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The story behind the Oriental Theatre’s restored 1925 Wurlitzer organ

a close-up of an organ console under dramatic purple lights
Valerie Hill
Milwaukee Film
The Oriental Theatre's newly-restored 1925 Wurlitzer Pipe Organ.

When the Oriental Theatre reopened its doors in 2018, the movie palace was nearly just as it was a century ago, when such opulent theaters were all the rage in major cities. Movie palaces were designed to transport people into other worlds. A big part of how they achieved that world-building was through Wurlitzer pipe organs, those massive, intricate instruments created to be the voice of silent film.

But the Oriental’s organ was no longer there. The last organ in the building, a 1931 Kimball, was removed and handed over to a new owner before Milwaukee Film took over the theater’s operations in 2018. And before that, the theater’s original Oshkosh-built Barton pipe organ was removed in 1959.

“It felt like there was a missing piece,” said Kristen Heller, chief operating officer of Milwaukee Film. “It felt like there was something that was part of the original building that wasn’t here.”

During the pandemic, Milwaukee Film led a massive effort to restore the theater. Since then, Heller said the nonprofit always dreamed of bringing an organ back to the Oriental.

“Once upon a time, there were no audio tracks with film,” Heller said. “A piano or organ was the only way there was any kind of music that you could convey emotion with sound. For us, it allows us to bring back the original magic of this place.”

The search for an organ

The dream of finding an organ for the Oriental was five years in the making. It began with the search for an organ, which led Milwaukee Film to Jeff Weiler, an expert in pipe organ restoration and maintenance, who had just the right instrument.

“We acquired this instrument about 18 years ago, and we felt that some good and noble purpose would present [itself] eventually,” said Weiler, who is president of the Chicago-based JL Weiler, Inc.

According to Weiler, it is one of roughly a dozen, out of thousands of Wurlitzer pipe organs made in the early- to mid-20th century, that remains in its unaltered, factory-original state. The organ was initially saved from the Paramount Theatre in Atlanta, Ga., where it was installed in 1925 and rescued in 1960 before the building was demolished.

From there, it was taken to Dallas, Texas, where attorney Vincent Rohloff hoped to build a large music room and house the organ there. His pipe dream was never realized, and eventually, Weiler acquired it.

a woman with a mic and headphones interviews a man in glasses, a tuxedo, and bowtie.
Valerie Hill
Milwaukee Film
Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski interviews Jeff Weiler, a leading expert in organ restoration.

Restoring a wurld-class Wurlitzer

When Milwaukee Film came knocking, the theater needed an organ, and the organ needed a theater. Weiler called it the “perfect marriage.”

But then came the hard part. The installation process took well over a year, involving multiple truckloads from Chicago and 13,000 hours of work to restore the approximately 10-ton organ.

When you walk into the main theater of the Oriental, all you see is the organ console at the base of the stage — that’s the keyboard, buttons, and pedals that an organist manipulates. However, most of the instrument is hidden from the audience, embedded into the theater building itself.

“The biggest part of the instrument is unseen, contained in two large organ chambers flanking the proscenium,” Weiler said. “There’s a big turbine blower down in the basement. So the impact of the organ on the building is pretty significant when you think of all these interconnected systems running around the stage and into the building.”

a close-up of an organ shows a plaque that says "WURLITZER"
Valerie Hill
Milwaukee Film
According to Jeff Weiler, the organ that now calls the Oriental Theatre home is one of a dozen, out of thousands of Wurlitzer pipe organs made in the early- to mid-20th century, that’s still in its unaltered, factory original state.

The 10-horsepower turbine in the basement keeps air flowing through the pipes, which is how the organ makes a sound.

The installation process didn't end when all the instrument’s components are connected in the building. Weiler said the team goes to great lengths to fit each organ to its unique environment.

“When we wake the instrument up the first time, there is a commissioning protocol that we have to go through because every function has to be tested,” he explained. “The initial process is perhaps the most involved because we have to musically fit this instrument to the room’s acoustics. That means we have to make very discreet adjustments to all of the pipes in the organ.”

a tall switchboard in a bright basement room shows many complex wires and connections
Audrey Nowakowski
A cable connects the organ console to a switchboard in the basement of the Oriental Theatre. The organ uses 60 miles of wiring.

That process is complicated because the pipe organ makes so many different kinds of sounds. It houses a symphony of instruments, including a piano, sleigh bells, drums, cymbals, and even a glockenspiel. The organ can also produce a multitude of sound effects designed to accompany silent films, such as doorbells, horse hooves, bird whistles, and horns.

Part of what makes all of this possible is one key cable containing about 2,000 wires. That cable runs from the main console to a large switchboard in the basement right under the stage. From there, it’s connected to another cable just as big, which travels from the organ chamber to another switchboard that’s responsible for sending out all the electrical signals to produce sound.

All of this requires about 60 miles of wire. Each wire goes to a specific place, and hundreds of on-site hours were spent on point-to-point wiring to ensure the electric signals do their job to make the organ’s actions seamless.

“What makes this instrument unique on the national, cultural stage is we have restored every bit of the original technology,” Weiler said. “This instrument sounds and functions precisely as it did in 1925.”

When the team tested the fully restored organ for the first time, Weiler said he had tears in his eyes.

“Think of it,” he said. “This instrument has not made music since before World War II. For much of its life, it had been sitting in storage.”

The organ’s grand debut

the interior of an opulent movie palace shows an audience gazing at a figure on stage. behind her, the screen says "coming home again: a 1925 Wurlitzer organ's grand debut"
Valerie Hill
Milwaukee Film
Milwaukee Film unveiled the organ with a fundraiser and screening of the silent film Safety Last.

In mid-November of 2023, Milwaukee Film debuted the organ with a fundraiser and screening of Harold Lloyd's silent comedy Safety Last!, which celebrated its 100th-anniversary last year. The film is known for an iconic scene in which the main character, known only as "The Boy," hangs dangerously off a clock tower over the busy streets of Los Angeles. You could call it the Mission Impossible of the 1920s.

Organist Ron Rhode flew in from Phoenix, Ariz., to showcase the instrument and accompany the film. His career as an organist began at 21 years old, when he moved from Illinois to Phoenix to play the theater pipe organ in a pizza parlor. Rhode said he always knew he wanted to make the organ his life’s work.

A mentor deemed he had skills enough to make a career of it, and eventually, Rhode owned a chain of three pizza parlors — where he performed for some 24 years.

“Then I decided I needed retirement because there isn’t any as an organist,” he said. “I became a school teacher and taught [for] 20 years. And now I can just play theater organ.”

a man plays an organ in a dark theater. he looks up, watching a black-and-white film play out on the screen above him.
Valerie Hill
Milwaukee Film
The organist Ron Rhode watches the film while he plays, improvising as the movie unfolds.

As an organist, Rhode is known for being a traditionalist. He’s happiest when he’s playing the music of the 20s — the heyday of organs and movie palaces.

“The music was perfect for the organs as they were,” he said. “I just think being a traditionalist means I should play what it’s meant for. There are organists that play current pop music that in my ear, don’t do the organ justice. If you hear my concerts, you’ll hear up into the 40s, maybe some 50s. Once in a while, a song from the 60s or 70s. But it’s mostly 20s and 30s.”

When the film began, the spotlight opened on Rhode in the organ pit, who kicked things off with a lively overture as the entire console rose into position.

a woman with short black hair and glasses holds a mic and interviews a man in glasses and a tie.
Audrey Nowakowski
WUWM's Lina Tran interviews organist Ron Rhode before his performance.

He tilted his head up, watching the screen and improvising as the movie unfolded.

“I’ve watched the film four times,” Rhode said. “I played it about two months ago in Phoenix, so I know the film pretty well.”

Rhode danced with the organ, feet tapping, and hands flying up and down the keys. It was an all-body experience.

“I get sore now being older,” he said. “Because I sit in the same position with my head cocked. I rarely take my eyes off of the movie the entire time. It’s sort of my script. Whatever’s happening, that’s what comes out the fingers and presses the keys.”

The music lulled and sang and swelled and teased. It told the audience how to feel about what was happening on-screen. And people loved it. They laughed and gasped, leaning forward in their seats.

Milwaukee Film is still figuring out how they’ll be using the organ in the future. Kristen Heller, the nonprofit’s COO, said they may screen more silent films or feature more performances before screenings. For now, the emphasis is on Milwaukee Film member screenings, but more public opportunities to see and hear the organ are coming.

a close up of keys on the organ reveals many different instruments the organ can produce sounds for: string, cello, flute
Valerie Hill
Milwaukee Film
The organ houses a symphony of instruments and sound effects, specifically meant for accompanying silent films.

“It just feels like we can really have fun and get in there and create really special moments that people could not have had otherwise,” said Heller on the night of the organ’s debut. “And just show a whole new generation what this technology was like, how it can be transformative for sound and for your cinema-going experience.”

Weiler, the restorationist, said the theater pipe organ is time travel. It takes listeners back to how people would have experienced this a century ago, something that’s transcended time: going to the movies, losing themselves in another world for a brief moment.

“These instruments are distinctly American instruments,” Weiler said, speaking of the connection between theater organs and the movie palaces that house them. “If you take one separate from the other, you lack perspective. They’re just meant to be together.”

“If you take one separate from the other, you lack perspective. They’re just meant to be together.”
Jeff Wieler, pipe organ restoration and maintenance expert


Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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