Wurlitzer Organ Trust of Auckland
Hollywood Cinema, Avondale, Auckland
Pops On Pipes Concert Reviews
The Hollywood Wurlitzer pipe organ
30 YEARS in the LIFE of the HOLLYWOOD WURLITZER
November 1982 – November 2012
James Duncan – Wurlitzer
Organ Trust of Auckland
Review from “Pipes & Percussion” – Newsletter for
the “Friends of the Wurlitzer”.
On Saturday November 6th 1982, Melbourne
organist Tony Fenelon rose up on the organ console at the Hollywood Cinema, heralding
the return to Auckland of “live” theatre pipe organ entertainment. Not since
the days of Auckland’s Civic Theatre, in the 1960s, had Aucklanders thrilled to
the sound and feeling of a mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ in full-cry! As regards the organ at the Hollywood Cinema,
we would have had to go back to its original home in Auckland’s Regent Theatre
to have heard it here last.
OPUS 1475 as it was
identified at the Wurlitzer Company factory in North Tonawanda, New York, was
a Model F instrument consisting of a 2 manual console with eight ranks of
pipes. It was shipped from the factory on October 15 1926, bound for the
Regent Theatre in Queen St Auckland. The Regent stood right opposite Smith
& Caughey’s department store, opened in 1926
and demolished in 1971. Older
Aucklanders don’t remember the Regent ever having an organ, as it left the
theatre quite early on.
Being the first of the
larger Wurlitzer organs to come to New Zealand, the Regent organ replaced the
Regent orchestra accompanying the silent films. However in the USA in 1927, Al Jolson leapt
on to the screen and audiences actually HEARD him sing Mammy and with that, thousands of theatre organists all over the
world faced the certain truth that their days were numbered. Theatres hurried to convert over to the new
sound technology for the “talkies” and for most; it silenced their mighty
Wurlitzer’s, Barton’s, Robert Morton’s, Comptons
and Christies to name some of the many brands who emulated the Wurlitzer
product. Most theatre organists then found themselves unemployed.
Some cinemas, such as
Auckland’s Civic Theatre, continued to present their organ as part of the
package on offer to their patrons, but many more like Auckland’s Regent
Theatre, ceased use of the Wurlitzer as soon as the sound technology was up
So after years of disuse,
the Regent Wurlitzer was sold in 1944 to the Hutt Valley High School just out
of Wellington, to be installed in their school hall.
It was not until the late
1970s that the organ returned to Auckland, originally for Auckland’s Museum
of Transport & Technology (MOTAT), but following a raft of issues, a home
was found at the Hollywood Cinema in the Auckland suburb of Avondale, thanks
to the late Mr Jan Greftstad, owner/manager of the
It took almost three
years of construction to build the organ chambers and install the organ at
the Hollywood, on the stage, right behind the motion picture screen. Which then brings us to that magnificent November 6 day when the
ex-Auckland Regent Theatre Wurlitzer filled her lungs and began to sing once
1993 saw the formation of
the Wurlitzer Organ Trust of Auckland
following the news that the then owner of the instrument, Mr Les Stenersen, was planning to sell the organ. Once
registered, the Trust embarked on some heavy fundraising and in 1995 was able
to pay the balance owed on the instrument, in full! This aided by a fantastic
grant from the ASB Community Trust.
Soon after this, it was
resolved that the instrument was facing a choice that would dictate its
future success or no – whether to leave it “as is” a historic “original” 2/8
Model F Wurlitzer, OR….…give it a dose of botox to
bring it more into line with what was being expected of it today.
When one looks at the
work the instrument does today, we are asking it to do something it was never
designed to do and that is to be “in the spotlight” for two hours! Theatre organs were never designed to be
the centre of attention; their consoles were usually installed on lifting
platforms centre stage that, once the silent movie was about to begin, would
take the console down below the screen so the audience had an unobstructed
view of the screen and could watch the movie.
The organist, now out of sight in the darkness, was able to look up at
the screen and follow the photo play, thus bringing the silent screen to life
with the power of music and the raft of special effects carried by all good
Today we ask these same
instruments to hold an audience‘s attention for two solid hours, which in the
case of the now “Hollywood Wurlitzer”, meant just eight basic ranks of pipes
or voices with which a musician could work with – like a small eight piece
band. Certainly, very limited tonal resource for a 2 hour solo “concert”
So the Trust, on taking
advice from some of the artists who had appeared at the Hollywood over the
years, put together a new specification for the organ, taking the “heart” of
the Regent Wurlitzer, and adding more orchestral voices that would give more variety
of tone. Ranks such as the Orchestral Oboe, Trumpet, some more string tones, to name some of the voices, plus
the piercing Post Horn,
representing the brass front line of the orchestra. Included too were a myriad of further
percussion instruments to enhance the kitchenware already on the organ
Of course these additions
would require additional stop tabs, for which there was simply no more room
on the original 2 manual console, so together with raising funds for the
additions to the pipe work etc, funds were sought
for a 3 manual console. The Trust was
thrilled when a suitable console was located in the USA by Russ Evans of
Seattle. This was of the same design and casework as the original Regent
console, but of course had the desired 3rd keyboard. This console was built by Wurlitzer in
February 1926 for OPUS1256 (Loews Norfolk, Virginia) so was very much in
keeping with the era of the Regent Wurlitzer.
The UK’s Robert Wolfe
at the original ex-Regent Theatre 2 manual console - 1989
Some of the new ranks of
pipes that have been added including the Orchestral Oboe and the Trumpet.
(Photo – Mat Mathew)
The console was sent to
John Parker, organ builders in Sydney, for restoration and redesign of the
stop layout to match the new specification of the Hollywood Wurlitzer.
Meantime Russ Evans had
also sourced the additional ranks of pipes the Trust was seeking and these
were packed and shipped to Auckland and installed in the chambers.
Of course the original
pneumatic/electric relay and switchstack (the
“brains” of the organ rather like an old telephone exchange) would require
huge modification to accommodate a third manual and additional stop tabs, so
The Trust decided to go solid-state and engaged John Andrews of Sydney to
manufacture both the all-electric combination system for the new console and
a relay. John already had two very successful theatre organ installations
using his system hence the Trust engaging his services.
Today the organ has a
total of 16 ranks which gives an artist unlimited possibilities for sound
1998 saw the “new-look”
Hollywood Wurlitzer show itself to the Auckland public with Chris Powell,
from the UK, debuting the organ and making great use
of the three manuals during his keyboard-to-keyboard waterfalling! All marvelled at the now thrilling sound
coming forth from the Hollywood chambers.
With the organ now in a
far more “concert-worthy” condition, the Trust looked inward at itself and
what the future held in the coming years.
The generation who remember these organs from the theatre days and
knew of the huge variety of music that could be enjoyed on them, were sadly
dwindling in numbers.
The new 3 manual console
the Hollywood Cinema. (Photo
- Bill Ridge)
Today we have a whole generation of people who can
only associate the “organ” with church, weddings and funerals – certainly not
an instrument they would ever associate with the word “fun”. In fact, asking them to attend an “organ
concert” would be, to them, like extracting teeth without anaesthetic!! So the Trust resolved to change its branding
of the product, to now promote what we do, as a “SHOW”, in the best sense of the
word. In fact today, it is interesting to note around the world, there are
still theatre organ venues that put on “organ concerts” and wonder why they
only see audiences of 50 or 60!!
So acknowledging that the old “two hour organ concert”
was dead and finished, the Trust then faced up as to how to entice this new
“virgin theatre organ” generation into the Hollywood to enjoy our “shows”. They sure wouldn’t come to hear the organ on
its own, so we began incorporating other musical mediums into the shows, such
as organ & band, organ & piano, organ & vocalist etc. We also began
to include TWO silent movie shows each year in the mix, which pulls in a
completely different crowd altogether. To our great thrill, new faces and
younger ones too, began to check out the shows and better still, joined our
mailing list, the Friends of the
Wurlitzer and returned to enjoy other shows!
Local organist Denis McCombe was at the console for our very first show that
featured the Wurlitzer alongside a band – the Auckland based 1932 Jazz
Orchestra, see here in 1999.
A tribute to “Stage and
Screen” with John Atwell from Melbourne and Auckland vocalist, Greg Ward,
Piano & Organ with the USA’s
and Alex Zsolt,
Despite the fact that in most cases the Trust barely
broke even on some of these events, it was proving to be the best thing we ever
did and now we continually look at ways of keeping the shows fresh and
exciting, with each show different to the one previous – this has made the
option of Season Tickets incredibly
viable, as EVERY show is different and there are a growing number who enjoy
attending EVERY show now each year!!
November 2012 and the
USA’s Dave Wickerham is “larger than life” on
the big screen, thanks to
the video projection plant.
Going back to the point
made regarding placing the organ in the spotlight for two hours, the use of
video technology was another great enhancement for the shows at the
Hollywood. If you look at the presentation of a stage musical or show,
imagine the reaction if they
performed with their backs to the audience for the entire show? So it is a big ask
of a theatre organ audience to endure two hours of looking at the back of the
sole performer of the program! Added
to this, is the fact that today’s generation are spoilt with both visual as
well as audio stimulation for their enjoyment of music – a fact that needs to
be addressed if they are to attend theatre organ shows.
As Mark Matheson, today’s
owner/manager of the Hollywood Cinema, has a state of the art video
projection plant, it made good sense for the Trust to utilise this for our
shows. So today, EVERY seat at the
Hollywood is a good one, as the video image on the big screen is captured by
a camera that zooms in over the artist’s shoulder, giving the audience the
feeling of standing right beside the console, and they are able to see
close-up just how the performer makes such great music on the Wurlitzer.
“glance-back” at the journey the organ has travelled over these last 30
years, it is thrilling to say that overall, it is a success story. Audience numbers continually top the 220
mark and our most recent silent movie show, saw just over 300 enjoy Buster
Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr, brought
to life by our own Ron Clark at the Hollywood Wurlitzer pipe organ. Proving that even today, 30 years on, the
Hollywood Wurlitzer is still an integral part of the Auckland music scene!
So this success story is the effort of a great many
good people, and some “thank-you’s” to the key names
are very appropriate.
Ø To our Friends
of the Wurlitzer who form the backbone of our audiences, for your continued
and loyal support of the shows, keeping the Trust on its toes in finding new
and exciting ways to feature the organ.
Ø Dave Wickerham our
next artist and the many artists from the UK, USA, Australia and here in
Auckland too, who bring so much pleasure with their music, shared with us
during our Pops on Pipes season each year.
Ø Mark Matheson owner/manager of the Hollywood Cinema who continues
to provide a home for our Wurlitzer organ. Mark, on a humble budget, has taken
the Hollywood to new heights with state-of-the-art sound and projection plant,
new seating, heat pump system for summer & winter, all helping to make the
cinema a great place to come along and enjoy the Wurlitzer shows and of course
the movies screened weekly, as this is a working cinema.
Ø Ken Aplin who continues to
make the long journey from Te Kuiti to Auckland, a journey of some 3+ hours
by car, to tune the organ’s 1000+ pipes before every show.
Ø Mat Mathew (assisted by WOTA Trustee John Kleingeld and Mark Maloney) who, despite the growing years and some health
issues, continues to keep the Hollywood Wurlitzer in tip-top condition for the
benefit of our audience and the artists who come to make music on it. This can be borne out with the recent visit
of Jonas Nordwall, one of the USA’s leading exponents
of the theatre organ art form. Jonas
actually commenced his “Down Under” NZ and Australia tour here in Auckland and
on arrival in Australia was full of praise for the Hollywood instrument. In
fact he stated it as, and I quote him, “a
kick-arse organ!!” If you are unfamiliar with this phrase, it is very much
a compliment. For as Jonas noted, it had
the power for a big and full sound when he needed it and yet could also deliver
soft subtle and sweet sounds in direct contrast – everything worked and the
organ did all he asked of it – a kick-arse organ indeed!!
Ø One must not forget also, the many organisations that
have believed in the Trust’s work and provided funding for both the organ
refurbishment and more recently the presentation of our shows each year, with
regular grants towards some of the costs involved. Groups such as the local
Community Board, The Trusts Community Foundation, Lion Foundation and the ASB
Here’s to the continued good fortune of
this mighty pipe organ – and look out when we reach 50 years at the Hollywood -
now that will be a party to remember!!