Question: What on earth could silent movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford have in common with a church in north Spokane?
Answer: An organ transplant.
A Mighty Wurlitzer theater pipe organ, that is - transplanted from the old Liberty Theatre in Seattle by way of the girls’ gym at Pacific Lutheran University.
In 1974, the First Church of the Nazerene congregation pulled out all the stops to acquire the organ. They’ve spent the past 23 years restoring many of its bells and whistles, and will celebrate its renovation June 8 in ceremonies to dedicate expanded church facilities.
“This pipe organ was the whole orchestra for silent movies, and the movies came with scored music,” said Ken Fuller, organist at the church, located on Country Homes Boulevard. Fuller said this Mighty Wurlitzer rings sleigh bells, blows train and bird whistles, blasts a “whoo-ga” car horn, and plays wind, reed, string and percussion instruments.
It’s music first rose from the orchestra pit in 1914, accompanying flickering silent dramas, Vaudeville and Chautauqua acts until “talkies” struck it dumb. When the Liberty closed in 1959, PLU’s organ department salvaged the console and pipes. The Liberty became a parking lot.
“Every major theater in the United States had an organ,” said Fuller, who admitted sneaking into movies when he was a kid in West Seattle. “Some of the organs were rescued or sold for scrap, but most were destroyed - they’d just bulldoze dirt over it and fill in the orchestra pit with cement.”
Fuller began playing for the congregation in 1958 at its former location on Napa and Wall, following several years on the nightclub circuit playing jazz keyboard. He married the church’s pianist, settled into family life and became co-owner of the Music City stores.
He heard about the Liberty organ from another organist and shared the pipe dream with his congregation. “A theater organ differs from a ‘regular’ church organ primarily in its power,” he explained. “The church organs push air through pipes that are about two and a half to five inches in diameter. Ours has some pipes that are 25 inches across and 32 feet tall. It snorts pretty good.”
Washington state apparently appreciates the pipe organ sound. According to the American Theatre Organ Society, Washington ranks fifth in the United States in the number of theater pipe organs found in public locations (there are 15 statewide). And incidentally, the twin to the organ at Spokane’s First Church of the Nazarene can be found at Silverwood in nearby Athol, Idaho.
The church organ’s 3,000 pipes are made from a variety of materials for each kind of sound. For example, tin pipes mimic strings, and wood pipes play flute. The Mighty Wurlitzer plays at full volume at all times to maintain its pitch. The organist controls the volume with wooden shutters on the pipes, which are hidden behind grills.
“We wanted it so we could shake the snow off the roof,” said Fuller, smiling. He said blown light bulbs were endemic to movie palaces because deep vibrations made by the organ shook the buildings and broke the bulbs’ filaments.
The church raised money with spaghetti dinners and a “Be an Organ Donor” campaign; a delegation traveled to Tacoma in a caravan of U-Haul vans and pickup trucks to pack up the old Wurlitzer.
“It needed a lot of restoration,” said Fuller. “We found it suspended on a platform of railroad ties near the ceiling of the girls’ gym. Many of the pipes were crushed, and we’ve still got a problem with coal dust in the chests.”
Coal dust? He explained that Seattle burned coal in the old days, and the organ sucked in the gritty air through unfiltered vents. “Clogs up the valves in the pipes,” Fuller said, “just like cholesterol in your arteries.”
Over the years, the church hired professional technicians for annual maintenance and repairs. The Mighty Wurlitzer blows through newly-fabricated pipes which rest on fresh leather valves, and upgrades include an electrical relay system and rectifiers. To date, Fuller estimates the organ’s price tag at $60,000, including the original purchase.
The church building also needed expansion to accommodate the 32-foot tall pipes. The organ restoration is halfway through the second of seven planned repair phases, projected to cost an additional $30,000.
“We need to complete the re-leathering in the primary and secondary pneumatics, add several wind chests, straighten or replace some more pipes, and replace the temporary wind lines with permanent ones,” he said. Additional fund raisers are planned, and there is talk of a silent movie concert series.
Although the Mighty Wurlitzer is not yet quite perfect, Fuller said he will continue to “limp around its weak spots” until it’s finished, or “until I drop, whichever comes first. This is my ministry.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Tune in The Liberty organ is a Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra, Opus #45, originally priced at $27,000. It originally had 2-1/2 manuals and 17 ranks (sets) of pipes. It was built in Tonawanda, N.Y., and shipped to Seattle in three railroad cars in 1914. The top manual of 37 keys was replaced three years later with a 61-note manual. Where did it come from? The Liberty Theatre, which was located on First Avenue in Seattle, between Pike and Pine Streets. Where is it now? First Church of the Nazarene, 9004 North Country Homes Blvd., Spokane; 467-8986 Sunday services: 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., 6 p.m.