|The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Fox|
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|
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|
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.
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.
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.