from it. Then I met Bob Moog, and since that was a more practical way to go, I gradually abandoned the organ kit project. If I hadn't, it is very likely that my first Switched-On albums would have given the credit to a different device on the cover. Sunnuvvagun. And now we might be speaking of Artisan this or Schober that, instead ignorantly mispronouncing, if with reverence, "the Moooog!"
For a few remaining years I did seek out the newest releases by some of the greats of the organ world: Ann Leaf, Dick Liebert, Johnny Duffy, Rosa Rio. Even before hearing Wright I had stumbled upon a track of an early stereo demonstration recording that recaptured my earliest childhood memories of going to the cavernous Loew's State theater in Providence, hearing their mighty TO during intermission: "Maurice at the Organ!" That stereo demo disk, by Emory Cook (who called it "Binaural") contained Reginald Foort's sublime sounds from the Richmond Mosque WurliTzer. Foort was a British cinema organist of impeccable taste and skill. But his performances were a bit too refined for a teen-ager (later on I valued them much more). Wright's infectious busyness caught my ear at once, so much was going on all at once. He also pioneered using early sel-sync equipment to overdub additional lines into many of his early tracks, which created a real orchestral density, and made that trick seem effortless (it's not -- overdubbing in real time is a skill that took me a long while to learn to do acceptably well -- my career is based on it).

George Wright

A couple of years after Wright left Hi-Fi Records he began playing a new smaller instrument (he's pictured at it here) on several Dot recordings. George had teamed up with Don Leslie, the inventor of the amazing Leslie rotary loudspeakers, which no electronic organ, especially a Hammond Organ, would be quite complete without. That device funnels the sound through rotating speaker horns driven by a two speed motor on a vertical shaft, so the audio swings around a full 360 degrees within the cabinet, rather like a carousel. If the rotation is slow, around 1-2 RPS, the input gains both a variation of level (tremolo) and pitch (vibrato) via the Doppler effect and changing aim point, a chorus-tone result. At fast speed, nearer 6-7 RPS, this becomes a very powerful tremulant modulation, even better than the tremulants in the best pipe organ. Both Don (who died in Sept 2004) and George (who died in May 1998) shared a keen desire to construct an ultimate theater organ. (Isn't it ironic that Leslie's speakers are tied indelibly with the Hammond, while he much preferred a real Theater Organ?) The project ended up in Leslie's Pasadena warehouse facility, where there was ample space and no fear of disturbing any neighbors!
For an excellent and very rare look behind-the-scenes of the Pasadena installation, here's a bonus new pdf file I've just made for those of you who share this interest. It's from a much in demand, hard to find (= expensive on eBay) 1964 issue of the ATOE's Bombarde magazine (the title ceased publication a couple of years later). I lucked into a modestly priced decent copy overlooked in among several other issues, and scanned and cleaned the pages to look like new. Wright speaks candidly about the instrument in this dandy interview by W. "Stu" Green, and several photos round out the description (yes, the original pix are somewhat dark and murky, but these hand retouched versions are fairly legible, if not perfect). There's also a listing of the specifications as they were at the time, one that I've noticed is posted in text form here and there on the web, including GW's own idiosyncratic comments.
Download this article to read and/or print HERE, or just click the cover image below (if you experience problems download this zip version). For those with slower net connections, be aware that the file is 2.1 megs in size, so be patient while it loads. Please note that the original February Bombarde is copyright 1964 by the ATOE, now the ATOS (American Theatre Organ Society). This venerable organization has published several definitive magazines on TO related topics for over 50 years, among other activities. You may enjoy browsing their website HERE. They've been adding online copies of quite a few interesting articles from past issues, although thus far, alas, not this one. So for the moment, as a service to fans, historians and musicians alike, I'm making this rare PDF file available.

Bombarde Interview

Wright traveled around the world in search of some of the finest examples of pipe ranks to add to the Leslie-Wright instrument. While it began from parts from several stock WurliTzers, including a much-travelled 3 manual console, these subtle new additions imparted a sublime ensemble, and many unique solo voices. Tragically, less than a decade later, the instrument was destroyed by fire (there are conflicting rumors as to the cause...), and George had to begin anew to locate suitable parts from which his famous final instrument was slowly assembled up in the Hollywood Hills. Much as I (wink-nudge) described my early '80s synthesized orchestral performances as the "LSI Philharmonic", this new organ was christened as the "Hollywood Philharmonic Organ."

The Mighty WurliTzer

Since George Wright recorded most of his earliest albums on one particularly Mighty WurliTzer, let's take a quick look at that console. The organ had first been installed in the Chicago Paradise Theater, where its console had suffered some damage. In around 1949 a Los Angeles organ enthusiast bid on the long unused instrument, and installed it in his home in LA. The console was stylishly rebuilt as you see it above, inspired by the handsome Radio City Music Hall twin consoles. It's far less glitzy than the original's roaring twenties "waterfall" style, tumbling with Baroque cherubs, abundant gold relief swirls of ivy, and even small busts of famous composers (all on one console -- yikes -- only thing missing was velvet tassels!). Wonderful kitsch! Unlike Radio City, this one had five, not four manuals, but controlling a smaller if still impressive 21 ranks of pipes (a rank is a complete set of notes all of a single timbre, be it a flute sound, string, or even a brassy trumpet; the most common church organ rank is the stately Diapason). In the early '60s Vaughn sold this instrument to Bill Brown in Phoenix, where it's been expanded to 36 ranks and kept in tip-top condition.
There are several excellent web resources that explain what every button, pedal and thingamabob (to use the technical term) does on these instruments. (An Australian TO site has a particularly fine description with diagrams, which may still be available online HERE.)

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The "First Synthesizer?"

Please tell my what this mid-20's ad suggests to you, as one musician (here it's Harry Murtaugh, one of the better Wurlitzer organ demonstrators) calls upon the resources of -- could that be a full orchestra?! Yup, it's that ever tempting carrot on a stick, a "band in a box", that launched so many of us into making music with the latest technologies. We're still not there yet, doncha know, so this image remains fanciful. Yet it is a conceit which still hath its charms and validity. In the early 21st century the electroacoustic tools are based on both sampling and complex devices that can synthesize an astonishingly broad palette of new sounds, including those based on past wholly acoustic devices. Let's not forget that they are ALL devices, no need to pretend that somehow the piano or violin are any more "natural" than the pipe organ or digital synthesizer. Just show me a clarinet tree, if you please (N.B.: pointing to an ebony tree won't get you off the hook...)!
Nevertheless it's a constant surprise to run into the prejudice of just that sort, as if somehow one's favorite older instrument is superior simply because it predates a newer technology. Given time and accumulating improvements, given creative redesign from the feedback of practicing musicians working with the new devices, the latest innovations will mature. Not every novelty will make it into "sophisticated adulthood." of course. You can bet that when it does the same hypocritical prejudice will leap out to declaim whatever next steps follow as impertinent toys, beneath the dignity of "real" musical instruments! Yeah, right.
This may be the proper time to bring up another kind of snobbery. It became a cliche that all "serious / classical" organists and organ builders looked down their long entitled noses on the theater organ. Instead of inclusion -- realizing that all aspects of music if done with skill, care, and panache will benefit and broaden a field as a whole -- the stereotype prevailed, tossing out baby with bath water. Anyone who expressed even the most natural musical curiosity over these innovative additions to the pipe organ world became at once suspect. It was certainly part fear of the unknown -- prejudice requires tacit fear and ignorance about what is derided. It's much harder to hate once you've actually met and become familiar with the persons or objects of scorn, since people and their tools have much more in common with each other than any external "issues" which divide us.
No doubt once this web page is read there will be suspicion again cast on me and my performances and compositions ("So Wendy Carlos was inspired by the theatre organ? I just knew it -- harumph!"). I've dealt with a lot of pathetic prejudice before, this will be nothing new. Narrow minds don't permit much breadth of experience or expression within a life, do they? You must follow so many arbitrary rules, obey their fences: "this is acceptable, that over there is the work of the devil." I guess a classical musician must never enjoy pop or jazz. And vice versa. Nice neat egg-compartments. May I be candid? I wish there were a good laxative for the human spirit, when it becomes so constipated and priggish about our wonderfully multifaceted human natures. C'mon, you don't agree?
In an article I've just read about one of the few remaining original WurliTzer installations, even with the TO now 99.99% forgotten, the same hypocricy continues, dutifully stomping on a grave. More than one so-called "serious" organist has asked the volunteer staff who maintain that historical treasure if they might be allowed to "try it out" late some night, and have done so with glee. Their one telling stipulation: no one else is ever to hear about it, as if a single exposure to a snob-loathed branch of ingenious organ design might be sufficient to "contaminate" a person for life. Perhaps making music in a theater is not the highest form of musical sophistication and artistry. And sure, the greatest organ works ARE for concert instruments (although excellent transcriptions of masterworks, and fine new compositions can be created for orchestral organs, too). Yet if you've lived long enough to observe the darker side of human nature, you know the damage of prejudice doesn't stop there. We can only imagine the riches that are yearly discarded by anointed fearers and haters -- people simply behaving very badly...

But let's close this page with a side of human nature that's not so depressing. While rummaging through some old papers in my parent's home a few years ago I happened upon a page I'd torn from an old magazine. It contained a photo and brief story about a then new home WurliTzer installation in Los Angeles (this organ has since been impressively re-installed in the Renaissance Theatre in Ohio). It was the brainchild of Joseph Kearns, a fine character actor with many credentials in film, radio and television. If you ever watch the Disney "Alice in Wonderland," that's Kearns's voice as the small door to Wonderland, a bit of a fuddy-duddy. He played Mr. Wilson for years on a television comedy, "Dennis the Menace." Many other credits. But before his success in Hollywood Joe Kearns had been a theater organist. With his success he was able to satisfy a life-long dream, to own his own WurliTzer. He went one better, and built an entire home just to house the organ, talk about your passion!
This was the three-manual, 18-rank instrument, Opus 2022, you can see him inside of below. It's the very instrument Lyn Larsen (one of the most notable living champs) cut his TO musical teeth on, btw. In this photo Kearns is seen tuning some pipes at the top end of the Tibia Clausa, a large wooden stopped flute that forms the most distinctive sound in the cinema organ. (Also note the brass trumpet pipes behind him.) I'll never forget hearing Johnny Duffy's performances on #2022, including some astonishing registrations which sound all the world as if a small mixed vocal group had joined him during the chorus. It's so realistic and musical -- wow -- how'd he DO that?! This small aural memory certainly is a part of the many influences which nudged me into the electroacoustic field as it was about to explode. It's funny how often the tiniest experiences have the longest lasting impact on our lives, isn't it?
(BTW postscript -- in early 2006 I learned more about how Duffy and his engineer/producer, John Neal, enjoyed adding recording studio magic to their tracks, like overdubbing (more than just organ parts), altering tape speeds and editing. They came up with the idea to blend their own humming voices into those registrations that caught my ear on "Cross Country." Indeed there was an enhanced vocal quality -- more than a "mere Vox Humana" -- i.e.: soft real human voices mixed into a rich organ blend! Sunnuvvagun... but not so amazing anymore...)

Kearns in his WurliTzer

In the 21st Century there are now other choices to obtain a decent "band in a box" aside from the huge undertaking of installing one of the remaining antique instruments, if you can find one, never mind afford it. However, we're living in an empowered time for those of us who love timbre, orchestrational richness and variety. You can own an inexpensive small synthesizer which will tap a good chunk of this field, provide you with at least as much as Kearns had in the late '50s. You can assemble 2-3 such instruments, with a bit more gear, as many of us have done, to form a pretty dern kewl home recording studio. It need not take up the serious space and financial investment that enthusiasts not so long ago needed. Add some MIDI and HD audio, notation software, sound design specialty programs, and all the rest you know about. Yeah!
In putting together "Wurly II," this newest variation on an old theme, I was able to reacquaint myself with some of the historical precedents which lead directly to our contemporary "soundtoys." Jeepers, I'd not properly credited this branch of the tree before -- shame on me! The web page you're now reading will help set that record straight. Even though a certain dismissal of the organ, the theater organ in particular, continues to be found within many enclaves of musicians, it's at the very least rather disingenuous not to acknowledge the debt we owe our predecessors. While not many of the composers and musicians among you will wish to go all the way to emulating the addictive sounds of these old electropneumatic beasts, you can have a whole world of gorgeous sound at your disposal. Use it wisely, and also with profound glee. Make the best sounds and music you can, and try to explore beyond the boundaries of rigid pop cliches (bor-ing). After all, music is a joyful, natural part of the human condition, something we ought celebrate and cherish all of our lives.

--Wendy Carlos
New York City, February 2003; updates and additions, October 2006

Text and all image scans and editing by Wendy Carlos
Original logo and WurliTzer name registered TM of Rudolph Wurlitzer & Sons.
The original Bombarde magazine pages are Copyright 1964 ATOE.
© 1998-2008 Serendip LLC. No images, text, graphics or design
may be reproduced without permission. All Rights Reserved.
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