By Jonathan Bryant | 17 Dec 2019

In 2009, the State Theatre Sydney embarked on a landmark museum quality conservation of the mighty Wurlitzer Organ. Following a decade long restoration, the voice of the Theatre will be heard again.

The State Theatre Wurlitzer Organ was one of the largest theatre organs imported into Australia during the heyday of the theatre organ. The Model 270S Opus 2005 was shipped all the way from the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, New York, U.S.A in December 1928. Of the four Model 270 Wurlitzer Organs ever built, it is the only one that remains in situ.

From the time of the opening of the theatre in June 1929, the organ was played at every cinema screening until June 1957. From 1957 to 1980 the organ was used irregularly for film festivals and premieres and gradually became unplayable. The organ was publicly heard for the last time in 1994.

Working closely with an expert international team, Urbis’ Jonathan Bryant was honoured to have provided specialist heritage advice on this extraordinary project.

Watch Jonathan Bryant’s interview with ABC News (15 December 2019) here.

Read more about this historic project in the article published in The Sydney Morning Herald below. 

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.

This job is up there with some of the most important things I've ever done.

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The component parts, some almost five metres in length and a struggle to lift, were first dismantled, packed into wooden shipping cases and sent via sea freight in containers. They were then returned bit by bit, marking the organ’s third trans-Pacific crossing.

Due to the organ’s importance on the international cultural stage, Mr Weiler said they partnered with companies famous for moving priceless art objects and museum exhibits throughout the world.

“This job is up there with some of the most important things I’ve ever done,” said heritage consultant Jonathan Bryant, who has worked on the project for a decade.

For organist John Giacchi, who got to test-run the newly restored instrument this week, it was a childhood dream fulfilled.

“As a young musician growing up in Cronulla, I would come here as a teen and peer over the edge of the console and get so excited,” he said. “Playing it this week was like treading on hallowed ground.”

Although the organ has been waltzed out occasionally for recitals at the Sydney Film Festivals in the 1990s, it was played for the final time for a film in 1957 by Mannie Aarons before falling into disuse.

Between 1910 and 1943, the Rudolph Wurlitzer manufacturing company produced 2243 pipe organs. Today many have been lost or altered beyond recognition, though modifications or amalgamations. It is hoped the newly restored organ will feature at upcoming film events, including the Sydney Film Festival.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.