Hello! My name is Nick Myers and I am the project manager for the great Wonder Morton restoration at the United Palace. On behalf of everyone on the Wonder Morton team, we are really looking forward to showing you each step of this very historical restoration. It is my intention to share with you as much as I can as we go along with this immense project. Perhaps we all can learn a little along the way…
To start off, I figured it would be good to do a tiny overview of the short history of the theatre organ:
There are only two instruments that America can call its own: the banjo and the theatre organ. As America began to find its own attitude during the turn of the century, film and live entertainment began to explode. Larger and larger theatres were being built and theatre owners needed a way to fill these immense theatres with thrilling sound. The piano wasn’t going to cut it anymore. In a few places, church style organs were put into these big theatres, but audiences began to feel like they were about to go up and have communion, not see a picture.
Robert Hope-Jones, along with the business sense of the Wurlitzer brothers, invented what we now know as the theatre organ, originally called the Hope-Jones “unit-orchestra.” These instruments took the principles of the church pipe organ, increased the pressures and sizes of the pipes, and added percussion so they could play dance music. It was an instant hit.
Many organ builders who worked for Hope-Jones and Wurlitzer took these design principals and ideas with them to other pipe organ firms. These ideas quickly spread across the country, creating a mass theatre organ movement that grew alongside Hollywood. Many notable theatre organ builders came out of this movement such as Page, Barton, and the second largest builder, Robert-Morton.
After the silent film era ended with the "talkies" around 1930, the theatre organ stopped production entirely. The sound, however, continued to live on through jazz instruments like the Hammond organ.
It sometimes surprises people to know how big these instruments really are. The console on this Wonder Morton, where the organist plays, is 1700 pounds by itself. This console is just a small section of the entire instrument. The rest of the instrument lies in the walls on either side of the stage. These chambers filled with pipes, boxes of air, and percussion instruments are literally TONS of parts that make up the entire organ. The console is only a part of it. Granted, it's arguably the most complex part.
Very recently, it was our job to move this monster console from the lobby (where it sat for fifteen years) to its rightful home on the stage.
Because these huge devices were not meant to be moved, we had to take the console apart to ensure it would travel safely. Luckily, the console comes apart in large, manageable pieces.
Much of the innards of this console are what the organist relies on to make fast changes while he or she is playing. This is what's called the console’s "combination action." Little buttons at the bottom of each keyboard recall settings that the organist would record before each performance; changing the groups of sounds on each keyboard in a flash rather than having to do it by hand. Each of the buttons can be set by tons and tons of pins inside 5 drawers on the left and right side of the bench. We will hopefully have more on this later as the organ becomes playable and we can demonstrate this.
Check out this video of us taking apart the Wonder Morton console so we can move it to the stage for it’s grand entrance. After a showing of Steamboat Bill, Jr played by our friend, Bernie Anderson, we surprised the audience with a special appearance of the Wonder console itself. Check out what happened!