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This historic Milwaukee movie theatre houses a 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ

The organ was originially used to show silent films

The Oriental Theater in Milwaukee houses a 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ. Evan Casey/WPR 

During the early part of the 20th Century, at the height of the silent movie era, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company built over 2,200 pipe organs.

One hundred years later, only about a dozen remain in their original, working condition worldwide.

Now, one of them is at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee.

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The 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ, which has three separate manuals, or keyboards, made its first appearance at the movie theater in November. Theater operators say it will be used for silent movie showings and special events.

When it opened in 1927, the Oriental Theatre had a pipe organ near the screen to provide the soundtrack to the silent films of the day.

Kristen Heller is the chief operating officer at Milwaukee Film, which purchased the movie palace in 2017. The not-for-profit has been working on a massive restoration of the ornate building, and restoring a pipe organ to a place of pride has always been a priority in that process.

“We knew that at some point, we wanted to bring this element back,” Heller said.

Ryan Putskey, the facilities manager at the Oriental Theatre, plays the Wurlitzer pipe organ. Evan Casey/WPR

After starting a search for a partner for the project in 2018, they decided to pick Chicago-based JL Weiler, Inc.

“We just knew it was the right fit for us, and they were the right partner for us,” Heller said.

Following a five-year process to restore the organ and bringing it to its new home in Milwaukee, it was unveiled earlier this year. During a fundraising event in November, Heller said it was played during Harold Lloyd’s 1923 silent comedy “Safety Last!”

“It was a really special, intimate night,” Heller said.

Heller said their goal was to find an organ that would fit into the rich history of the theater, where three 8-foot chandeliers hang from the ceiling, porcelain lions line the staircase and hand-painted murals of the Taj Mahal line the walls .

“It felt really special that we could take something that was authentic to the time and put it into this place, and it feels like such a fit, and it feels like it blends into that fiber,” she said.

A movie theater lobby has ornate decoration.
A concession stand is open as the Oriental Theatre opens for shows Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Wurlitzer obtained by Milwaukee Film began its life at the Paramount Theater in Atlanta, where it remained until the 1950s.

“This instrument is a cultural icon of inestimable importance,” said Jeff Weiler, president of JL Weiler, Inc. “We’re very pleased that it will have such a fine home because the combination of movie palace, film presentation and a theater pipe organ is truly the magic of the movies.”

Weiler said there are 15 ranks, or rows, of pipes. The longest one is 18 feet high. There’s over 60 miles of wire in the instrument altogether, which makes boat whistle, bird whistle, doorbell and siren sounds.

“All of those were specifically for the accompaniment of a silent film,” Weiler said.

The 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ was restored by Chicago-based JL Weiler, Inc. Evan Casey/WPR 

The Oriental Theater housed an Oshkosh-built Barton pipe organ when it opened in 1927. That organ was removed in 1959. After that, a 1931 Kimball organ was used at the theater, but that was removed in 2018 after it was transferred to a new owner.

Ryan Putskey, the facilities manager at the Oriental Theatre, has been with the theater for 17 years.

“I was thrilled,” Putskey said about the installation of the new organ. “This whole project, I think, is maybe something that gave some extra life to the theater that otherwise would have been a missing piece.”

Putesky said he’s happy that it’ll now be enjoyed by future generations of movie lovers.

“Imagine children seeing that organ. It’s nuts,” he said. “Even to an adult, there’s just so many weird things that that thing can do and it’s just lovely to hear.”

The Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company built over 2,200 pipe organs in the early part of the 20th century. Evan Casey/WPR

Built of metal, wood and glass elements, the organ’s main console connects to percussion instruments and even another piano.

“It’s really a big dynamic instrument that really is vast in its size and vast in the amount of sound it can produce … and that’s what makes it very interesting,” Heller said.

“It was really the top materials of the time, all sort of working together and perfectly maintained,” Heller said.

The film industry took a hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Heller said she thinks having special opportunities like this one for moviegoers can help get people back into the seats.

“So much of what we do is like, how do you give people memories, how do you build things, how do you build these collective experiences?” she said. “This is another one (experience) where I feel like you could be in your seat and be like, ‘I could not have had this experience at home, I could not have had this experience anywhere else.’”

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