Eulogy for a Wurlitzer Theatre Organ

The last song I played on the family Wurlitzer Theatre Organ 950TA was Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never." It was at the request of my daughter, Olivia.
Jan 1, 2013


I didn’t know it would be the last.

A short time later, my parents moved the 950TA into the furnace room and disconnected her pedal board. She sat unplugged and unplayed for months.

I knew my parents didn’t want her anymore. They complained she got in the way. They wished aloud that I had a home large enough for her.

I didn’t worry they would get rid of her, though, because they had promised to leave her to me in their will. Then they photographed her and listed her for sale on Craigslist.

I panicked. They were going to sell my childhood friend as if she were a mere piece of furniture.          

No one answered the ad. My folks grumbled: People want a modern, portable keyboard, not an old-fashioned organ so colossal it has to be disassembled to fit through doorways.

I thought: If people want plastic, undistinguished keyboards, they’re welcome to them. If they can’t appreciate the Wurlitzer, then they don’t deserve her.

I was relieved. My inheritance was safe once again and my friend would stay.          

Not for long, alas. Two weeks ago, I found only pieces of her — a pair of speakers, a motor. The smell of cherry wood dust lingered in the air.         

But I don’t want to remember her that way.          

My parents brought her home about the time I started junior high. She was my second Wurlitzer organ, but my first theater organ. She was designed for private homes, so she was less ostentatious than her famous counterparts such as the one at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. But she was still lovely.

She was richly, darkly complexioned. Each of her three perfect ivory keyboards gleamed like a movie star’s smile. Her horseshoe-shaped console was like a curvaceous neck.

When I flicked a switch, tiny hidden lights washed her in gold. She glowed like a Christmas tree — her stop tabs shimmered green, red, blue, white and amber. Even her power switch glowed red.

She emitted a staticky "pop" when I turned her on. Then she hummed. When I engaged the vibrato, I could hear her motor start up, like a propeller slowly gaining speed: wuh. Wuh. Wuh, wuh, wuh, wuh. Wuhwuhwuhwuhwuhwuhwuhwuhwuh.

I rested my bum on the cool surface of the stool. I held down the middle C and adjusted the sound until it was just where I wanted it. I flipped a switch here, turned a dial there. My right foot pressed the volume pedal, then joined my left foot resting lightly above the double-octave pedal board. I flipped open a music book and flattened it against the stand. I began to play.

The 950TA sounded as if an orchestra were playing in the living room. Or a symphony. Or a marching band or jazz band.

With the third keyboard, she could add a solo flute, clarinet or sax. She had lots of fun sound effects such as sirens, whistles and car horns. Sometimes I made her meow and bark just to watch the dog go nuts.

I am a slave to pop music. Thus, most of what I played came from pop music songbooks.

I played movie theme songs: “Axel F” from “Beverly Hills Cop," “Theme from ‘Ice Castles,'" “Terms of Endearment."

There were themes from TV shows, too, from the era when TV shows had real theme songs with words and melodies you could sing along with. Themes from “Cheers," “St. Elsewhere” and “Greatest American Hero” were among my favorites. They also earned me the most praise from my friends and family.                                

I played the Beatles, Elton John, Billy Joel, the Carpenters, the Bee Gees and Neil Diamond.          

I played classical music, too. Bach and Beethoven rocked.

And there was the church music. My first paying job, besides babysitting, was playing at weddings and church services. Couples walked down the aisle to my music; congregations praised and worshipped God with my musical accompaniment. None of it would have been possible without all I learned at the 950TA.          

When friends came over, they always gravitated toward the organ, where they loved to experiment with her awesome sound effects. At Christmas, my extended family gathered ‘round her to hear Christmas carols.          

But what I will remember most are the times it was just the two of us. Every weekday after school, I unlocked the front door and stepped inside my empty house. The first thing I saw was the 950TA. For the two hours before my parents arrived home from work, the house filled with music.          

For auld lang syne, my friend. For auld lang syne.

— By Kelly O'Toole, Tribune community columnist


Sound Judgement

Sweet story...

Kelly O'Toole

Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for reading.


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