On Wednesday morning Ken Double told us about the wonder of theater organs and the story of the Wurlitzer organ that used to be a feature of the Lucas Theatre in downtown Savannah. Ken is a native Chicagoan who now lives in Atlanta. He is president of the American Theatre Organ Society, an international non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and presenting these great organs.
Some of us may remember such instruments in theatres when we were kids, but that era disappeared long ago. Theatre organs are not the same as church organs, Ken told us; they are more “orchestral,” that is, they are built to produce a type of music or sound such as “pops,” music sometimes derived from light classical pieces. Broadway music and jazz could also be played on these instruments.

Wurlitzers were developed and became wildly popular from 1910 until around 1930. They made music for silent films, and the pipes associated with the organs could mimic orchestral “voices” such as strings, flute, tuba, trumpet, clarinet, etc. In addition, there are “real” instruments for which the sound is produced – chimes, marimba, piano, xylophone, drums, cymbals, tambourine – all of which are played through the keyboard by the organist. Now, where they still exist, the organs are used for accompanying a silent film retrospective, for “walk-in” and intermission music for events, or for solo performances. Since the organs are “orchestral” in nature. They can also be used for accompanying a solo vocalist, instrumentalist, choir, barbershop group, or orchestra.

The Lucas Theatre organ was removed from the Lucas Theatre in the early 1970s and placed in storage. When its owner passed away his widow donated the organ to the Atlanta Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, which will gladly donate the organ back to the Lucas. There were nearly 11,000 such organs built, and some 300-350 still exist in public performance places. There are four in the state of Georgia – the Atlanta Fox, the Grand Theatre in Fitzgerald, the Rylander Theatre in Americus, and the Stephenson High School, Stone Mountain; they are used in all the ways described above.

The Lucas will get its organ back! Ken stated that members of the American Theatre Organ Society truly believe that a theater restoration is not complete unless the organ has been reinstalled. The two “chambers” or rooms where the organ pipes go – high on either side of the proscenium – are empty and untouched, and with restoration would be ready to accept the renovated Wurlitzer. Refurbishing and reinstalling the organ will cost approximately $350,000. We are thrilled at the opportunity to bring an original instrument back to its home.
Pictured below are Stratton Leopold and Ken Double. Stratton is a member of the Downtown Savannah Rotary Club and a major supporter of the effort to bring the Wurlitzer back to the Lucas Theatre.