A lifelong theater organ enthusiast, Donn Linton is a volunteer with the Los Angeles Theatre Organ Society tasked with maintaining the mighty Wurlitzer organ at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. An icon of the Playhouse, the Wurlitzer actually became a fixture of the theater in 1968. Built in 1924, the organ was originally installed in the RKO Albee Theatre in Brooklyn, New York before it was transferred to San Gabriel after a generous donation by RKO Pictures.
“Two great big vans and a group of 60 people worked on restoring the organ for the Mission Playhouse,” said Linton.
Once the Wurlitzer was installed, technicians worked to connect the theater organ to the Playhouse’s existing wind lines. “The theater organ requires much more wind pressure than your classical organ,” said Linton. “We use an electric blower, which is nothing but a big great fan.”
Using this pressure, the Wurlitzer is able to recreate an entire orchestra – including an orchestra’s vibrato. “A theater organ is noted as having a very heavy treble. The treble varies the wind pressure to give a vibration. That shakes the organ, which knocks them out of tune.”
To maintain the organ, Linton and other volunteers from the society visit the Playhouse to make adjustments as necessary. “One way or the other, you vary the length of the pipe,” said Linton. To keep the organ in tune, technicians adjust the pipe lengths as needed by modifying the organ’s stopper, or by changing the position of the reed.
Despite the organ’s age, the Wurlitzer actually relies on a computer to activate its instruments. This computer system, in turn, can record an organ player’s notes, recreating instruments, sequences and even songs at a moment’s notice.