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Installation view, Wurlitzer Style 260 theatre organ console / Photograph: Natasha Harth

A Short History of the GoMA Wurlitzer Organ

The Australian Cinémathèque facilities include a restored 1929 Wurlitzer Style 260 (Special) theatre pipe organ located in Cinema A at the Gallery of Modern Art. A history and description of this historic organ has been prepared by the Theatre Organ Society of Australia.

This mighty Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ was delivered new to Brisbane's Regent Theatre in September 1929 from the USA. It was known as a Model 260 Special with a French-style console, Opus 2040 with 3 manuals and 15 ranks of pipes. It had the special order Diaphone 32’ pipes—a deep bass rank played by the pedals. Specification included a grand piano as well as the ‘suitable bass’ Wurlitzer effect. The cost was in 1929 was £25,000—equivalent to nearly $2 million today.

Twelve of the largest Diaphones, up to 32 feet long, were housed in the theatre ceiling on a purpose-built suspended floor above the proscenium. Special modification using strengthened steel supports were needed to support the extra 4 tons of pipe work and the vibration caused during playing. The two organ pipe chambers, Solo and Main, were located up behind the royal boxes, either side of the stage. Pipe sizes range from 32 feet (9.75 m) down to about 60 mm in length.

The French style of the console was characterised by the large tombstone-shaped end pieces, capped with large carved timber ‘capitals’.  Fine ormalu timber mouldings embellished the various panels on the polished rosewood console. A double-bolster stop rail with white, red, amber and black stop keys controlled the 15 ranks of pipes, while combination pistons were set along the front rail of each keyboard. Below, the swell pedals provided volume control and toe pistons controlled the many pedal and sound effects.

Designed originally in the first decade of the last century to accompany silent films, these organs were known as Unit Orchestras, as they replicated the sounds of an orchestra but performed by one player, the organist. So within the chambers of this instrument you will find a real xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba, drums and other percussion, chimes, vibraphone (a.k.a. chrysoglott) and the many sound effects such as surf, fire alarm, train whistle, telephone bell etc. All these sounds provided a lifelike orchestral ‘soundtrack’ to the silent film.

The whole instrument is controlled by pressurised air delivered by a large Spencer ‘Orgoblo’ 15 hp electric 4-stage blower in combination with electro-magnetic contacts at the console, the relay stacks (the organ’s ‘brain’) and in the wind chests under the pipes. More than 227 kg of silver was used in the electrical contacts. Unlike traditional church or classical organs, the organist can call on different ranks and combinations to be played on any of the three manuals (keyboards) using electronic couplers and pistons.

With the coming of talkie films in 1929, most silent film musicians were made redundant. Such was the popularity of the Wurlitzers and their organists, however, that many theatre organs were retained just to entertain the audience before and between film screenings. Sing-a-longs and stage shows right into the early 1950s proved the Regent Wurlitzer’s usefulness as a crowd-puller. Even today, many people have fond memories of the Regent organ which they listened to while munching on Fantales, Jaffas or Old Gold chocolates at interval.

Around the time of 1943, the console was moved to centre stage on the orchestra hoist and painted white with gold trim. The chrysoglott and grand piano would join it on this hoist which had just been mechanised. Later, the chrysoglott was returned to its chamber and the grand piano was placed on the original organ hoist. It stayed in this configuration until its removal in late 1963, when the organ was purchased by Dr Keith King of Lawson in the Blue Mountains, NSW.

Popular organists who played the instrument included Wallace Kotter, Reubert Hayes, and Les Richmond. Stanley Wallace from the USA commissioned the organ at the theatre’s gala opening on 8 November 1929. Many organists recorded popular radio broadcasts at the Wurlitzer during the 1930 and 40s. Les Richmond is perhaps the most fondly remembered of them all, having served stints playing the Wurlitzer from 1932 until his retirement in 1963.

The Wurlitzer fell silent for several spells during its life at the Regent. The many live revues and performances often took preference over organ music, forcing residing organists to take extended breaks. During the WWll however, the Wurlitzer was never more popular and made Reubert Hayes a household name throughout Australia. His popular ‘forces sing-song’ show every Sunday evening was broadcast on 35 radio stations over Australia and the Pacific, providing soothing and morale-boosting songs for families and the forces alike. Nearly 3,000 servicemen filled the Regent for each of these Sunday night shows.

The organ was serviced by Whitehouse Bros during its time there and they kept it in playing order, providing endearing musical memories to patrons for over 30 years. The Wurlitzer was purchased by the Queensland Government, restored and is installed in the Gallery of Modern Art's Australian Cinémathèque at the South Bank. It debuted to accompany the restored 1906 Ned Kelly silent film in March, 2007 with noted theatre organist Tony Fenelon at the console. It is now used regularly for accompanying silent films with organist David Bailey.

© Information supplied by M. Gillies (Theatre Organ Society of Australia, Queensland Division Inc.)