Friday, September 04, 2015

Engangered species: The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Fox

The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Fox
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Recently I got to see a beautiful member of an endangered species in its natural habitat. This wasn't a bird or butterfly threatened by humanity's reckless trashing of the environment, though. It was, rather, a human invention threatened by technological obsolescence. I refer, of course, to the Fabulous Fox Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.

One of only five "Fox Special" theatre organs built by the Wurlitzer Company—and one of only two still in existence—this remarkable instrument was first heard when the Fox opened for business on January 31, 1929. With four manuals (keyboards to us non-organists) and 2700 pipes organized into 36 collections ("ranks" in organ lingo), the Fox organ is exceeded in sheer size only by the Radio City Music Hall Wurlitzer with its 58 ranks.

Stann Kann at the Wurlitzer
During the silent film era, the great theatre organs provided a vital soundtrack that made drama more intense and comedies more hilarious. And even after talkies took over, organ concerts were an integral part of an evening at the movies.

The Fox had a number of staff organists over the years, beginning with New York-based Betty Gould in 1929, but probably the best known of the lot (and almost certainly best loved) was the late Stan Kann, who held the position for 22 years. A classic eccentric and collector of vacuum cleaners as well as a virtuoso organist, Mr. Kann was a fixture on local and national TV, with repeated appearances on "The Tonight Show," "The Mike Douglas Show," and elsewhere. His reputation as a comic and appliance collector would eventually eclipse his reputation as an organist in the popular mind, but for fans of the Mighty Wurlitzer, he remains one of the giants in the field.

Jack Moelmann, ditto
If you've never heard one of these magnificent beasts live, I'm here to tell you it's a remarkable experience. With its many different voices and special devices like chimes, drums, a piano, a variety of percussion instruments, and sound effects, the Wurlitzer is a virtual orchestra under the control of one performer. For a complete list of all the stops, check out the Wurliter's page at the St. Louis Theatre Organ Society's web site. It's impressive.

I got to hear the organ in all its stereo glory last month at a special concert put together by veteran theatre organist Jack Moelmann. Titled "Those Were the Days," the one-time-only event featured performances by Mr. Moelmann as well as theatre organ luminaries Walt Strony and Lew Williams. The afternoon included a brief Laurel and Hardy short accompanied by Mr. Moelmann, who also played and joked his way through a collection of patriotic songs and an audience sing-along.

Walt Strony
For me, though, the best moments were provided by Mr. Strony and Mr. Williams. Mr. Strony's elaborate orchestration of "From This Moment On," for example, showed off the instrument nicely, as did his impressive performance of a suite from the Richard Rodgers/Robert Russell Bennett score for the 1954 documentary TV series "Victory at Sea." Mr. Williams had great fun with "Under the Sea" (from "The Little Mermaid") and brought a welcome classical feel to the show with performances of Jeremiah Clarke's "Prince of Denmark's March" (a.k.a. the "Trumpet Voluntary") and a virtuoso run-through of the spectacular Toccata from Widor's "Organ Symphony No. 5."

At nearly three hours, the show was a little long and a bit disorganized, but it was worth every minute to hear the Mighty Wurlitzer strut its stuff.

Lew Williams
The organ in the theatre proper, with its massive console that rises up from the basement on a dedicated elevator, is not the only Wurlitzer in the theatre. The lobby has its own smaller organ that can be heard cranking out show tunes before stage productions at the Fox. It's fun, but it can't compare with its big brother.

To find out more about the Fox Wurlitzer and other historic theatre organs, check out the American Society of Theatre Organists and its local chapter, the St. Louis Theatre Organ Society. You might even consider joining or making a contribution. Advances in sound technology may have made the great theatre organs redundant, but I would hope that we could carve out a niche for these amazing instruments.

There are enough extinction events around us already. We should try not to add to them.

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