Caretakers of 100-year-old Wurlitzer pipe organ in Warragul seek younger volunteers

webnexttech | Caretakers of 100-year-old Wurlitzer pipe organ in Warragul seek younger volunteers

In the loft above a church kitchen in Warragul, east of Melbourne, is a hidden room that makes a “magical” sound. The chamber is crowded with more than 700 pipes that allow one person to wield the presence of an entire orchestra, with harmonising flutes, trombones, tubas, piccolos, tibias, drums and many more. While the caretakers of this Wurlitzer pipe organ are enamoured by its sound, they worry its spell may be lost in history as young people show little interest. “When you say theatre organ, they immediately think of a church organ,” said Di Yuill, president of the Warragul Theatre Organ Society. The Wurlitzer marks its 100th birthday this year, however, the group has an ageing volunteer base and little means to organise a party. “We haven’t got enough people to help set up a really big [event] – it would have to be big,” Ms Yuill said. “I’m just not going there, I’m sorry, which is a pity. “But if there’s anyone out there that would like to dream it up and do it, come and see me.” Norma ‘hooked’ on an intriguing sound Norma Wilson fell so deeply in love with the sound of a theatre organ, she and her husband Kent dreamed one day Warragul would have its very own Wurlitzer. Ms Wilson, who lives in Warragul today, is turning 98 years old this year and is only two years younger than the organ she eventually brought to her town. She remembers going to the theatre in Melbourne as a child, and watching the organist rise out of a pit, and feeling “intrigued” by the sound that filled the theatre. “You just got hooked, and that’s what happened with a lot of people in those days,” Ms Wilson said. Ms Wilson married Kent, a fellow music lover, and the two of them were part of a social club of enthusiasts who would get together to listen to electronic organs in people’s homes. But she said it was in their group’s constitution to give their town its own pipe organ, so they worked towards raising a total of $73,000 to pay for one. A ‘miracle’ story, and carrying on a dream The instrument they found was a Wurlitzer Opus 792, which was originally installed in a theatre in Seattle. It later came to Australia, and was still sitting in shipping containers when the Wilsons were offered the organ. Ms Wilson said it was a “miracle story” how it all unfolded. “It was meant to be,” Ms Wilson said. She said the Wesley of Warragul was going to be bulldozed, but a community group bought the church to save it from demolition. “That very week the community took over Wesley … we were offered this organ,” Ms Wilson said. Sadly, Kent died three years before the Wesley of Warragul’s grand opening in 2008. “I’ve had letters from different people saying how proud he [Kent] would have been if he had seen what we accomplished,” Ms Wilson said. “That kept me going after he went because I was determined to get it finished and working.” Volunteers love their club, but need help Today, the Warragul Theatre Organ Society has about 40 members who get together on the first Saturday of each month. Those who want to play the organ get a chance to, and others simply listen. Ms Yuill said the median age of the group was about 75 and, although there were “avid followers” of the instrument, the end of the club was a “great concern”. They would love some new volunteers with “fire in their belly”. Her husband Bob plays the organ at their monthly club days, and admits it is a challenge to learn. “But once you get the hang of it, it’s great fun.” Unlike a piano, which has only one keyboard, this Wurlitzer has three levels of keyboards, or “manuals”, and a pedal board you play with your feet. Then there is an entire orchestra of instruments to choose from, plus sound effects – even a bird whistle. Above the church hall are shutters the organist can open and close to change the volume. “It’s a real privilege to play this instrument, and considering the fact that it’s 100 years old, it’s incredible,” Mr Yuill said. “If we can just get somebody a few years younger to come in and give us a hand … anybody is welcome to come and have a go.”

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