Wurlitzer Becomes a Symphony Instrument
By Richard Scheinin

March 6, 2009 — There's a wind generator — a 15-horsepower, multi-staged turbine made by a company called Spencer — in the subbasement of the California Theatre in downtown San Jose, deep below the stage. Fire it up, and it delivers 3,000 cubic feet of high-pressure wind per minute to a network of 15-inch-diameter metal conductors running straight up through the theater walls to two rooms — rooms, literally — hidden behind the ornamental grills that sit on either side of the great proscenium arch high above the stage.

And picture this: Inside those rooms sit 1,521 pipes, some the size of a small pencil, many 16 feet long. And out of those pipes, when that storm of wind goes whooshing through them, and when the organist, seated at the organ console on stage, depresses the right keys and pushes and pulls a variety of buttons to give the command — why, those 1,521 pipes shake, rattle and roll.

They become the grand and glorious "voices," 1,521 voices, of the mighty Wurlitzer organ of the California Theatre.

Which, next weekend, when Symphony Silicon Valley and its 90-voice Chorale offer a pair of programs, will get one of its biggest workouts since the fabulously refurbished, Vaudeville-era theater reopened in 2004. They will perform an "Organ Symphony" — a symphonic work, composed by a Frenchman named Felix-Alexandre Guilmant to showcase great organs like this one — and sing the unforgettable Requiem by Fauré, which rides on the organ's wings.

And, if you go, aside from memorable music, what should you expect?

"Oh, the audience will feel that kind of sound," predicts Ed Stout, the master organ technician who knows the California's Wurlitzer, the whole crazy apparatus, inch by inch.

"Because a pipe organ physically, literally, involves the building. It just moves so much of it. Down in the basement, when the tremulants" — the great beast's vibrato-inducing mechanisms — "are turned on, shock waves are created by the organ. Doors are clicking and clacking and slamming open and shut and going dum dum dum dum dum!"

Hayward-based Stout and his longtime partner, Dick Taylor, along with their two technician assistants, have devoted 27,000 hours to the installation and maintenance of the mighty Wurlitzer through the years, as well as to the very fine, but smaller Wurlitzer organ in the theater's lobby. Working in partnership with David Packard, the philanthropist who shepherded the California through its $75 million rehabilitation, Stout and Taylor acquired the 1,521-pipe Wurlitzer from two sources.

Most of it — the wind chests, the pipes, the thousands of pneumatic valves that emit the air into each pipe upon command — came from the Palace Theatre in Dallas, which opened in 1930. But the Palace's console — at which the organist sits, manning the controls, playing its four keyboards, known as manuals — had tragically been sold off for parts, years earlier.

No worries. Stout and Taylor obtained their console from Chicago's legendary Uptown Theatre, where it hadn't been used in decades. It was, Stout says, "in absolute derelict condition. It's a 1925 Wurlitzer console, and it's the first wedding-cake-type console to be manufactured by Wurlitzer."

"It has a glazed honey finish with a lot of very elaborate ormolu, decorative elements that are in 23-carat gold," he continues. "But much of the ormolu was missing and broken, though we were able to re-create it by making our own molds. So now, as it's seen in the California, all the original décor is in place. It looks like a very fashionable lady coming out of a powder room."

When the Wurlitzer is played next weekend (the soloist is Jonas Nordwall, a veteran virtuoso, widely known in the organ world), it will be "tamed" a bit for the concert hall.

"They will not be using some of the more theatrical voices, the bells and whistles and some of the cockamamie sounds" associated with a classic Wurlitzer performance, Stout says. But with Nordwall "mixing and blending" all the organ's potential sounds — like an artist working with a "huge palette" of colors — the effect should be magnificent.

Especially, Stout says, when the organist "pounces on the organ. Let 'em have it!"