The Mighty WurliTzer

The Beginning

WUR-factory 1The Wurlitzer Organ to be installed in the new Theatre, Opus 1524 was shipped from the Wurlitzer Factory on November 19, 1926. Listed as a Model 235 Special, the organ differed from a standard 3 manual 11 rank Model 235, by substituting an Oboe Horn rank of pipes from the standard Salicional pipes usually found on this model. Other differences included the omission of the standard remote Piano, and a 5 H.P. blower instead of the 7-1/2 H.P. The console was painted and decorated to harmonize with the Theatre’s interior, by Wurlitzer’s Band Organ Artist.

In the early 1930’s use of the organ was discontinued as a regular program feature, and heard thereafter only on special occasions. Time and lack of maintenance took its toll on the instrument. When Mr. Carlton Finch and his father Harry obtained an OK from the theatre’s management to restore the organ in 1944, only part of the great manual would play.

There followed months of hard labor, cleaning magnets, removing fallen plaster from organ pipes, replacing missing and damaged pipes, and cleaning of electrical contacts. On “D” day 1944 the organ was in good enough shape for organist Carlton to celebrate the event by giving the first public concert at the Riviera in at least 10 years.

Sustained Silence

Although the Finchs continued restoration and maintenance on the organ, the public did not hear the organ again until the Riviera’s management introduced “teenage dance parties’ on the Theatre’s stage with dance music supplied by Carlton at the Mighty Wurlitzer. The dance parties did not last for long, and upon their departure in the early 1950’s, the organ again became silent, except for weekly “off hour” practice sessions by Carlton.

It was not heard again until March 18, 1962, when the Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Enthusiasts sponsored a concert featuring Carlton on the Mighty Wurlitzer. The theatre organ club thereafter held one or two annual concerts at the Riviera, usually on Sunday morning right up to regular matinee show time. The theatre admission was charged at the box office for these concerts, which also entitled the members to stay and see the regular show.


IMG_0975June 26, 1967 saw a drastic departure from the usual “Sunday Morning” club organ concerts at the “Riv”. For this concert, the theatre was rented on a weekday evening, a name artist from out-of-town was hired to play, and the Riviera’s doors were opened to the public for the event. The club was barely able to meet expenses-plus, but this concert set the pattern for the many successful monthly concerts, as we know them today. By 1969 these public concerts were heard at the Riviera 12 to 14 times yearly, with frequent use of the organ for special events as well.

During this time the organ itself saw improvements, as well as expansion. The dormant elevator was repaired and once again the console rose in splendor from its pit. Various instruments, and pipes within the organ began to sound forth. A sheet of board found blocking the sound from the pipe loft was removed; why it was placed there, and by whom, remained a mystery.

During the one-year closure of the theatre, however, the monthly organ concerts continued as usual, the theatre being opened for one night a month. Work on the organ also continued. The Wurlitzer organ from the Kensington Theatre in Buffalo was donated to the Riviera Theatre project in 1970, and although that organ had been badly damaged by flood and vandalism, many of the parts of this organ were eventually incorporated into the “Riv” organ. The club purchased a brand new set of Post Horn pipes for the organ, which were playing by the autumn of 1971. New modern electrical relays and switches were purchased by the club to compliment the old existing equipment. This would allow planned expansion of the organ’s original 11 ranks of pipes.

To help finance the Riviera’s secure future, the club made an offer to purchase the Wurlitzer for a substantial amount, along with a provision to have the instrument remain in the theatre. This offer was eventually accepted, the N.F.T.O.S. now owned the organ and at least could assure its future.

Meanwhile, the enlargement and restoration of the Wurlitzer by club members continued. As mentioned, a player piano was acquired and converted to play remotely, from the organ’s console. Additional organ parts and pipes were donated to the Riviera project from Buffalo’s Century Theatre and installed by the work crew. The console itself received a facelift all of the artwork and paint was professionally done by an artist. The stop tablets were rearranged, and many new one were added. Most of this work was done in 1974. By 1975 the organ had grown to 16 ranks of pipes.

An Organ for the Future

IMG_0956By the late 1990’s, the organ, while playing, was starting to show it’s age.  The relay, which was located in 2 separate rooms in the basement consisting of electro pneumatic relays much like an old telephone system were becoming unreliable.  Consisting of literally miles of wiring and thousands of individual contacts it was simply wearing out after many years of continuous use causing dead notes and other undesirable problems.  Along with the relay the combination action in the console, which allows an organist to save and activate groups of stops using buttons called pistons located between the keyboards was also having issues.  The original system required an organist to set each piston and stop using wire springs about the size of a paperclip arranged on a large board in the orchestra pit.  The system was both cumbersome and limited as each organist had to use the same set of saved settings if there was not time to change it before a show.  The decision was made to undertake the huge task of replacing both the combination action and relay.  A modern, computer based system by Artisan was selected to handle both functions that would provide several advantages over the original 1920’s relays.  Volunteers labored for over a year to essentially disassemble the console and replace the guts with modern technology.  The chambers were also completely rewired with modern color coded wiring to provide ease of maintenance and to meet modern electrical code.  As a result, the console which originally required a 3” thick cable with 1000’s of wires is now replaced with a single, tiny cable with only 8 wires inside.  The new relay has a record and playback feature that allows an organist’s actions to be captured and played back using the actual pipes and percussions.  The new combination action now allows up to 11 organists to each program and save their own piston settings all from the comfort of the bench.  The system also has the ability to load piston settings for visiting artists from a computer which saves many hours of preparation before a concert.  Tuning of the organ can now be accomplished by one person using a small hand held switchbox up in the chamber that can ‘hold virtual keys’  while the technician adjusts each pipe.

A New Voice

With the ‘brains’ of the organ updated and working well, attention was turned to the sound of the organ.  The theatre organ trend in the 1970’s was to make larger, louder ‘Pizza Parlor’ style organs.  While the Riviera followed this trend it was apparent that the organ was not up to the expectations of contemporary organists and audiences where there is a renewed focus on the original Wurlitzer ensemble sound.  Wurlitzer touted its instruments as ‘Unit Orchestras’ originally with the sounds of strings, flutes, reeds and percussions all represented.  To help restore the sound of the Mighty Wurlitzer respected organist and tonal finisher Clark Wilson was engaged in 2010 to make the delicate adjustments needed to make the organ ‘sing’ again.  What was originally scheduled to take 5 days extended into almost 2 months of work by Riviera volunteers and professional technicians.  The solo chamber, on the right side of the house, was almost completely emptied of pipework.  Components that were not Wurlitzer were removed and replaced.  Many of the wind lines were reworked to make the pipe sound ‘shake’ as desired in a theatre organ.  Some pipes and percussions that were in the auditorium were relocated to the stage to help them blend with the rest of the instrument.  Damaged pipes were repaired.  The trumpet rank was replaced with a more appropriate sounding set and installed in the solo chamber.  The original oboe horn rank was moved from the solo chamber to the main chamber to provide balance and contrast.  The organ was actually downsized with the removal of the second tibia and vox from the main chamber and the wooden diaphone pipes from the back stage wall.  This was all done to provide a good ensemble while maintaining appropriate space in the chambers for maintenance, tuning and proper speech.  The resulting sound has been widely acclaimed for its dynamic range, clarity and power.

The Riviera’s Mighty Wurlitzer has provided more entertainment consistently in its original setting than most other theatre organs, nationwide. Many top name artists, in this country, have performed here in hundreds of concerts over the past 35 years. The Riviera’s organ has even been acclaimed internationally by artist appearances from Europe, Australia, Britain and South America. Several popular organists played their ‘first’ public concert at the Riviera Theatre. The organ has been televised on several occasions, and several commercial recordings have been made on it. Indeed the Riviera organ is well known here and abroad.

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Current Ranks

Main Chamber

(Left side of Auditorium)

  • Oboe Horn – 8′
  • Clarinet – 8′
  • Open Diapason – 16′
  • Viol – 8′
  • Viol Celeste – 8′
  • Concert Flute – 16′
  • Concert Flute Celeste – 4′
  • Master Chrysoglott

Solo Chamber

(Right side of Auditorium)

  • Vox Humana – 8′
  • Tibia Clausa – 8′
  • Kinura – 8′
  • Harmonic Tuba – 16′
  • Orchestral Oboe – 8′
  • English Post Horn – 8′
  • Trumpet – 8′
  • Solo String – 16′
  • Master Xylophone
  • Master Glockenspiel
  • Tuned Sleigh Bells
  • Drums, Percussion, Effects


(Back of Stage Wall)

  • Tibia Clausa – 16′
  • Solo String – 16′
  • Chrysoglott
  • Glockenspiel
  • Xylophone
  • Marimba
  • Percussion, Effects


  • 7.5 hp Spencer – Original – Was 25 cycle power, rebuilt 2014 to  run on 60 cycle power.
  • 10.5 hp Spencer – Kensington Theatre – 60 cycle power.

Only one blower is in use at any time as either can power the whole organ.

Listen to the WurliTzer

Hear the power and diversity of sounds that our organ can produce in these selected recordings.

We recommend a good pair of over-the-ear headphones or a large set of speakers to hear the full range of sound – however, coming to visit the theatre and hearing the organ live will always provide the best listening experience!


Upcoming Mighty WurliTzer Concerts