The pipe organ in the Grays Armory Drill Hall is a Wurlitzer theater pipe organ that was built in 1930. The chief mission of these instruments in the 1920’s was to accompany silent films from small movie houses to the largest and grandest of cathedral-like theaters across the country and Great Britain. The Armory organ is capable of whisper-quiet sounds to thunderous crescendos that literally shake the Armory floor.
During the silent film era, having even a small pit orchestra was terribly expensive for most movie houses, so having a pipe organ designed to emulate orchestral sounds was far more economical. Various voices of strings, woodwinds and brass provide sound effects. Actual percussion such as drums, tambourines, sirens, bird calls, marimbas, pianos, glockenspiels and even tuned sleigh bells was available on these wonderful instruments. The theater pipe organ’s popularity soared and many organists became adored stars of the day, but, only lasting for two decades. Infrequent sing-a-longs, solo spots and live radio concerts followed the “talkies” where organ accompaniment was forced out of the theaters. Manufacturing of these strictly 100% USA made instruments came to an abrupt and sad halt. Many organs rarely or never played again. They were lost to wrecking balls, sold off to churches or otherwise neglected. Of the approximate 10,000 theater pipe organs built, it is estimated that fewer than 600 remain.
In the early years of the Armory, the Cleveland Orchestra performed from the Armory’s elevated band shell. The current walls that surround the pipe organ were not there at that time. In 1969, Warner Brothers made the decision to donate the few remaining pipe organs in their movie theaters across the country. One of the Grays members who was also a WRTOS member, along with the WRTOS board of directors, was able get the Wurlitzer organ donated from the Warner Theater in Erie, Pennsylvania. Because the Armory’s band shell had been standing empty for some time, it was the perfect spot for the organ’s new home.
WRTOS members removed, transported and reinstalled the organ in the Cleveland Grays Armory during the summer of 1969. Three years later, our public concert series began with sold-out crowds. Today, we still provide one or two public concerts each year and have occasional chapter meetings where the members get to play this “Mighty Wurlitzer” We also provide regular volunteer maintenance on this 85 year old treasure.
The organ has 15 ranks- these are rows of pipes or different voices. One might say this is a one man 15 piece orchestra. In fact, the name, “Unit Orchestra” became the Wurlitzer’s standard marquee. The vast majority of what you see is the original factory instrument from 1929 when its price was an estimated $25,000 dollars, during the Great Depression no less. That is well over $400,000 in today’s dollars. If you would like more information about the WRTOS-Grays Mighty Wurlitzer, please visit us at www.wrtos.org. We woud love to have you attend one of our upcoming concerts so you can here this magnificent instrument first hand.