Ninety years ago, in a cinema galaxy far, far away, the State Theatre opened and was billed as “the Empire’s Greatest Theatre” – thanks largely to its giant pipe organ that brought silent films to life
As the largest pipe organ outside America exported by the Rudolf Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company, it was a major drawcard for 1929 Sydney theatre-goers, rising dramatically from its console from where the organist would create special effects on stage.
Audiences would ooh and ahh at the touch of a button, as the organ recreated orchestral instruments such as the Glockenspiel, Xylophone or a set of tuned sleigh bells, and create sounds like a fire gong, a steamboat or train whistle, ocean surf, horse’s hooves or a bird whistle.
Last week, a little bit of that pre-computer generated special effects magic returned to the cinema in central Sydney, bringing the organ – which has not been played with full purity of sound for 65 years – back to life.
When the State Theatre began restoring its Wurlitzer organ almost a decade ago, the work was so complex and of such historical significance that the then-prime minister Julia Gillard had to sign off on it.
Chicago-based restorer Jeff Weiler said this week’s unveiling was the result of years of painstaking work on one of only 12 such instruments worldwide that remain as originally installed, and the only one in Australia.
“The Wurlitzer pipe organ of the State Theatre is a cultural icon of international importance,” Mr Weiler said. “It is the last remaining installation in the southern hemisphere, equal in importance to the Sydney Town Hall organ and other important organs of the world.”
The 1828-built instrument originally arrived in Sydney in March 1929, and was conveyed from the wharves to the picture palace in a convoy of 25 trucks. Returning its tens of thousands of components, including 7016 valves, 5430 pneumatic motors and 2968 electromagnets, to Chicago for restoration was an equally complicated and intricate logistical operation, Mr Weiler said.
It required packing up and shipping the instrument’s 1497 pipes, ranging from a two-inch piccolo (the size of a pencil) to the gigantic 32-inch diaphones that are located under the floor of the stalls. They sit on some of the rare pieces of soil in central Sydney, and when pressed the whole theatre vibrates. Two organ chambers are also located high above the proscenium arch over the stage.
“The organ is made up of thousands of parts, some weighing as much as 12 tons – 10,000 kilograms – that are unseen to audiences,” Mr Weiler said.