Wurlitzer Organ Trust Of Auckland

C/- The Playhouse Theatre, Glen Eden,

Auckland New Zealand


The Unit Orchestra In The “Land Of The Long White Cloud”

A Look At The Theatre Pipe Organ In New Zealand

R. Jelani Eddington[1]

(reprinted with permission of author)



      Located in the far reaches of the South Pacific Ocean some 6,500 miles southwest of Los Angeles, and 1,350 miles east of Australia, New Zealand is a country as rich in history as it is beautiful.  New Zealand, or “Aotearoa” – “The Land Of The Long White Cloud” – as the indigenous Mäori inhabitants named it, was settled beginning in 1769 by British colonists, and the territory remained a colony until it became an independent dominion in 1907.


NewZealand-map      More recently, this “Middle Earth” has become the focus of much international attention due not only to the enormous popularity of the Lord Of The Rings film series, but also to prestigious international events such as the America’s Cup yacht race that twice took place in Auckland’s beautiful harbor.  Accordingly, it seemed an appropriate time to take a look into the history of the theatre organ in this South Pacific island paradise. 


      Despite its relatively small population of under 4 million inhabitants, New Zealand has been no stranger to the world of the theatre pipe organ, for as many as seven instruments made their way from overseas organ firms to New Zealand.  Although none of the instruments presently play in their original venue, dedicated groups of theatre organ enthusiasts have steadfastly worked over the years to preserve the history, tradition, and music of these titans of the musical instrument world.


3/14 Wurlitzer, Opus 1475 – Hollywood Theatre, Avondale, Auckland


      Not surprisingly, the center of gravity of theatre organ activity in New Zealand is located in Auckland, the country’s largest city of over 1 million inhabitants.  The 3-manual 14-rank Wurlitzer that now resides in the Hollywood Theatre in Avondale (a suburb of Auckland) began its life as a 2-manual 8-rank Wurlitzer “Model F” Opus 1475.  Shipped from Wurlitzer’s North Tonawanda factory in October 1926, Opus 1475 arrived in New Zealand in December of that year and was installed in the 1,700-seat Regent Theatre on Auckland’s Queen Street – the city’s most elegant thoroughfare. 


      The installation of the instrument was not completed in time for the official opening of the theatre in December 1926, and the organ was not heard publicly until February 1927 in a dedicatory concert played by American organist Eddie Horton.  The theatre engaged Mr. Horton as house organist for the next year, followed by Australian organist Knight Barnett.  As was often the case, the advent of the “talking” pictures in the 1930s temporarily silenced the instrument, and it was very rarely heard in public.  Additionally, with the arrival of the much larger Wurlitzer Style 260 “Special” at the Civic Theatre only a few doors up the street from the Regent (see below), the novelty of the Regent Wurlitzer all but vanished.


Hollywood2MConsole-Mod      After sitting virtually unplayed and unheard for several years, the instrument was offered for sale in 1944, and the parents and pupils of Hutt Valley High School, located in a dormitory suburb of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, purchased the instrument.  The organ was installed in the school’s assembly hall where it became a feature of the music department and played for various school functions for many years.  Sadly, in 1968 a deadly tropical cyclone struck the area which, at its apex, blew apart a portion of the roof of the school hall, exposing the instrument to torrential rains and wind.  (In fact, this same storm was responsible for the sinking of an inter-island ferry, the Wahine, at the entrance to Wellington Harbor, with the tragic loss of 51 lives.)


      Due to the significant damage to the Wurlitzer, the school considered the instrument to be unplayable and sold it to Wellington businessman and organ enthusiast Lindsay Anderson who in turn sold the instrument to Auckland enthusiast Les Stenersen in 1978.  Mr. Stenersen, with the assistance of the late Mr. Jan Grefstad (owner of the Hollywood Theatre), Mr. John Parker (an organ builder from Sydney, Australia, then resident in New Zealand), the Kiwi Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, and a host of volunteers, brought the organ back to Auckland in August of that year and began the process of installing the instrument in the Hollywood Theatre.[2]


      The instrument was repaired and painstakingly rebuilt under the direction of John Parker.  Because the Hollywood Theatre was used exclusively for motion pictures, it was possible for the instrument to be installed in three chambers (Main, Solo, and Percussion) behind the movie screen.  The console was situated to the left of the proscenium on a turntable lift.  The opposite side of the proscenium houses a Wurlitzer upright piano console which was once the piano-console organ at the Cozy Theatre in Masterton (see below). 


      In addition to the original eight Model F ranks (Tuba Horn, Open Diapason, Tibia Clausa, Violin & Celeste, Clarinet, Vox Humana, and Concert Flute), four more ranks were added, including a Solo String, Tromba, and a “pseudo” Kinura and Post Horn.  Mr. Anderson retained the organ’s original toy counter and percussions before the instrument was returned to Auckland, and, accordingly, the traps from Cozy Theatre Wurlitzer were incorporated into the Hollywood organ.   Additionally, Wellington organ enthusiast Michael Woolf loaned a Glockenspiel and Xylophone from his residence installation (see discussion of the Nelson Paramount below). 


      The installation and restoration of the instrument was completed in late 1982, and November of that year saw the re-inaugural concert with Australian organists Tony Fenelon and Margaret Hall at the console.  Following this gala re-opening of the instrument, the Hollywood Wurlitzer was used very regularly and could be heard in as many as eight public concerts each year.


HollywoodConsole      In 1993, Mr. Stenerson announced his intention to sell the Wurlitzer, and with the spectre of the instrument being sold for parts overseas, a group of eight enthusiasts formed the Wurlitzer Organ Trust Of Auckland (WOTA) – a charitable trust that purchased the instrument from Mr. Stenerson and assumed responsibility for its preservation and maintenance.  Once the Trust was established, the first priority was to focus on the condition of the instrument.  Since 1984, the instrument had been a very active organ with 6-8 concerts each year and was in need of refurbishment and upgrading.


      The first phase of the renovation included locating a full set of percussions to replace those loaned by Mr. Woolf.  With the assistance of Russ Evans from Seattle, four Wurlitzer percussions (the Glockenspiel, Chrysoglott, Xylophone, and Chimes) were obtained, restored, and installed, and the units on loan were returned to Mr. Woolf.  In addition, WOTA was able to re-acquire the original toy counter and that had been retained by Mr. Anderson, and those traps were reunited with Opus 1475.  Moreover, the Kinura and Post Horn were replaced with more suitable ranks, the Solo String was replaced by a pair of Salicionals, and a Trumpet was incorporated into the instrument.  Plans are underway to install an Orchestral Oboe, which will complete the instrument at 15 ranks.


      The second phase of the restoration came with the rebuilding of the console, as the organ had literally outgrown its original two-manual console.  To this end, and again with the assistance of Russ Evans, a three-manual Style 235 Wurlitzer console was located, originally from Opus 1256 that had been shipped to Loew’s Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia.  John Parker rebuilt the console and modernized the specification. John Andrews, also of Sydney, installed an electrified combination action with seven levels of memory, plus a complete solid-state organ relay to replace the original pneumatic relay.  The organ’s original two-manual console and relay were acquired by Michael Woolf in Wellington to control his residence organ.


HwoodConsole2      In May 1998, the newly refurbished console and relay arrived in Auckland.  The premier concert series took place over the course of a three-month period between June and August of that year with organists from around the world, including Ken Double from the United States, Chris Powell, from the United Kingdom, and Margaret Hall, from Australia.


      Since that time, the Hollywood Wurlitzer has become a focal point of theatre organ activity in New Zealand, regularly welcoming numerous artists from around the world.  In fact, the Hollywood Wurlitzer is often the starting point for organists embarking on tours throughout New Zealand and Australia.

3/16 Wurlitzer Style 260 Special, Opus 2075, Southward Museum Trust, Paraparaumu (nr. Wellington)


Civic-Proscenium%20prior%20to%20restoration%201998      The largest, but last theatre organ to arrive in New Zealand was the instrument intended for the beautiful 3,500-seat Eberson-style atmospheric Civic Theatre in the heart of downtown Auckland.  Built in 1929, the Civic Theatre was heralded as the “Showcase of the Pacific,” with its lavish decoration boasting a foyer in an “Ancient Indian” style and auditorium in an “Ancient Persian” style.


      The main musical feature of the theatre was, of course, Wurlitzer’s Opus 2075, a 3-manual 16-rank Style 260 “Special” which, as it was once remarked, rose from the depths “with a roar that made the marrow dance in one’s bones.”  The organ was installed in chambers under the stage floor, and the Piano, Chimes, Xylophone and Marimba Harp were installed in small opera-style boxes on either side of the auditorium, clearly visible to theatre patrons.


      The console was mounted on a so-called “worm-drive” turntable lift that is believed to be one of the highest organ lifts in the entire world.  Resting at the foot of a large well, the console lift had to rise an entire 20 feet before coming into view of the patrons.  The spiral then ascended another 17 feet before the audience in the seats of the Grand Mezzanine could see the organist, who then entertained theatre patrons from a dizzying height of 37 feet!


Civic%20Lift%20with%20Penn%20Hughes      Unfortunately, only one professional recording was ever made on this organ during its tenure at the Civic Theatre—a 78-rpm album recorded in 1951 by then house organist Denis Palmistra.  In the late 1960s, the company that owned the Civic Theatre decided that the Wintergarden Ballroom that formed the Civic’s lower floor area was to be turned into a small cinema, and the Wurlitzer was viewed as being in the way of this “progress.”  Sadly, in March 1968, house organist at the time Ron Boyce played the console into the pit during a farewell concert with the Mäori love song, Pakarekareana.  Shortly thereafter, the instrument was offered for sale, and a deal was struck with Australian interests.  Complications arose, however, relating to the deadline for the instrument’s removal, so the organ was once again on the market.  Ultimately, the instrument was purchased by Sir Len Southward – a Wellington-based entrepreneur and collector of antique cars.  Due to the theatre’s schedule, it was of the utmost importance that the Wurlitzer be removed by the end of February 1969.


      In late February 1969, and right on schedule, the instrument was removed and shipped to Sir Len’s factory in Lower Hutt just outside of Wellington.  Following extensive restoration over the next ten years, the instrument was installed in a small theatre adjacent to the main showroom of the Southward Museum Trust—a museum that boasts a magnificent display of vintage automobiles, traction engines, and mechanical instruments.  The Wurlitzer opened in 1983, with chambers installed on either side of the auditorium, and with the console on yet another turntable lift (although not reaching quite the altitude that it did in the Civic Theatre).


SouthwardsStage      Since that time, like its counterpart at the Hollywood Theatre in Auckland, the Southward Wurlitzer has been played by many touring artists from around the world.  In fact, the Southward Museum Trust now works closely with the Wurlitzer Organ Trust of Auckland, as well as the Tauranga Theatre Organ Society, to arrange concert tours by visiting artists.  The New Zealand theatre organ world was saddened to learn in early 2004 that Sir Len had passed away at the age of 98.  Nevertheless, all look forward to the continuing legacy and vision of the theatre pipe organ that Sir Len engendered.





2/10 Wurlitzer Model H Opus 1482, Baycourt Theatre, Tauranga


DeLuxe%20Interior      Just one week after the Regent Theatre Wurlitzer had been shipped from the factory in North Tonowanda, Wurlitzer’s slightly larger 2-manual 10-rank Model H Opus 1482 left the United States bound for New Zealand, albeit this time for the capital city of Wellington and the De Luxe Theatre situated at the end of Courtney Place (a beautiful large shopping and café district in the city center).  The organ made its debut in 1927 with Sydney organist Emanual (“Manny”) Aarons and quickly became a beloved feature of the theatre.  The De Luxe Theatre (renamed the Embassy Theatre in the early 1950s) sponsored several radio variety shows using the organ, various soloists, and quartets, and a number of 78-rpm discs of this instrument were recorded. 


      Organists, both local and international, appeared at this instrument, often performing as part of a circuit with other instruments located throughout New Zealand and Australia.  In 1959, however, the Wurlitzer at the Embassy Theatre played its last notes and was sold to Mr. Eddie Aikin, a theatre organ enthusiast who installed the instrument first in a former honey-packing shed south of Tokoroa, and later in the school hall of Tokoroa High School.  Ultimately, ill health forced Mr. Aikin to sell the organ to the Tauranga 20,000 Club.  This organization, formed specifically to purchase the organ, donated the instrument to the City of Tauranga—located on the beautiful Bay of Plenty on New Zealand’s northeast shore.  With the support of the Tauranga City Council, the society installed the instrument in the Tauranga Town Hall in 1972.  The Wurlitzer was once again featured as a concert instrument for many local and overseas artists until it was announced in 1986 that the Town Hall would be demolished. 


      The Tauranga City Council suggested that the organ could be relocated in the newly-constructed Baycourt Entertainment Centre—a beautiful performing arts facility located behind the Town Hall.  The Tauranga Theatre Organ Society (formerly the Tauranga 20,000 Club) accepted the Council’s offer.  By the middle of 1987, the arduous task of dismantling and re-installing the instrument began, and by late 1988, Opus 1482 was playing once again.  Dennis James traveled from the United States to present the premier concert of the instrument in December 1988.  Since that time, with the co-ordination of James Duncan and the Wurlitzer Organ Trust Of Auckland, the Tauranga Theatre Organ Society has often participated as part of a three-venue circuit for visiting concert organists.


2004_0415Image0007      As might be expected, and like its counterpart at the Hollywood Theatre, due to the heavy use that this instrument received over the years, the organ was in need of refurbishment and repair.  As such, in 2001 the Tauranga Theatre Organ Society embarked on an ambitious program under the direction of John Parker and Melbourne organist Scott Harrison to improve the playing condition of the instrument.  Wind pressures were reset, and rewinding done to improve tremulant performance. Over a period of three years, the five reed ranks were shipped to John Parker’s Sydney shop for cleaning, repairs and revoicing. Work is ongoing, and will see the extension of the Tibia at 2 2/3’ and 2’ pitches. Provision has also been made for the addition of a Trumpet.


      With the organ now sounding possibly its best ever, the instrument has been drawing record audiences to concerts and is proving a worthy asset, both to the Baycourt Entertainment Centre and to the city of Tauranga.


2/10 Christie Model 2714 – Empire Theatre, Dunedin


2M%20Christie%20Console      The 2-manual 10-rank Christie Model 2714 was the only instrument built by the English firm Christie (a division of Hill, Norman & Beard) that made its way to New Zealand.  It is also one of the few instruments to find its way to the South Island.  The instrument was shipped from London to Dunedin and was installed in the Empire Theatre in 1929, and the instrument was opened by organist Leslie V. Harvey.  Unfortunately, very little has been documented about the instrument in its original home.


      In 1952, Australian organist Penn Hughes purchased the instrument and installed the console and some of the pipework in his residence in Bexley, Sydney.  When Mr. Hughes decided to enlarge the instrument to four manuals, this two-manual console became redundant, and was acquired by the Queensland Division of the Theatre Organ Society of Australia (TOSA).  TOSA enlarged the console to accommodate a third manual, and installed the modified console to control the Christie organ at Kelvin Grove State College in Brisbane, Australia.  Mr. Hughes ultimately sold the pipework to the South Australian division of TOSA, and today three ranks from this instrument (the Salicional, Violone, and Vox Humana), can be heard in the 4/29 mostly Wurlitzer at the Capri Theatre in Adelaide, South Australia.


2/4 Style 135B Wurlitzer Piano-Console Organ – Cozy Theatre, Masterton


CozyPhotoplayer-Mod      In addition to the larger instruments discussed above, there were two Wurlitzer piano-console organs and one photoplayer shipped to New Zealand, although little has been documented about these instruments.  The 2-manual 4-rank Style 135B piano-console organ was installed at the Cozy Theatre in the small town of Masterton (northeast of Wellington) in 1927 and was the fourth Wurlitzer to be imported into New Zealand.  Some reports suggest that this instrument was the last unit to be supplied from the Wurlitzer factory with a piano console.


      The instrument, originally equipped with a roll playing mechanism which operated the pipes and the piano, was used in Masterton until the late 1930s when it was removed and purchased by Mr. John Holden who installed it in his residence in Hastings in approximately 1940.  Following Mr. Holden’s death, the organ moved to Wellington where it was later acquired by local theatre organ enthusiast Lindsay Anderson, who ultimately sold the instrument to Les Stenerson in 1977.


      In 1978, this instrument was moved from Wellington to Auckland, and the piano console was installed at the Hollywood Theatre in Avondale opposite the Wurlitzer.  Because the instrument would be used only as a remote piano, it was decided not to use the second partial manual.  Presently, only the piano action remains and can be played either manually or from the Hollywood Wurlitzer console.






2/6 Wurlitzer Style 160 Special, Piano-Console Organ, Opus 1748 – New Paramount Theatre, Nelson


SOUTH11      Another piano-console instrument that made its way onto New Zealand’s shores was Wurlitzer’s Opus 1748 – this one a 2-manual 6-rank instrument installed in the South Island city of Nelson.[3]  This instrument was premiered on May 16, 1928 by organist G. Paulsen.   An excerpt of the souvenir program from that performance proclaims:


This wonderful instrument is the first to be installed in the South Island.


The instrument has two manuals or key boards and also a pedal board.  There are a large number of orchestral stops representing the following instruments: Flute, violin, cellos, horns, vox humana, mirimba [sic], xylophone, orchestral bells, cathedral chimes, piano mandolin, snaer [sic] drum, tom-tom, castanets, tambourine, timpani [sic], bass drum, cymbals, crash cymbals, triangle.  There is also an assortment of picture effects contained in the organ.


Nelson1-ModIt would be impossible to demonstrate its capabilities and ever changing combinations without having heard some of the many tunes.


            Unfortunately, little is known about this instrument in its original home.  By all reports, however, somewhere around 1933, the instrument was moved to the Paramount Theatre, Wellington, which was certainly for the best, as the Nelson Paramount burned to the ground in a tragic fire in 1939.


            The instrument survived at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington for only a few years, and in March of 1938 the instrument was sold to the All Saints Church in Kilbirnie (a Wellington suburb), where it remained until the mid 1980s, when it was purchased by Mr. Michael Woolf for use as his residence organ.



2/3 Wurlitzer Photoplayer, The Strand Theatre, Auckland


            In around 1916, the first Wurlitzer to find its way to New Zealand – a Wurlitzer photoplayer – was installed in the Strand Theatre in Auckland’s Queen Street.  By all accounts, this instrument was a self-contained “pit organ” with a roll player mechanism built within the piano-style console.  It is believed that the instrument was removed during renovations to the theatre in around 1944 and then stored at the Rialto Theatre in Newmarket (a suburb of Auckland).             


            Some years later, an Auckland organ enthusiast, the late Ralph Sewell, acquired the instrument and relocated it to Milford—a suburb on Auckland’s north shore—where the instrument played for family and friends for many years.  Mr. Sewell relocated several times and faithfully brought the Wurlitzer with him.  The instrument’s last home was on Waiheke Island, a beautiful resort island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf.  Whittaker’s Musical Museum—an extensive collection of musical instruments—now has possession of the former Strand Wurlitzer where it is in storage awaiting restoration.


Where Are We Today?


            While much international attention has been focused on activity in the United Kingdom and Australia, New Zealand’s theatre organ tradition has been no less rich, even if on a smaller scale.  Today in 2004, although none of the instruments discussed in this article are currently playing in their original home, the presence and history of theatre organs in New Zealand is still very much alive and thriving.  Three venues in particular – The Hollywood Theatre (Auckland), The Baycourt Theatre (Tauranga), and Southwards Museum Trust (Wellington) – continue to serve as springboards for the music and art of the theatre organ to reach audiences throughout New Zealand and beyond. 


New Zealand Theatre Organs “At A Glance”


Original Instrument

Original Venue

Current Venue


2/8 Model F Wurlitzer Op. 1475

Regent Theatre, Auckland

Hollywood Theatre, Auckland

Now 3/14 Wurlitzer, with plans to add an Orchestral Oboe. Original console and relay in Woolf Residence, Wellington.

3/16 Style 260SP Wurlitzer Op. 2075

Civic Theatre, Auckland

Southward  Museum Trust, Wellington


2/10 Model H Wurlitzer Op. 1482

De Luxe (Embassy) Theatre, Wellington

Baycourt Theatre, Tauranga

Plans underway to add a Trumpet

2/10 Christie Model 2714

Empire Theatre, Dunedin

Three ranks playing at Capri Theatre, Adelaide, Australia; Parts of console at Kelvin Grove State College, Brisbane, Australia


2/4 Style 135B Wurlitzer Piano-Console Organ

Cozy Theatre, Masterton

Hollywood Theatre, Auckland

Only piano action remains and plays manually or from Hollywood Wurlitzer console.

2/6 Style 160SP Wurlitzer Piano-Console Organ, Op. 1748

New Paramount Theatre, Nelson

Woolf Residence, Wellington

Restoration ongoing

2/3 Wurlitzer Photoplayer

Strand Theatre, Auckland

Whittaker’s Musical Museum, Waiheke Island, Auckland

In storage awaiting restoration


** Special thanks to the Wurlitzer Organ Trust of Auckland, James Duncan, John Parker, Mat Matthew, Scott Harrison, and Norm Freeman for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article.


[1] Jelani Eddington has completed four theatre organ concert tours in New Zealand in 1996, 1997, 2003, and 2004, and worked for an Auckland not-for-profit law firm in June-August 1997.

[2] For an account of the return of the Regent Wurlitzer from Wellington to Auckland, see Dawe, Norman “A Kiwi Wurlitzer In Flight.” Theatre Organ Dec. 1978-Jan. 1979: 23-25.

[3] The Wurlitzer tag on the main cable indicates that this instrument was intended for the Cozy Theatre in Palmerston North.  Wurlitzer records also show “Palmeston” [sic] in many files.  However, the New Paramount in Nelson appears to be the instrument’s first port of call.

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