Wurlitzer’s time in the limelight was brief. The sound of Al Jolson’s voice in The Jazz Singer of 1927 spelled doom for the theater organ. Soon Hollywood was putting sound in every movie it produced. By the mid-1930s, most theater owners had replaced their organs with speaker systems.
Of the more than 5,000 organs manufactured in the early 1900s, only a few hundred remain in public venues; a few others, like the Ayars organ, were rescued by private collectors. Only a handful are in their original theater installations. Richmond, Virginia, has three theaters with original organs, the Chicago Theatre still has its Wurlitzer, and some of the truly grand movie palaces have original organ installations, including the Fox Theatres in Atlanta, St. Louis and Detroit and the Orpheum in Los Angeles.
Forty years ago, Carsten Henningson, owner of Ye Olde Pizza Joynt in Hayward, California, and a devoted organ enthusiast, decided a Wurlitzer might help boost business. It did just that, and the phenomenon spread throughout the state and beyond as dozens of moribund theater organs found new lives in restaurants.
At one such venue—the Bella Roma Pizza restaurant in Martinez, California—on a recent Sunday night, organist Kevin King put a Wurlitzer through its paces, bouncing in his seat as his hands played different keyboards, occasionally pausing to flip stops, while his feet plied the pedals. "You’re playing all the orchestra sounds plus some real instruments," he says.
Musical historians and theater organ buffs would like to see the Smithsonian’s Wurlitzer played publicly once again. Exhibits specialist and theater organist Brian Jensen helped bring the organ to the Institution. "Ours does not have all the bells and whistles of the larger organs found in big cities," says Jensen, "but it represents what was in 90 percent of the theaters across the country, in neighborhoods and smaller towns. Like the Star-Spangled Banner, it’s a recognized symbol of American culture."