The Organ That Saved a Theatre!
Union County Performing Arts Center
1601 Irving Street, Rahway, N.J.
Bratter and Pollack’s Million Dollar Rahway, N.J. Theatre opened on Tuesday, October 16, 1928 at 7:30 PM, with a gala benefit film and stage show that was the city’s social event of the year.
The opening performer was Chet Kingsbury, the house organist. His name didn’t appear in the program since the real attraction was the magnificent $20,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ at which that now forgotten artist played. The first set of the night was a double feature of “Tenderloin” with Dolores Costello and Conrad Nagel, and “Ham and Eggs at the Front” with Myrna Loy, Tom Wilson, and Chester “Heinie” Conklin.
Designed by noted architect David M. Oltarsch, the 1600 seat theatre was “the last word in elegance and opulence” according to a local newspaper review. The Rahway was strategically located along the US Route #1, Penn-Central Railroad corridor between New York City and Philadelphia enabling the management to readily avail themselves of vaudeville shows traveling between the two locations.
Further accounts of the grand opening state that, “The splendid decor and lighting of the auditorium were crowned by a pendant dome with a 9 foot wide by 13 foot tall crystal chandelier with over 500 lights.” Outside, the front facade displayed a huge vertical “Rahway” topped with a flashing diamond. It also boasted a marquee with over 2500 lights. Keynoting all of this was the $20,000 2 manual 7 rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ, opus 1923, Style EX, installed in 2 lofts designed to heighten the sound, on either side of the proscenium.
Fourteen year old Rex Koury was an RKO organist at Rahway, and went on to tour for the chain, marketed as “R”ex “K”oury, “O”rganist.
In 1936 local merchant Barney Engelman, who had the theatre built, sold it to new owners, the Colombia Amusement Corp. Although the huge crystal chandelier and 2500 lamp marquee are long gone, the auditorium and its classy Wurlitzer have been restored to much the same as on opening night.
In 1962, responding to an article in the newspaper, music teacher and theatre organ enthusiast Wendell Rotter, together with another organ enthusiastic, Mike Hughes, began working on the Wurlitzer. Wendell had been a member of ATOE since 1960. The Rahway Theatre Wurlitzer had not been played since the 1930’s and was unplayable. Garden State Theatre Organ Society co-founder Bob Balfour also became aware of the pipe organ through the newspaper, and joined Wendell and Mike. The three became the triumvirate crew, caring for the organ for many years.
Here, in detail, is the story of the early restoration in the words of Wendell Rotter:
“In late summer of 1962, I approached the Rahway Theatre manager, a Mr. Finkel, I believe, and asked him about the organ and whether I may look at it and possibly get it playing again. He gave me the permission to have at it, but would not in any way fund its restoration. He also wanted me to play the song “Tenderly” if I ever got it going.
I lived nearby in Clark, N.J., and had free time almost every morning to work on it. I started out by myself and spent days analyzing what ranks it had, and how they were controlled by the original pneumatic relay. Up to this time, I had no idea as to how a Wurlitzer unit organ worked. I was just looking to be able to hear and play a pipe organ. After inspecting the whole instrument, here’s what I found:
- All of the felts in the console needed replacing.
- All of the top combination action pneumatics were missing
- Many of the stop contact wires were broken.
- The top two octaves of the Concert Flute were missing.
- The Vox Humana rank was missing.
- The Xylophone bars were missing.
- The 16’ Vox Humana tab of the Solo Manual was broken.
My whole aim was to get the organ playing reasonably well without spending a lot of money. So far, my only outlay was for felts, pneumatic skin, and a new stop tab. I was joined in this endeavor by Mike Hughes, who then made new pneumatic blanks. A fellow ATOE member supplied us with the silver wire for the stop switches. After cleaning the switch stack contacts, we had it playing pretty well. As a side note, this was the early 1960’s and organs were being removed from theatres all over the country, so Mike and I kept this project under cover. At this time, the theatre owners assured us that the organ would not be disposed of.
In March of 1963, a newspaper reporter visited me about doing an article in the Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal. So done! A day or two after the article was printed, I got a phone call from Bob Balfour. Bob and I knew each other from our years in Union High School. Before you could say “Jack Robinson”, he was on the crew. Actually, we were very fortunate in having him. The Delaware Valley Chapter of ATOE donated some assorted flute pipes to fill in the Concert Flute, but Bob supplied us with anything else we needed.
One day he came by with Xylophone bars. They were too large for the action, so we made a mounting for the action and tubed it to the air chest. We had no idea as to the make of the bars. He then came by with a rank of Voxes. He didn’t like their sound, so he got another set.
Along the way we added Paul Szabocsik and Jack Lannon to the crew. I believe all of the above mentioned are now deceased. I am the only one left. I moved away from Rahway in 1968. Bob Balfour was now in charge. He was the major mover to save both the organ and the theatre. By the way – “Tenderly” did get played minus the Vox Humana at first.”
On October 31, 1971, Bob Balfour, Walter Froehlich and Jinny and Joe Vanore called a special organizational meeting at the Rahway Theatre to consider forming what is today the Garden State Theatre Organ Society. A year later on November 11, 1972 at the Suburbian Restaurant Wurlitzer, the group was officially formed by 77 Charter Members. Incorporated on March 12, 1973, the Society was granted an ATOS Charter in July of that year.
Over the succeeding years the Rahway Theatre gradually lost its audience. It was neglected, but fortunately never twinned, and it finally closed. Bob Balfour and other concerned residents became active and “Rahway Landmarks”, a grass roots nonprofit organization to save the theatre was established. Starting in 1979, the group, which was formed out of the organ crew, was successful in saving and restoring the theatre. They raised $185,000, purchased the theatre in 1984, and renovations slowly began. Later the venue was renamed the Union County Arts Center, and still later the Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC).
Since the 1960’s, when the instrument was first restored by our volunteers, it has been played regularly by many celebrity organists and organ buffs. The unique acoustical design of the chambers, auditorium, and instrument work together to make remarkable sounding theatre pipe organ music. Because of its enormous sound, though small size, this organ has become known as the “Biggest Little Wurlitzer”. It is one of the few theatre pipe organs in New Jersey still playing in the original venue for which it was acoustically designed, and it still operates via its original pneumatic relay.
Over the years the instrument has been cared for by a number of GSTOS organ crew members. Back in the early 1990s Russ Sattur took over maintaining the organ from Bob Balfour. After Russ’ passing, Bob Raymond restored the secondary pneumatics (bellows that opens the valve to each pipe) in all 7 ranks of the organ. Three of the five regulators were also restored at that time. In 2001 Bernie Anderson, Jr. (who also became House Organist) took over maintaining the organ. Since that time the console has been releathered with the exception of the blow box (A small wind chest in the console that sends air to the stop tablets to turn them on or off). As of September, 2005 the organ was probably in as great a shape as it had ever been with only 4 dead notes, and no major problems.
In May of 2006, upon application from GSTOS member and officer Paul Jacyk, the Biggest Little Wurlitzer was entered into the American Theatre Organ Society National Registry of Historic and Significant Instruments as a Level I Vintage instrument. A certificate was presented to the Union County Arts Center as owner of the organ.
In recent years an addition to the building was constructed behind the stage. It houses new dressing rooms and office space. Today the theatre has become the centerpiece of the recently established arts district of Rahway, New Jersey, which has played a vital role in the revitalization and cultural renaissance of the community. The venue is now called the Mainstage of UCPAC, is listed on both state and national registers of historic sites, and is now operating as a multipurpose venue for the performing arts. It is the largest center for the performing arts in Union County. The facility is run by a non-profit organization staffed by professional employees and is supported by an outstanding volunteer corps and its local community of residents.
GSTOS has held 50 events featuring the “Biggest Little Wurlitzer” over the last 40 years. Artists who have concertized or accompanied silent film (in order of their first appearance) include well known names and local artists: Don Kinnier, Patty Germain, Ashley Miller, Rex Koury, Richard De Karski, Jerry Mendelson, Brian Bogdanowitz, Frank Cimmino, Bob Brunner, Jack Moelmann, Lowell Ayers, Greg Owen, Lee Erwin, Don Hansen, Bernie Anderson, Jr., Ed Baykowski, Ralph Ringstad, Jr., Michael Xavier Lundy, Karen Nahra, Greg Klingler, and Coralie Dreyer.
On January 8, 2006 GSTOS visited the instrument for open console, and an organ registration demonstration by house organist Bernie Anderson, Jr. Not long thereafter, the theatre was closed for over a year for construction on the stage, backstage area, and to update heating ventilating and air conditioning. The front of the stage and orchestra pit were restored back to the 1928 look and a removable thrust stage built for use only when needed. (Neither the orchestra pit nor the organ ever had lifts, and still don’t).
During that construction time, subcontractors pressure testing a newly installed fire sprinkler line located above the solo chamber of the organ failed to close a temporary valve they had installed, and the chamber was flooded, badly damaging the organ and rendering it unplayable.
The instrument then went into limbo for 5 years as different organ restoration entities evaluated it and insurance claims were processed. As most of us know, pipe organs have two big enemies: water and lack of use. “The Biggest Little Wurlitzer” had been hit with both.
Enter professional organ technician Gary Phillips, who learned about the state of the instrument from a posting by Bernie Anderson on Pipeorg-L, the organ chat site on the internet. Born in Paterson, NJ. and raised in Pompton Lakes, Gary had known Bob Balfour and had been intimately involved with the “Biggest Little Wurlitzer” in its past. In 1986 he had moved to Rhode Island and currently operates GHP Associates an organ restoration company across the Rhode Island border in Seekonk, Massachusetts.
Besides working on pipe organs, Gary’s firm restores Hammond electronic organs, and Gary himself is an organist, having studied under the late famed silent film accompanist Lee Erwin.
Gary and his firm were finally engaged to restore the “Biggest Little Wurlitzer”, reportedly at a price of $270,000. As his first task, Gary was asked to see if he could get the majority of the instrument playing by the 2011 Halloween/Christmas season. This was accomplished, and GSTOS members visited the venue for our 51st event there on January 14, 2012. A few days later, components were removed from the theatre and transported to Gary’s 8,500 square foot organ shop in Seekonk for complete restoration. Over a 2 year period Gary and his crew meticulously restored the organ components to as they were when originally shipped from Wurlitzer’s North Tonowanda factory on August 3, 1928. Everything has been releathered, except for the console, including preserving the original Wurlitzer pneumatic relay and a 100% pneumatic combination action and setter board.
The restored instrument finally debuted once again on Tuesday, September 23, 2014 with Bernie Anderson, Jr. in concert. He returned a month later on October 25, 2014 to accompany ”Phantom of the Opera”, and the organ continues to delight audiences on a regular basis.
It is gratifying to know that an historic instrument that has been so significant to the Garden State Theatre Organ Society, and an organ into which GSTOS volunteers (many of whom are now deceased) have put so much time and effort, has risen once again in all its sonic glory to entertain the public for many years to come.
Union County Performing Arts Center Website
Garden State Theatre Organ Society Archives
Letter to GSTOS from Wendell Rotter
LP Album Covers
Recollections of House Organist & Crew Chief Bernie Anderson, Jr.
AMERICAN THEATRE ORGAN SOCIETY
NATIONAL REGISTRY OF HISTORIC INSTRUMENTS
Designates this as an organ of exceptional historic and musical merit, worthy of preservation. The 2-Manual, 7-Rank Wurlitzer Organ Union County Arts Center, Rahway, New Jersey has been entered into the Registry, #0053. This Registration is given to the owner in trust as long as the organ is maintained in a manner consistent with its musical and historic significance.
Gus Franklin, President DATED: May 2006