Losing pipe organ would silence a piece of us

by | Oct 9, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

It was built to play music behind silent movie stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. But by the time the massive machine was installed, “talkies” were the new rage.

Thus began the long, lonely journey of the 4/34 Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ opus No. 1953, which, since 1928, has thundered from place to place like something out of Homer, a huge and heavy-breathing dragon trying to find its way home.

To sit in front of this instrument is to live among a smorgasbord of notes and tabs, layers of white and black keys ringed by tooth-shaped buttons with endless pedals to play with your feet. The sounds range from French horns to sleigh bells, from trumpets to snare drums to bird whistles. The volume is worthy of a jet engine. A hymn played through its pipes could make a cathedral weep. It can bring justice to Mozart, yet can soundtrack a car chase, and was uniquely designed to span such a spectrum.

It is the eighth-largest organ that Wurlitzer ever built, and in its current home, it requires six rooms just to handle all the air pipes, some as narrow as a pencil, others wide enough to hold a small child.

Something this large couldn’t get lost, right?

Think again. Detroit itself is far larger than a pipe organ, and look at how many chunks of it have disappeared over the years.

A journey begins

This is a story of an instrument and its city and how we can save a little of both. Thanks to WJR-AM radio, I get to work at the Fisher Building on West Grand Boulevard. It is one of the most beautiful office buildings imaginable. From gilded walls and marble floors, it sings of an era when purpose was woven into every inch of construction.

The aim of the Fisher family was to create the most beautiful building in the world — two 28-story towers and a 60-story masterpiece in the middle.

They never got that far. The Depression came, and only one 28-story structure was completed.

But that one structure contained a beautiful theater (yes, the Fisher Theatre). And inside that theater was a unique organ worthy of its grandeur.

Had that been the end of the story, no words would be needed. The Fisher Theatre thrives today. But the thunderous Wurlitzer, which had been played in concerts or during intermissions of films, was not practical anymore in 1960, once the space was converted to theater and not cinema use.

So the Fisher brothers sold their massive creation to a local organ enthusiast named George Orbits, who promised to keep it in Detroit.

And its traveling days began.

Help is needed

Why am I writing about an organ? It’s just an instrument, right? Except when it isn’t. This massive Wurlitzer is one of those things that is unique to Detroit, not another like it in the world. Yet today — after being taken apart piece by piece in the ’60s, moved to the old Iris Theatre, then deconstructed piece by piece and moved again — it sits on a stage in a dusty Senate Theater on Michigan Avenue, where a devoted group of citizens has been trying to keep it alive. They clean the theater. They tend lovingly to the nearly 90-year-old instrument.

Two weeks ago, they held a board meeting and, sadly, voted to throw in the towel. The Senate needed too much work. The marquee was gone, and without it, how could anyone know what was happening inside? The group, the Detroit Theater Organ Society, which inherited the rights to the instrument after Orbits died in 2015, made a prudent decision to use its little remaining money to take the organ apart and store it.

But a few members argued it would rot inside boxes and never see the light of day. They are making a last-ditch effort to save the theater and the historic Wurlitzer inside it.

It is a fight worth joining. Haven’t we lost enough landmarks? Seen enough Packard plants? In many ways, that pipe organ is Detroit, built for one thing, left behind, refitted, left for dead, now searching for a rebuilt identity.

The DTOS wants to make a new marquee, which in turn would draw people to the theater for the organ — among other events — and inject life into that stretch of Michigan Avenue.

I have been inside the Senate several times, helping to clean it with a volunteer group. Inevitably, a member of DTOS will start playing the Wurlitzer, and it’s like hearing history in a thousand notes, so loud and powerful and majestic that it blows your hair back.

It’s the kind of thing that makes Detroit unique, and we shouldn’t watch it rot. The DTOS has started a GoFundMe page (gofundme.com/SenateTheater) for the marquee and is hosting an organ concert Oct. 16, where the roaring dragon of the 1920s can be heard, singing for its supper.

If you get a chance, give to the cause, or go to the theater and give a listen. You will hear Detroit’s history inside those notes — notes that should never be silenced.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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