The Orpheum Theater is home to a Wurlitzer Style 235 Special, three manual/13 rank pipe organ. Only 24 organs of this style were built; the Orpheum’s Wurlitzer is one of 15 still existing and playable. Until this month, it was kind of playable but certainly not concert-ready. There were some dead notes, some wear and tear that’s expected of an organ that was installed in the theater in 1927.
Extensive restoration work in August 2013 by Zollman Pipe Organ Services of Wichita, Kan., has returned the Orpheum’s Mighty Wurtlitzer to nearly original installation condition. The organ’s full tonal palette is available for audiences of all ages to enjoy, just as they have for the past 85 years.
Here’s the pipe organ’s history:
The pipe organ in the Orpheum Theater is a Wurlitzer Style 235 Special, three manual/13 rank pipe organ, serial number 1709 on the Meakim-Jones Wurlitzer List. The organ shipped from the Rudolf Wurlitzer Company factory in North Tonawanda, N.Y., on August 23, 1927. Installation was completed on October 9, 1927, in time for the theater’s inaugural performance on October 10. This style was later designated as “Style 240.”
The organ was designed as a “Unit Orchestra,” a style pioneered by organ innovator Robert Hope-Jones to provide appropriate musical accompaniment for silent movies. In the 1930s, organ music programs were broadcast directly from the theater over local radio stations. The organ supplemented the house orchestra of the day. Live and radio audiences thrilled to the artistry of Eddie Butler and many others.
By the 1950s, the organ fell into a period of disuse as the theater was primarily used for showing movies during that time. Lack of interest in the Orpheum’s Wurlitzer during this period may have been a blessing; the organ chambers remained closed so none of the organ was lost to vandalism. The organ also escaped the ravages of Schweitzer’s “Orgelbewegung” or Organ Movement which prompted many organ enthusiasts to modify instruments in an effort to make them sound more “authentic,” adding (and subtracting!) stops in favor of a more Baroque sound.
In February 1963, members of the Omaha Theater Organ Society, Inc. (OTOS) were given permission to bring the organ back into operational condition at their own expense. OTOS members worked from midnight to 4:00 a.m. week nights, all day Saturdays and holidays. They replaced dead magnets, soldered cold connections, rewired as needed, burnished contacts, and replaced ruptured pneumatics. The blower was disassembled and the motor reconditioned.
The theater closed in May 1971. Sadly, plaster was falling from the auditorium ceilings and the final movie was shown to an empty house. After remaining vacant for many months, Ak-Sar-Ben, local philanthropic organizations and businesses raised funds to save the Orpheum and its Wurlitzer theater organ from the wrecking ball and restore the theater to its former splendor.
In August 1973, the console was moved off-site and work began on plug-in connections. Approximately 1,000 man-hours were spent in modification of the 1,182 double cotton-covered wires, preparation of a junction board and rewiring of the console. The console is now safely stored offstage when not in use.
In January 1975, the renovated Orpheum reopened as a home for the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha and other performing arts organizations. Eddie Butler served as organist that night and continued to offer occasional Sunday afternoon organ programs throughout the 1980s.
The recent restoration has made it ready to return to the spotlight. It will take center stage once again when virtuosic composer-organist Cameron Carpenter performs at the Orpheum Theater on November 7, 2013. Carpenter smashes the stereotypes of organ music. His organ playing has the physicality of a dancer, and his live performances have all the glitz and glamour you’d expect from a pop star. Carpenter is the first organist ever to be nominated for a Grammy Award® for a solo album.