Wurlitzer Organ Trust of Auckland

Hollywood Cinema, Avondale, Auckland

New Zealand


Pops On Pipes Concert Reviews


The Hollywood Wurlitzer pipe organ



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 and running.


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 Hollywood Cinema.


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 again.


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 theatre organs.


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” presentation.


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 seated with

Les Stenersen 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 combinations.


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 installed at

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, 2006.


Piano & Organ with the USA’s Rob Richards

and Alex Zsolt, 2011


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.


Concluding this “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 Community Trust.


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!!


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