Organ Lovers! Help bring the mighty Wurlitzer Organ back to the Oroville State Theatre in time for the 90th anniversary celebration of the Oroville State Theatre—April 7, 2018.
From now until September 30th, your donation will be matched with a 10% gift from Bonnie Huntington! Learn more about Bonnie’s Blessing »
Back in the days of the Stutz Bearcat, celluloid collars, bathtub gin, and Calvin Coolidge; the movies had not yet learned to talk; music was the sole voice of film. In 1927, while the Oroville State Theatre was under construction, an amazing event occurred which would forever change the face of American theatre and the future of the theatre pipe organ. In a film called “The Jazz Singer,” Al Jolson spoke and sang! Soon, theaters from coast to coast were being wired for sound. The handwriting was on the wall. Theater organs would rapidly become a thing of the past, and it was happening just as the doors of the Oroville State Theatre were opening on April 7th, 1928.
The Oroville State Theatre was designed to house a Wurlitzer Theater Organ with two high-up chambers for the organ pipes. Sadly, today only a few of these magnificent instruments survive. T & D. Jr. Enterprises, the theater’s operator, realizing what “talking pictures” would mean to the future of the movie business made the last minute cost saving decision to install a smaller model D Wurlitzer organ which only needed one Chamber. The other chamber was left incomplete and unfinished.
That was probably a good decision because the organ was used so infrequently that in 1954 the entire organ was removed. Sometime in the 1970’s what had originally been called a “Movie Palace” was sold to United Artists who modified the building into twin movie theaters. Then in 2006, as part of the entire Theatre restoration, plans to reinstall a Mighty Wurlitzer organ and complete the construction of the second organ pipe chamber, that T & D. Jr. Enterprises scraped eighty some years ago, began. So now, approaching its ninetieth birthday, the State theatre is nearing the moment when a Mighty Wurlitzer, in all its magnificent glory, will again be heard with one major difference, because the new organ will be as large and imposing as was originally intended.
The story of our theatre organ is, in a real sense, the story of the movie palace which housed it; and its existence may be solely attributed to the fact that the movies of the time were silent. The silent movie and the versatile organ were companions of necessity and the lavish theaters containing these companions created a glorious and welcoming atmosphere of escape from everyday life and it’s cares. Of course, the organ could also be used for live on-stage singing and dancing acts.
Bringing a theatre pipe organ back to Oroville started with an offer by the Mt. Shasta Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) to donate an organ to be installed in the State Theatre. An agreement between the Oroville City Council, STAGE and the Mt. Shasta Chapter of ATOS was signed. Next an agreement to donate an organ was created between STAGE, Mt Shasta ATOS and the Sierra Chapter ATOS. On June 18, 2011 the Sierra Chapter Board of Directors voted unanimously to donate the organ to State Theater Arts Guild for installation in the Oroville State Theatre.
As completely original organs are quite rare, this Wurlitzer was assembled with parts from many organs. The core of this organ is the organ from the home of the famous Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeMille. A three-manual Wurlitzer console from Opus 846, a Style 235 Special, originally installed in Lowe’s State Theatre St. Louis was donated to replace the smaller DeMille organ console. Dave Moreno, Sacramento’s resident theatre pipe organ builder and technician, will be employed to design and manage the organ installation with the help of several STAGE volunteers.
What made the theatre organ different from the kind of organ found in churches and concert halls was the very different job it had to perform. First and foremost, the theatre organ had to accompany the silent film, providing appropriate sound effects as well as background music. It had to permit stylish performance of the popular music of the day. In other words, it had to successfully imitate the dance band. It also had to perform the more traditional role of the organ at that time, namely the accompaniment of group singing and the performance of orchestral transcriptions.
Many of the innovations, which furthered the evolution of theatre organ design, simply allowed it to do its job better. Robert Hope-Jones was the first person to successfully employ and combine many of these innovations within a single organ aesthetic. Hope-Jones is considered to be the inventor of the theatre organ in the early 20th century. He thought that a pipe organ should be able to imitate the instruments of an orchestra, and that the console should be detachable from the organ.
The Oroville State Theatre Wurlitzer has three levels of keyboards on the console 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 pipes, which David Dewey, Theatre Organ Society and STAGE member, describes as sounding as “basically a bunch of angry bees.” In addition to pipes, the organ contains complete percussion instruments like a Marimba, Glockenspiel and even tuned sleigh bells, all played by the keyboards. Silent films also required sound effects like a doorbell, train whistles, horses’ hooves, tomtoms, cymbals, and taxi-cab horns. 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.”
The American Theatre Organ Society, with dozens of local chapters and thousands of members worldwide, remains dedicated to the preservation of these wonderful old instruments. Theatre organ organizations are also active both in Britain and Australia.