The Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation is pleased to announce that we are in the final stages of restoring a “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ” for use in the theater. This spring, the organ was brought into the space and is partially operational. As of this summer, about 30% of the pipe are installed.
As such, the Foundation has been tasked with raising funds to cover the expense of fully restoring, maintaining and providing a variety of public events that highlight the Organ. The Foundation is thankful to have already received the donation of this Wurlitzer Organ from Dr. Malin Dollinger. Additionally, $17,500 grant from Southwest Foundation for Education and Historic Preservation and a $10,000 grant from the March and Ampel Family Fund. The additional expense of installation—estimated to total $150,000 or more—will need to be covered by tax-deductible donations to the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation.
The restoration process involves carefully disassembling and inspecting parts to then clean, adjust, repair and or replace them (with vintage or reproduction pieces). According to Grahame Davis, President of Pipe Organ Artisans, “the console will be updated with a contemporary, solid-state control system resulting in a modern, user-friendly and reliable instrument that will be capable of digital recording and playback.”
In the words of Fox Board Member, and Organ Task Force Chair, Andy McWhirter, “Those familiar with a Wurlitzer Theatre Organ’s range of sound and the ‘near perfect’ acoustics of the Fox Tucson Theatre are giddy with anticipation as we all wait for that first organist to sit down and perform on our Fox Tucson Theatre Mighty Wurlitzer! “
When the Fox Tucson Theatre opened on April 11, 1930, an integral element of this and nearly every other ‘Movie Palace’ built in that era was the theater pipe organ. Invented by Robert Hope-Jones and originally named the Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra, this instrument was different from a church organ in that the modifications and electrified switch system permitted any combination of pipes and effects to be played at once. For the newly popular silent movies, one musician could create the sounds of a full orchestra, and a multitude of sound effects such as birds, pistol shots, a moving train, whistles, horse hooves, rain, and thunder. Hope-Jones collaborated with the successful organ producer Rudolph Wurlitzer to manufacture the Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra later dubbed The Mighty Wurlitzer. Unfortunately, in the 1950’s the Fox Tucson Theatre’s original ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’ was sold for parts. However, in 2002 good fortune found its way back to the Fox in the form of Dr. Malin Dollinger. Midway through the Fox Theatre restoration, Dollinger generously donated his meticulously cared for, 1922 four-manual, 27 rank Wurlitzer organ, to the Foundation.
Theater organs were and still are, considered technological marvels. There is the console, pipes, thousands of moving parts, miles of electric wiring, and an enormous amount of pressurized air paths. At the Fox Tucson Theatre, the pipe chambers (3000 pipes) are behind the walls on both sides of the stage. Dollinger’s donated organ console–the part of the organ where the organist sits and plays the keyboard, stops, and peddles–will be positioned on an under-stage hydraulic lift (built in 2005 during the theater restoration). The organ is being restored by renowned restoration expert and President/Founder of Pipe Organ Artisans of Arizona, Inc., Grahame Davis.