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Wurlitzer Theater Organ


I’m Mike Grandchamp, and I’m the organist at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, and the organ behind me is the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that I play. I started playing the organ when I was 14 in a roller rink and then played mostly in supper clubs and then fell in love with the Wurlitzer Theater pipe organ in the early 1970’s. The Wurlitzer has huge variety in terms of sound. It’s 25-piece orchestra, plus a rhythm section with all the percussion instruments, and it has a tremendous dynamic range, and it also has an immense amount of drama when you play. playing deep, rich, resonant tones A pipe organ is generally a classical instrument, and it’s made for playing maybe sacred music or the music of Bach, and a theater organ is really what’s called a unit orchestra, and so you have different kind of pipes that would be more orchestral in nature. All the percussion instruments and the organ was really designed to play symphonic music and pop music of the 1920’s. Mike plays ragtime; The Entertainer I think the most challenging thing for me about playing the organ is when I accompany silent films, and finding just the right music to match the action, and then rehearsing it over and over again so it fits perfectly behind the silent film. With silent films, originally it was piano accompaniment, then that increased to having an orchestra, and the motion picture theaters figured out that it was a lot cheaper to buy a Wurlitzer pipe organ than it was to hire a 25-piece orchestra. And the Wurlitzer has a glockenspiel… a high-pitched chimelike sound xylophone… a staccato percussive sound tuned sleigh bells… jingling of sleigh bells cathedral chimes… resonant chiming a marimba… a staccato percussive sound and when you put them all together, it’s a lot of fun. playing in march tempo; a rich, resonant mixture of the sounds Three years ago, the Fitzgerald Theater established an indie artists program, and the goal of that program is to get young professional musicians interested in the Wurlitzer and interested in using it in the kind of music that they play. playing jazz-rock My name is David Salmela, I’m a musician and a composer, and I’m the current artist-in-residence at the Fitzgerald Theater. I found out about this program from Tony Bol, who’s the director of the Fitzgerald Theater. It’s something that’s developed by Minnesota Public Radio to sort of bridge the audience between The Current and the public radio stations. It’s really fun to have at your fingertips a lot of things that are normally reserved for orchestra, and I love it’s organic nature. It’s just a big beast, and it kind of is the theater. It’s so big that it’s up in the ceilings, and it’s in the walls, and it’s just a big thing that feels very alive to me. I love it! It’s really whimsical. It’s so different from what I play, and the audience loves it, so I think it’s great. It’s really a kick introducing the Wurlitzer to younger musicians because they become so excited about it. It’s a huge amount of joy for me. Wurlitzer percussion plays

24 Comments

  1. 2864jp Author

    Great job Mike! We have similar backgrounds, from Hammond to pipes. But am still playing the 1947 Hammond refurbished from Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha to the new AmeriTrade Ball park. Thanks for posting. Omaha College World Series Organist.

    Reply
  2. Yaledmot Author

    Glad to hear this organ is going again. It had so much potential when it was installed 25 years ago. Good job. Keillor going to use it on APHC?

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  3. rick4946 Author

    This is so neat, I just started at 56 years old taking a dive with organs. I hope we can keep this alive and we need to promote the organs with there beauty and sounds not produced by a plastic keyboard. I am just learning to play but spend several hours each day practicing and listening to music like this on youtube. I have purchase 2 Yamaha FS500,s,Conn theater 643, Conn theater 580 w pipes, Lowrey jamboree LC20 and a Hammond M143, I have them all working like new. All at my reasle shop.

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  4. paulj0557 Author

    I always said I wouldn't be a prude about music because classical music often times seems so jaded, but given the absolutely awesome music that came from the era when the Wurlitzer was introduced I will risk being called a prude. I'm 46 years old and have written and played original music for over 30 years, but when I discovered the theater organ a few years ago, give me the 20's/30's standards ANY day. Love Jesse Crawford. A GREAT organ is a Wurlitzer 4500 straight cabinet theater organ.c-list!

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  5. Zylstra555 Author

    I'm always disappointed that the Prarie Home Companion show doesn't feature this instrument at all. I'd love to visit this instrument some day and see the theater.
    Great video!

    Reply
  6. Corbin Sturch Author

    Because most all theatre manuscripts are gone so the organist improvises. Or its memorized. Plus most theatre organist play impromptu so they dont need music. All in their head. Thats why their a different breed of organist

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  7. Happy Irishman Author

    Alex : A lot of it is Style the Organist is used to . Most Organists use the two foot Method , but some would  rather use one which I think is Theater Organ Style  , one to play with , the other to change the swell , foot buds , etc. . Its Know the Rules before You break the Rules  🙂

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  8. 2Greenhill Author

    Alex: Most theatre organ musical arrangements are improvised or created by the organist.  They may use music when practicing to establish the melody and basic harmonies of a piece but the arrangements are their own.  A good theatre organist is lauded for creative arrangements rather than meticulously following a score.  The best professional theatre organists are quite skilled at using both feet but since popular music tends to be more dynamic in volume they usually are manipulating the swell pedal more than a classical organist would.

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  9. k0rc Author

    I recall taking my parents to the Fitzgerald many years ago. I think this organ was in its final stages of reconstruction. The guest artist was Hector Olivera from Argentina. I had heard that performance was recorded but I don't think it was ever released for public sale. Hector is an amazing artist. He was playing one song on the keyboard and a different one on the pedals, something my father pointed out to me!

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  10. Bryan Leech Author

    Certainly excellent technical skill is heard here, but an absence of musical taste, unless Mike is deliberately having the tuned percussions applied very thickly throughout to let the viewer hear them. Both now and in the past, no arranger of the same music for a real band or orchestra would make such excessive use of tuned percussions – they are badly cluttering the arrangement to the point of making everything sound much the same and obscuring the melody. Listen to old recordings and you will find some of the greatest theater organists of the past used percussion stops very sparingly. None used them to the excess heard here. (And similar observations will be found apply to contemporary theater organists.) Unfortunately this bad habit appears to be getting passed on to the student (although one piece of music isn't enough to reliably judge).

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