After 40 years, Glen Arm man looks to part with historic organ

2.5-ton 1927 Wurlitzer is the last from Baltimore's grand movie theaters

March 04, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Roy Wagner's musical treasure requires considerable space, with its 500-some pipes, its floor-to-ceiling relay panel filled with thousands of tiny pneumatic devices and a cumbersome blower with huge, noisy fans and belts.

The instrument's elegant console, white and trimmed in gold leaf, dominates any room. And the sound that emanates when a musician tackles its double keyboard, numerous controls and floor pedals is equally grand.

Believed to be the last remaining theater organ from a Baltimore movie house, the 1927 Wurlitzer has captured Wagner's fancy since the 1960s, when he used to borrow a key to the old State Theatre on Monument Street to play the shuttered playhouse's 2.5-ton wonder. When demolition threatened to silence the organ forever, he dismantled it and moved it to his Glen Arm home, then restored it piece by piece.

The magnificent instrument still occupies a small corner of Wagner's heart — and a good portion of his basement. But, he says, it's time to give it away.

Maintaining the organ has become a bit arduous for Wagner, 80. He wants to find a new home with enough passion — and enough space — to accommodate it, while he is still able to assist, or at least advise, in the transition.

"I have enjoyed it for 40 years," he said. "Now I would like to find a place where the general public can enjoy it. This is a fully working, historical musical instrument that people should get to hear."

Wagner says his Wurlitzer "is tried-and-true and has worked well all these years. It still plays the way it did in the theater."

Thought to have originally cost about $27,000 — a fortune in 1927 — the organ once delivered the accompaniment for vaudeville shows, headlined by the likes of Red Skelton or Abbott and Costello. It trilled during silent movies at the 2,000-seat State Theatre, which is today an office building adjacent to the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus.

Dick Smith, a professional musician who plays the organ and piano, said, "These organs were the orchestras of that era and the entertainment of the day. One pipe organ replaced an entire orchestra and could play all the same sounds plus the sound effects. You could have a police whistle, a fire engine siren and horses' hooves at the press of a button. There were actual schools that taught silent film accompaniment."

As a student attending the Peabody Conservatory, Smith would often take a taxi between downtown theaters to play during openings, closings and show breaks. He often visits the Wagners just to play the Wurlitzer, once considered the workhorse of the theater, he said.

"It really is the 1920s' version of a computer, and they built it without today's technology," Smith said. "It is an amazing machine. When you are playing, you feel like you are controlling a 25-piece orchestra with a really good sound."

Like many downtown movie houses, the State closed in the mid-1960s, and its unpaid utilities were shut off soon after. But Wagner, ever the pipe organ enthusiast, used to borrow a key from the optometrist next door, tap into electricity from the bowling alley beneath the darkened theater and play the organ by flashlight.

"Organ music has always appealed to me," he said. "I grew up hearing its sounds. There is just an oddity to the sound that can't be duplicated."

The theater organ, much louder than its church version, was part of the overall entertainment experience for crowds attending Baltimore's grand movie houses. Robert Headley, author of several books on those grandiose theaters, said the organs "were the big sound effect machines that could deliver anything." Patrons, who often waited in long lines that stretched around the block, could watch a silent movie, a stage show or a concert, he said.

"This was before TV, even before everyone had a radio," Headley said. "These amazing places with marble foyers and crystal chandeliers were like European palaces. Yet the entertainment was affordable."

Wagner has laid down ground rules for anyone who might want to accept the organ. The piece of local history must remain in Maryland, must be preserved and must be available to the public, he said. So far, he has had no takers. Maybe it's the relocation, which he knows can be daunting but is doable, he said.

Judging from his experience, the instrument needs an area with more than 300 square feet that is at least 8 feet high. A climate-controlled space would be ideal for the pipes and would mean less tuning. Imposing lobbies are most suitable for an instrument that requires this much space, he said. Maybe the State House in Annapolis, the courthouse in Towson or, possibly, the proposed Center for the Arts planned for Bel Air could handle a few tons of musical mechanics.

"Alaska has one at the state office building in Juneau," he said. "They play it every Friday."

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