The Mighty Wurlitzer Rose in a Pool of Light.

First published

The last of the great palaces

For some years now this page has been insufferable about old movie theatres. It is about to be insufferable again. As was my wont, I spent early Tuesday morning wandering around the Regent Theatre in Bourke Street.

This is the largest movie theatre in Australia, one of the last of the great palaces. It seats 3253 people and if you added the Plaza immediately below, why, Hoyts could seat Mr Holt's entire contingent to Vietnam. And it's beautiful. All around the balcony in pressed metal there are nice young maidens stripped to the waist. Up under the dome there are Etruscan friezes and the Elgin marbles at the very least. There are whopping great chandeliers, there are marvellous lighting effects that constantly change colour, Corinthian columns, Doric columns and literally acres of scalloped Burgundy colored curtains.

It was at the Regent that I met Graham Ashmore of the Theatre Organ Society of Australia. One of the major aims of TOSA and its 500 members is the preservation of Mighty Wurlitzer organs. Mr Ashmore explained with sadness that only two Mighty Wurlitzers were left in daily action in Australia – one in Adelaide and one here at the Regent in Melbourne. TOSA feels so strongly about this it bought the Mighty Wurlitzer out of the Capitol Theatre and is in the process now of installing it in the Dendy Theatre, Brighton.

I see you are raising an eyebrow. Well, a Mighty Wurlitzer is not a horrid electric Organ. The Mighty is a complete pipe organ, coupled, what's more, to every darned instrument you can name. It's more of an extrovert of an organ than you would find in St Patrick's, the voicing is more strident, the tremulants beat more passionately but, by heavens, it can put on a show. The organ at the Regent has 1500 pipes, which range from great 32-foot affairs down to pipes the size of a lead pencil. Then, powered by levers, pulleys, electric impulses, pneumatic suction and black magic are all the instruments, Chinese gong, chrysoglot, castanets, sandpaper block, cathedral chimes, marimba, sleigh bells, bird whistles, xylophone, glockenspiel, full range of drums, piano and even a train whistle.

I turned back to the special edition of the 'Herald' for the opening of the Regent on March 15, 1929. ‘The greatest theatrical event in the world for 1929’ it was. What's more, the Regent was ‘poetry in stone’ and the ‘audience sat spellbound’ but there was much mention of the ₤30,000 Mighty Wurlitzer, which was only the fourth of its type in the world. It had 284 stops, 560 separate movements and 2,500,000 separate electrical contacts. Apart from the full range of instruments, including a grand piano, there was a special instrument for creating comedy effects.

In the old days, the organist used to wear a white tuxedo. The organ console would rise up magically out of the bowels of the theatre and all would be in a pool of light. The console would be on the left-hand side of the stage and the grand piano would be on the right. But, of course, like everything else, the grand piano was connected pneumatically to the organ console, and every so often there would be this black magic of it playing by itself.

With Graham Ashmore I spoke to Pat Quinlan of Hoyts, who has been there since the Regent began. He told us: ‘Of course a Wurlitzer is absolutely essential. If you haven't got an organ you haven't got a picture theatre.’

However, he explained that things were not quite as grand as they used to be. The Regent burned down in 1945, and the ₤27,000 new organ, mostly brought over from Perth, was slightly less magnificent. No longer did the console rise out of the bowels; it was permanent in a box, and even more sad, the piano was now an upright and hidden from the audience. Yet it was still pretty good. The wind came from two 15 horsepower motors and there were so many pipes, so many xylophones, drums, chrysoglots, horses' hooves, etc., they filled three rooms, the size of large living rooms.

Graham Ashmore said the organ was silent for 312 years until they introduced the Regent to Tony Fenelon, who was unquestionably the greatest theatre organist in Australia. Once they heard Tony they were so amazed they put him on for the night programmes. Mr Ashmore pointed out that Tony was a bachelor of science in electronics and worked on heart equipment at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He just adored playing the organ and for the big occasions he wore a gold lame jacket.

Just then Tony arrived for his early morning practice. We sank deep into the best seats in Row A. Tony played Mozart, Haydn, Sound of Music, Nola, Warsaw Concerto, practically everything. We had piano, tamborines, glockenspiel, horses' hooves, sandpaper, triangle, bass drum, the 32-foot pipes, xylophone, kettle drum, and he even gave us the special thunder effect which made me reach for my overcoat. At times the splendid sound was so terrific it would have lifted the tops off the ice cream cartons.

Mr Ashmore said: ‘We are making progress in bringing back the Mighty Wurlitzer, but incredibly I cannot get the radio stations to play organ music.’

I said: ‘Is there an electric guitar on the Mighty Wurlitzer?’ "No, I don't think so, he replied.
‘That might be your answer.

First published in the Bulletin Magazine, 1966.

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Bourke StreetRegent TheatreHoytsTheatre Organ Society of AustraliaCapitol TheatreTony Fenelon

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