One of our most asked-about possessions is our mighty Wurlitzer organ. Purchased and installed in 1926 at a cost of $19,000, it continues to entertain audiences during silent movies and sing alongs. The Weinberg Wurlitzer is the only theater organ in Maryland still in its original installation.
Our theater was designed to handle both films and stage shows, and when it first opened its doors in 1926, most films were silent. The solution – a two-manuel Wurlitzer that generated a magnificent, booming sound from 656 pipes built into the theater walls. During the 1920’s our organ accompanied Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson and dozens of other stars of the silver screen. The price of a movie ticket back then – thirty cents.
At the keyboard in 1926 was George Emmans. For the then-impressive wage of $125.00 per week, Emmans had to play flawlessly nearly every minute from 15 minutes prior to the opening matinee in the early afternoon until the end of the last reel, which was typically after 11:00 p.m.
Our Wurlitzer was known for being full voiced. So extremely full voiced that Emmans’s successor, George T. Schroeder, Jr. had to hang blankets over the pipes to end patron complaints about the volume. But the thing that finally silenced the Wurlitzer was the advent of talking films.
The Wurlitzer fell into disrepair along with the rest of the theater during the 1950’s. But in 1959, local businessman Dan Weinberg bought the theater, dedicated to restoring it to its original grandeur.
Some organ enthusiasts found the Wurlitzer under a pile of canvas drop cloths and decided to return it to playing condition. With occasional work, the organ was rendered usable. In 1969, the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society (ATOS) decided to completely restore the Wurlitzer from the ground up, including the replacement of almost everything except the ivory keys and the metal pipes. The effort was headed by Ray Brubacher, who would go on to become the theater’s long-time organist. When the full restoration was completed in 1970, organ virtuoso Lee Erwin traveled here from New York to accompany the 1928 film “Wings” at a rededication ceremony.
With the organ fully restored, many members of the ATOS traveled to Frederick to play it. The Wurlitzer was such a hit that the ATOS leadership decided to hold a national rededication of the organ during its 1972 convention in Washington, D.C. Eight hundred ATOS members made plans to visit Frederick for the ceremony.
Just days before the celebration, hurricane Agnes blasted the entire mid-Atlantic coast, pouring many inches of rain over downtown Frederick, flooding the Monocacy River and the theater basement. The organ blower motor, located in the basement, spent an entire day under ten feet of water. Electrical short circuits completely burned out the motor’s bearings and windings.
A emergency replacement motor was ordered, but the equipment delivered was unusable. Dan Weinberg, who had come to the theater’s rescue in 1959, loaded the old motor in his car and drove it to a service shop in Frederick. He told the employees, who were surrounded by piles of equipment damaged by the storm, that the Wurlitzer’s blower motor had to be rebuilt by the next morning, regardless of the expense. The repairs were completed overnight, and the following day, organist Hector Olivera performed for a full house.
In the fall of 1976, Frederick experienced another round of severe flooding from days of heavy rains. This time, flood waters rose out of the basement into the main part of the theater. The Wurlitzer floated up from the orchestra pit, on to the stage, and came to rest hanging precariously over the edge of the stage, covered with mud, slime, grass and weeds.
For more than a year, an army of volunteers worked to restore the theater and the Wurlitzer. And in February, 1978, the theater opened again, complete with its beloved Wurlitzer.
Our organ is now playing better than ever, and we’d love for you to hear it in person. Just visit us during a showing of a silent film to experience the same pleasure our audiences did more than 75 years ago when they came to the Tivoli to be entertained by the mighty Wurlitzer. Make plans now by checking out our silent movie schedule.
About the Organist
The Wurlitzer is played by Baltimore native Michael Britt, who previously served as a substitute for longtime organist Ray Brubacher.
Britt has been featured on a number of televised presentations on the theater pipe organ, including an appearance on Maryland Public Television. He serves as the minister of music and organist at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and assistant organist at Beth-El Congregation. He is on the faculty at the Community College of Baltimore County and holds a bachelor’s degree in organ performance from the Peabody Conservatory of Music.
Frederick News Post
Theatre Organ Magazine, December 1972 issue.