Starting with a brief history, the Wurlitzer Company was the most prolific manufacturer of organs in the early to mid-twentieth century. These instruments were installed in theatres, homes, churches, and other public places. The cost of paying a small band or orchestra for silent films and vaudeville shows became prohibitive making possible the rise of the theatre pipe organ to provide musical accompaniment. Englishman Robert Hope Jones, considered the inventor of the theatre organ, developed the concept of the organ as a “one-man orchestra” to accompany silent movies. Hope-Jones’ concept was based on two principles: a pipe organ should be able to imitate the instruments of an orchestra and the console should be detachable from the rest of the organ.
Among his innovations was the electro-pneumatic action, Diaphone pipes and the modern Tibia Clausa with its strong 8’ flute tone. The Tibia eventually became a staple of theatre organs. Hope-Jones organs were also noted for such innovations as stop tabs instead of draw knobs and very high wind pressures of 10” – 50” to imitate orchestral instruments. He also used a system of unification which multiplied considerably the number of stops relative to the number of ranks.
Between 1887 and 1911, his company employed 112 workers at its peak, producing 246 organs. But shortly after merging his organ business with Wurlitzer in 1914, he committed suicide in Rochester, New York, frustrated by his new association with the Wurlitzer Company, it is said. From 1914 to 1942, Wurlitzer built over 2,200 organs: 30 times the rate of the Hope-Jones Company and more theatre organs than the rest of the theatre organ manufacturers combined. A number were shipped overseas with the largest export market being the United Kingdom.
The State Theatre in Baltimore purchased the standard Model E. The organ was shipped from the factory on December 27, 1926. Many such instruments were delivered and assembled in a day or two by a team of workers. One might consider this their version of “plug and play.” When “talkies” movies were introduced and became all the rage, it was the death knell of the theatre organ. Most instruments were dismantled and destroyed, but a few remained in their original unaltered form. This particular organ is one of those rare and treasured instruments. Roy Wagner of Glen Arm, Maryland acquired the State Theatre instrument (opus 1539) and moved it into his basement where it resided for over 40 years. Mr. Wagner provided tender love and care and hosted wonderful parties where the organ was the center of attention. Last year, he made it known that he wanted to pass the instrument to a new owner who would preserve and care for it as he had done. Dick Magnani, past President of The Engineers Club and Dale Whitehead, the Executive Director, both noticed an article in The Baltimore Sun about Mr. Wagner and the availability of the instrument. Could the Club and the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion Endowment Fund take on such a task?
The Trustees of the Endowment Fund and the Directors of the Club Board agreed to initiate a fundraising effort. If successful, they would move forward with the acquisition and installation of the instrument into the historic Mansion ballroom which once housed a large player pipe organ installed by Mrs. Garrett. The initial fundraising goal was reached and the project received the “green light.” The final concert at Mr. Wagner’s home was given on a Sunday afternoon in October 2011 where he played “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a ballad from the same era as Wurlitzer and the same song Wagner played “before he cut the cable” at the old State Theatre on East Monument Street.
Fast forward to March 2012 – the instrument has been dismantled and moved to the Mansion and is in storage awaiting the completion of the pipe chamber that is suspended nine feet above the stage floor. The installation begins May 1st with an expected completion date of June 7.
Submitted by Dale Whitehead, ESB Executive Director.