Organist Ron Rhode gets a feel for the Mighty Wurlitzer organ at Fox Tucson Theatre. The organ, which will make its debut at the Fox on Saturday night, has been going through a restoration process, on and off, since the Fox reopened in 2006.
Adrian Phillips, with Phillips Organ Co. and Associates, places pipes in the cramped quarters of the organ loft to prepare the The Mighty Wurlitzer organ for a weekend reveal at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St., April 11, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. The organ will be played for the first time in 60 years this Saturday night. When finished, the four-manual organ will eventually feature a 30-rank pipe system.
On Saturday, Fox Tucson Theatre will resurrect a signature piece of its early entertainment history: the Mighty Wurlitzer.
The massive theater organ, equipped with thousands of moving parts, including more than 3,000 pipe chambers, according to the Fox website, has been going through the restoration process, on and off, since before the Fox reopened in 2006.
The Mighty Wurlitzer was a staple of the Fox when the theater first launched in 1930, offering live musical accompaniment for a range of activities over the years, including University of Arizona rallies, Mickey Mouse Club meetings and local radio broadcasts.
When it makes its debut in a preview concert Saturday, April 13, it will be one of only a handful of operating Wurlitzer theater organs in the state, according to Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation’s executive director, Craig Sumberg.
“We see it as one of the last pieces in the full restoration of the Fox,” Sumberg said. “We are in the final stages of getting it ready for prime time.”
The journey to bring the Mighty Wurlitzer back to life is two decades in the making.
Herb Stratford, the foundation’s founding executive director from 1999 to 2008 and the driving force behind the venue’s $14 million restoration, said an organ was always in the plans, even in the project’s early days.
“Places like the Fox were really community centers,” Stratford said. “Everything happened there. The organ played a role in that programming.”
Stratford worked with local organ builder Grahame Davis to find a Wurlitzer that would suit the theater’s needs.
Davis eventually came through, locating a suitable match at the private home of a doctor in Southern California in 2002.
“He was looking to downsize and graciously donated the instrument,” Davis said.
The Wurlitzer was crated up and shipped to Tucson in a semi truck.
“We had a crew go to his house,” Stratford said. “They had a week to take everything apart and bring it back here.”
From there, the main obstacle for the foundation was finding the funding to restore the Wurlitzer.
Davis, who has spearheaded the organ restoration efforts, said he has had to rely on a team of mostly volunteers over the last 12 years to get the instrument up to snuff.
Only in the last two years, has the foundation made a push to provide the funds to finish the job, Davis said.
Sumberg said $200,000 has been slated for the project — money that has allowed Davis to seek out professionals who know how to handle the more complicated aspects of the organ.
“Like restoring an old car, you can only have volunteers do so much before you have to have trained experts step in,” Davis said. “I can teach you to wash organ pipes in an hour, but it is a lot more difficult to learn how to do the wiring.”
Sumberg said there is still work to be done.
The organ will put on a good show on Saturday, he added, but will still only be about 40 percent operational.
Sumberg said the plan is to have the Wurlitzer fully operational by the new year.
The foundation hopes to use the organ for a variety of activities at the Fox in the future, including silent film festivals and as entertainment before movie screenings.
“It will be a way for Tucsonans to connect with their past,” Sumberg said. “It is an amazing piece of history come back to life.”
Gerald received his journalism degree from the University of Maryland. He has been with the Star for 16 years and has covered a variety of beats. Currently, he divides his time between the presentation desk and as a member of the digital team.