One of the last surviving Wurlitzer organs in the country, which once entertained crowds at a posh Baltimore movie theater, will return to a downtown stage after a 42-year hiatus in the suburbs.
The 85-year-old instrument will debut in its latest incarnation with a June 24 concert at the Engineers Club in Mount Vernon. Its audiences will be smaller than the 2,000 or so who flocked to the old State Theatre on Monument Street, but the organ has endured the test of time and a few moves.
Roy Wagner had diligently tended to the 2.5 ton Wurlitzer, likely the last remaining theater organ from a Baltimore movie house, since he dismantled it, moved it to his Glen Arm home and re-assembled it, a task that took more than two years. He played many concerts for family and friends while seated at the double keyboard of the organ, which consumed most of the family basement.
A year ago, Wagner, 81, decided he could no longer maintain it in the style befitting its grandeur.
He offered to give the organ away, hoping to find a new home where a broader audience could enjoy it. The Engineers Club already had a stage with ample space for the Wurlitzer. Its members launched an organ fund and raised the more than $30,000 needed to move it.
Wagner played "I'll See You in My Dreams" at his last home concert, cut the cable and donated the Wurlitzer to the club.
"That is the way it should always be," he said. "We did what we had to save it, but it should belong to the public. I know the new owners will maintain it as well as I did."
In January, the Wurlitzer went through its second careful disassembly under Wagner's direction. Some 500 pipes, a floor-to-ceiling relay panel filled with thousands of tiny pneumatic devices, a cumbersome blower, a toy box that makes all manner of whimsical noises and an elegant white console trimmed in gold leaf were relocated to the club's headquarters in the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion.
Crews from a Baltimore-based pipe organ company are rebuilding the instrument before its Mount Vernon debut.
"We want to bring back concerts and other activities and create public access to them," said J. Austin Bitner, director of member services at the Engineers Club. "The Wurlitzer fits perfectly into that mission."
No one knows this Wurlitzer better or appreciates it more than Wagner. From 1910 to 1932, about 10,000 pipe organs were built in the U.S., some costing as much as $27,000, a fortune for that era. Fewer than 20 remain today, and 12 of them are Wurlitzers, Wagner said. He said he feels proud to have saved a piece of musical history from the wrecking ball.
"Who knew that I had such a collector's item?" Wagner said.
Bitner called Wagner's dedication "a real labor of love, and we are continuing that. We really appreciate Roy's foresight and have assured him the Wurlitzer has found a good home."
Wagner's meticulous attention to detail has helped with the rebuilding, said Sam O'Brien, an organ technician who is working on the restoration. "Every single piece of wood is labeled," he said.
O'Brien, a recent Goucher College graduate and music major, said he can't wait to play the organ that he is painstakingly helping to put back together. He may be able to test the pipes, but Michael Britt, a renowned organist, will play the first concert.
Britt is well versed in this Wurlitzer's intricacies. He was 10 when he first played it at Wagner's home — so young his feet did not reach the pedals. He later won a scholarship to what is now the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. While studying in Paris, he was invited to play at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
"That's as high as you get in the organ world," said Wagner.
When Wagner hit the last stroke at his last home concert last fall, it was the most poignant moment in his long tenure at the keys, he said. Britt said there were many tears in the house.
"I played the last stroke, a single chime at my home," Wagner said. "Now it will speak again and I am delighted with its new home."
He plans to attend the premiere concert at the Engineers Club. Several more concerts are scheduled and the club hopes to show silent films with all the vintage sound effects the Wurlitzer can provide, Bitner said.
"This organ will live long beyond the lifetime of any single person," he said. "It will be maintained well and played often here for as long as another century."
Tickets for the inaugural concert, at 2 p.m. June 24, are $10 for adults and $5 for children aged 12 and younger. Information: 410-539-6914.Copyright © 2015, CT Now