The Sounds of Americana
February 16, 2012
By Vanessa Formato WORCESTER MAGAZINE WRITER
Just when you develop the audacity to think you know everything about a place, something quite special is bound to pop up. Though the Hanover Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ might not be a secret, having starred in a number of shows since its 2009 debut, it’s a fascinating piece of technology that doesn’t get nearly the attention it should. The Hanover Theatre is asking Worcester to take notice this week and is hosting a unique opportunity to learn about this hometown gem.
This presentation is part of a lifelong dream for curator Don Phipps. Phipps has been working with organs for 63 years – he’s 79 – and the still-recent installation of his Mighty Wurlitzer in the Hanover Theatre is one of his grandest accomplishments. Over the course of 40 years, Phipps amassed an astounding collection of organ parts in need of a good home, and it was the Hanover that jumped at the chance to have Phipps and his team assemble the gigantic piece in their space.
“At one time, it was the biggest theater organ built in Massachusetts,” Phipps says. Mighty Wurlitzers are like icebergs: what you see isn’t nearly what you get. The Hanover’s extends to both sides of the building with most of the pipes and other instruments hidden away. The organ’s pipes range in size from akin to a pencil to more than a dozen feet long. According to Phipps, attendees will get to see some of the instrument’s insides up close and personal, as well as in photographs.
After the technical portion of the presentation, resident organist Len Beyersdorfer will be giving a short concert of everything from Broadway tunes to modern favorites. Beyersdorfer came to the Hanover through Phipps, who he met through his work as vice president of the American Theater Organ Society.
“To be honest, when [Phipps] thought of putting the Wurlitzer in the Hanover, I thought he was crazy,” says Beyersdorfer. “Now I know that he knew exactly what he was doing all that time.”
Phipps’ instincts have helped the Mighty Wurlitzer become an integral part of the Hanover. It is used for preshow entertainment as well as accompaniment for productions like Troy Siebels’ annual adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.”
What makes this Mighty Wurlitzer special is the way that it functions. Much of the machinery operates the very same way it would have in the 1920s when the instrument was invented, through a combination of wind and electric power. Phipps and his team have also outfitted the instrument with some high-tech accoutrements: PCs and circuit boards that open up a whole new way to use the piece.
“The organ can record every single thing you play and play it back—even the mistakes— which we’ll demonstrate on Saturday” says Phipps. In this way, the organ is an interesting study in meshing the traditional with the modern.
For Phipps and Beyersdorfer, showing off the Mighty Wurlitzer to the public is a challenge that they feel privileged to undertake.
“There are only two instruments that come from the U.S.A.: the banjo and the pipe organ,” Phipps says. “It’s a piece of Americana, and a piece of art we need to preserve.”
“When people ask me why I’m doing this, I ask them to look up at that big, beautiful chandelier,” Beyersdorfer adds. “We don’t need it for light. We have plenty of other lights, but we couldn’t imagine the Hanover without it. I hope someday people think of the Wurlitzer like that, too.”
“The Mechanics and 21st Century Technology: Inside the Mighty Wurlitzer” on Saturday, February 18 at 11 a.m. is part of the Access Hanover Lyceum series, which aims to educate the public about different aspects of the performing arts.
Access Hanover events are free to members and their guests, $10 for the public. For more information and tickets, call 877-571-7469 or visit thehanovertheatre.org. The Hanover Theatre, 2 Southbridge St., Worcester.