Orpheum’s 90-year-old organ to be restored to former glory

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Orpheum's 90-year-old Mighty Wurlitzer organ was disassembled Thursday to be restored to its former glory by a company in Chicago.

The organ is being restored in connection with the Orpheum's 90th birthday. The restoration will take 16 months according to Jeff Weiler, the president of Chicago-based pipe restoration company JL Weiler inc.

"This is one of the most iconic musical instruments in the United States, and now in celebration of its 90th birthday it is being completely restored," Weiler said.

Weiler wants people to know that they won't be taking anything away from the iconic instrument.

"We're not erasing the history, we are celebrating the history, we're preserving the history," he said.

A bit of history

Between 1914 and 1942 the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company built 2,234 theater organs.

Theater organs differ from concert and church organs because they were built "to be the voice of the silent film."

"They're great vehicles for playing popular music of that period when this building was new," Weiler said.

Brett Batterson, president and CEO of the Orpheum Theater group, said that the organ has been at the Orpheum since the theater opened in 1928.

"It really was as important as any of the beautiful architecture, as important as the acoustics, it was just vital to the theater," Batterson said.

Over time the organ became less important to film but is still important to the legacy that Batterson believes is meant to be cherished.

"We've had it for 90 years, it's been played at our summer movie series for the last ump-teen years and now its time to repair it so it can last another 90 years," Batterson said.

Road to restoration

The organ weighs 23,000 pounds. Its console, the part many Orpheum patrons are familiar with, sits next to the orchestra pit.

The organ proper is split between two organ lofts on either side of the proscenium up high behind the draped arches.

Weiler said that the restoration process is fairly labor intensive, but that when the instrument was created it was made so restoration could be done easily.

Batterson said the total restoration will cost $500,000. He said the money came from the Orpheum, a lead gift from the Plough Foundation, and from donations from the public during the movie and Broadway seasons.

Once the Wurlitzer returns, Batterson said the theater will be working on some dedicated organ recitals and create a program that will teach young people to learn to play the specialized organ.

"The number of people who can play an organ like this is shrinking and with a fully restored organ we have the opportunity to help young people learn the skill and the craft of playing this beautiful organ," Batterson said.

They plan to recruit young organists from the local community.