In the late 1920’s, Loews built 5 grand Wonder Theatres in the NYC metropolitan area, and installed a 4/23 “Wonder Morton” organ in each. What is the status of these 5 theatres and their organs today? Here’s the scoop!
Loew’s 4140 Broadway at 175th St., Washington Heights, Manhattan (3564 seats, Thomas Lamb/Rambusch Studios Designers). The theatre was restored in 1969 and is called the “United Palace” It is used today mainly for entertainment events and a few church services by Christ United Church, lead by the son of the late Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, “Rev Ike”. This is the only venue of the 5 with its original Wonder Morton still in place. The organ has not been maintained, is in need of restoration, and is unplayable. Along the way, the console was damaged when a lighting fixture for a video production in the theatre fell on it and melted stop tabs. The damage was repaired using original stop tabs from the Kings Wonder Morton console which had been saved by the New York Theatre Organ Society when that keydesk went to Paul Van Der Molen, a private collector. As of 2016, NYTOS is raising money, and plans a complete restoration of the instrument.
Loew’s Paradise, 2413 Grand Concourse, Bronx (3884 seats, John Eberson Architect). The theatre was restored in 2005 as a performing arts center. The original Wonder Morton was removed many years ago and stored in several places in the US and Canada. In 1997 it was purchased by Bob Balfour from a private collector near Chicago and donated to GSTOS. Totally restored by GSTOS volunteers over 11 years, it was dedicated at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre during “Wonder Weekend”, 2008, where it continues to delight audiences. Loew’s Paradise currently has no theatre pipe organ.
Loew’s Valencia, 165-11 Jamaica Avenue, Jamaica, Queens (3554 seats, John Eberson Architect). The theatre was donated by the Loew’s corporation to the Tabernacle of Prayer Church in 1977. The church restored the interior, although not to the authentic original colors. The original Wonder Morton was acquired by Peter Schaeble in 1965. He installed it in a large underground studio addition to his home in Rosedale, Long Island where several roll players were added to the instrument. After Schaeble’s death and the subsequent death of his father, the organ was sold in 1996 to Jasper Sanfilippo of Barrington Hills, Illinois. Plans to add the organ to Sanfilippo’s musical instrument collection changed, however, and the organ was restored and installed in the newly refurbished 1534 seat Balboa Theatre in San Diego, Ca. Loew’s Valencia currently has no theatre pipe organ.
Loew’s Jersey, Journal Square, Jersey City (approx 3100 seats, Rapp & Rapp Architects). The theatre was slated to be torn down in the 1980s. A grass roots group. “Friends of the Loew’s” succeeded in saving the venue. They have been restoring it with mostly volunteer labor, for about 20 years. The original Wonder Morton was removed in 1977 and stored in a warehouse in Dallas, Texas. In 1986 it was acquired by the Santa Barbara Theatre Organ Society. Today it is restored and installed at the 2000 seat Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, Ca. Santa Barbara TOS has expanded the instrument to 27-28 ranks. GSTOS has installed the Loew’s Paradise organ at Loew’s Jersey. Pending restoration of the 175th St. instrument, Loew’s Jersey is currently the only Wonder Theatre with a working Wonder Morton organ.
Loew’s Kings, 1049 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn (approx 3700 seats, Rapp & Rapp Architects). The theatre has been vacant since the 1970’s. It was never twinned, so it was intact but deteriorating badly. A grass roots group was able to save the theatre. Millions of dollars have been spent restoring the venue to “as new” condition with all its original ornate decoration.
The original Wonder Morton was removed from the theatre and stored. The deinstallation project was headed by the late famed silent film accompanist Lee Erwin. This organ was NOT broken up for parts, as has been published. Sometime during storage, most of the organ parts mysteriously disappeared. Little more than the console remained. For a short time afterward the console was used as a second keydesk for the Wurlitzer at the Carnegie Cinema in the basement of the Carnegie Hall building (today’s Ben Hall Memorial Wurlitzer at the Lafayette Theatre, Suffern, N.Y.). Later, the Kings Wonder Morton console was moved to the Middletown Paramount, Middletown, N.Y. by the New York Theatre Organ Society where it replaced the 2 manual Wurlitzer console controlling that organ. In 1998 Paul Van Der Molen sought out the Kings Wonder Morton console to add to his large mostly Robert Morton organ in his home near Chicago. He restored the console to “as new” to control his 26 rank instrument.
When Van Der Molen later sold his house, he donated his Wonder Console and the mostly Robert Morton organ it controlled to the Loew’s Kings. Ultimately, the theatre decided not to install the organ or even a digital instrument. (The organ chambers have been filled with HVAC and lighting equipment.) The original Wonder Morton console is on display in the theatre, and the rest of the Van Der Molen organ is currently stored at the University of Oklahoma. Thus Loew’s Kings currently has no theatre pipe organ.
The bottom line:
- 5 Wonder Theatres – All 5 are still standing!
- 5 Wonder Mortons – 4 survive,
- 1 plays in a Wonder Theatre (Jersey),
- 1 plays on the West Coast (Arlington)
- 1 plays on the West Coast (Balboa)
- 1 unplayable in a Wonder Theatre (175th) but about to be restored.
- 5th console survives (On display at Loew’s Kings)