When construction of Cincinnati Music Hall began in 1877, George Ward Nichols, a generous philanthropist and the president of the Music Hall Organ Association wrote, “When it became certain that the Music Hall was to be erected, those interested in music and art culture felt that a great organ in the building was a necessity. Here was a large and beautiful auditorium, constructed in obedience to the laws of sound, with every regard paid to convenience, comfort and safety. Here was a glorious temple within which to enshrine the king of instruments — the organ. Here was a perfect opportunity to provide music for the people, for the most eager, cultivated, critical ear, but also for the equally eager masses who, without knowing why, love music, and cannot always afford to indulge the desire.”
Rendering of the original 19th-century Hook & Hastings organ. (Photo: SPMH)Music Hall was conceived as a place for the community to celebrate culture, and many agreed with Nichols that “the king of instruments” was essential. Hook & Hastings in Boston, a premiere organ-building company, was chosen to build “The Cincinnati Organ.” Reuben Springer, who provided major funding for Music Hall’s construction, took a special interest in the organ. He led the charge to meet the expense: $32,695 — more than $700,000 in today’s dollars. With funding also provided by the community, the Hook & Hastings instrument was ready for performance when Music Hall opened in May 1878. It was the largest organ in the United States and one of five largest in the world.
The immense instrument was located near the building’s westernmost wall (today the backstage of Springer Auditorium). It was two stories tall, 50 feet wide and 30 feet deep, fronted by a magnificent screen of more than 100 carved cherrywood panels encasing 6,237 pipes. Henry L. Fry, his son William H. Fry and Benn Pitman — woodworking artists from England at the heart of Cincinnati’s famed art-carved furniture movement — oversaw the efforts of dozens of affluent women who worked on them at home in their spare time and delivered them in time for the organ’s assembly. One woman wrote, “We will work with our hands and brains and heart, and offer the results of our labor as our contribution toward the people’s organ.” Between the fall of 1877 and Music Hall's grand opening at the1878 May Festival, more than 22,000 volunteer hours were expended.
The designs they carved portrayed musical instruments, bird songs, leaves, flowers and greenery. Some represented morning, noon and night, while others featured seasonal themes, as well as 15 composers. Not all the panels originally contemplated were executed in 1878, but an 1895 remodeling of the building resulted in more panels from Pitman and his students.
Music Hall's "great organ" measured 60 feet in height. (Photo: SPMH)The organ was an impressive work of fine and performing art, but it was a challenging instrument for its players. The sound was so slow in emerging that during a piece of rapid music, the organist was required to anticipate the conductor by nearly a bar of music.
Blowing off the dust
In 1971, when Music Hall underwent a significant renovation and modernization funded by philanthropists Ralph and Patricia Corbett, it was decided to replace the nearly century-old Hook & Hastings organ, by then in poor condition. (In 1974, a Baldwin electronic organ was installed.) As the historic instrument was dismantled, the carved panels were removed. Some were auctioned, others were stored in Music Hall’s basement and still more were gifted to donors. Eighteen were hung in the orchestra pit, barely visible to concertgoers. Two, carved by William Fry, were displayed on the wall by the north staircase.
When organizers decided to retire Music Hall's original Hook & Hastings organ, they carefully preserved the instrument's signature carved cherrywood panels. (Photo: SPMH)In 2009, Kathy Janson, an active volunteer leader with the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall (SPMH), attended a concert at Music Hall with her husband. They noticed Fry’s pair of panels.
“They were just gorgeous,” she recalls, “but people weren’t noticing them. They were covered with dust. I thought it would be a phenomenal project for SPMH to preserve them.”
She asked a musician friend about the panels in the orchestra pit. He said, “What panels?” She was astonished. “They were covered with black cloth to avoid distraction. No one knew they were there. No one knew much about them. That was the start of my passion.”
When she learned that women donated their time to carve many of the panels, Janson redoubled her efforts. “I have great gratitude to these carvers,” she says. “I wanted to give them their due and create awareness of their selflessness. We should be proud of it.”
She contacted curators at the Cincinnati Art Museum who had expertise in the art-carved furniture movement. She met and learned more from Roger Fry and his son Will, descendants of the 19th-century artists. In 2011, Janson proposed to the SPMH board a project to collect, restore and display as many panels as possible.
A core element of SPMH’s mission is to support such projects not included in Music Hall’s routine maintenance. She credits then-president Don Siekmann and the SPMH board with their enthusiastic support for her endeavor, made possible by SPMH’s Patricia A. Corbett Endowment Fund and member donations.
The hunt was on. Janson visited local institutions and numerous private homes. She traveled to other states to find some of them. Her tireless pursuit has led to the recovery and return of dozens to their original home.
Three preserved carved cherrywood organ panels. (Photo: SPMH)Janson identified a conservator, Tom Heller from Nashville, an expert in woodcarving restoration. He began restoring the reclaimed panels to their original appearance. Documentary filmmaker Melissa Godoy won a grant from the city to make a short 2013 documentary (funded with a grant from the City of Cincinnati), about the panels’ creation and restoration. In 2015, prior to the most recent renovation, several were displayed in Corbett Tower.
Approximately 30 restored panels are now installed in the new Taft Suite, south of Springer Auditorium. Many original frames have been refurbished. The display is a reminder of the loving work of citizens from a bygone era, and SPMH’s building tours take visitors into this room and other areas not generally open to the public.
Another historic organ comes to Music Hall
Before Janson undertook her project, another piece of musical history — “The Mighty Wurlitzer,” a 1927 pipe organ from downtown Cincinnati’s RKO Albee movie theater — was brought to the attention of Norma Petersen, then-president of SPMH. After the Albee’s 1977 demolition, the organ was temporarily installed in Over-the-Rhine’s Emery Theatre, where it was used for concerts and to accompany silent movies. The Emery closed in 1999, and the organ was put in storage. In 2007, an anonymous donor offered to reassemble it and install it in Music Hall. The late Petersen, a longtime, fierce advocate for Music Hall, jumped at the opportunity.
“It’s an amazing instrument,” says Don Siekmann, Petersen's ebullient successor. “It was purchased for $55,000.” (Roughly $750,000 today.) It has 31 ranks, sets of pipes that replicate the sound of a specific instrument — violin, flute, trumpet and so on — using 2,000 pipes. “The Wurlitzer Company,” Siekmann continues, “was founded in Cincinnati in the mid-1800s and originally created a variety of musical instruments. The company’s most famous product was ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer,’ a designation that became a symbol of quality. These were designed as one-man orchestras and mainly accompanied silent movies.”
Petersen identified pipe organ expert Ron Wehmeier to manage the massive instrument’s renovation and the construction of a special room for its pipes in Music Hall’s ballroom on the second floor of the building’s south wing.
Wehmeier knows his way around these colossal instruments. His father was an organist for a downtown Cincinnati movie theater. Wehmeier’s passion began when he was a teenager: At the age of 16 in 1959, he had a chance to get up close with the Albee Wurlitzer. It was love at first sight. Today, his music room in his Price Hill home contains the largest pipe organ in the Tristate.
He’s well versed in the history: “Wurlitzer made 2,200 instruments over the years,” he says, adding that only about 50 remain playable. “At Music Hall, the Albee organ is 100 percent restored now, in factory mint condition.” In fact, he enhanced it.
The original Albee organ had 13 ranks, suitable for accompanying silent movies with jaunty melodies and sound effects such as a clock, claxon horn, bird whistle, fire gongs, doorbell, boat whistle and even a horse whinny. Wehmeier expanded its capacity to 31 ranks, including numerous classical instruments — violins, viola, cello, string bass, trumpet, flute, oboe, clarinet, cymbals, drums, glockenspiel, xylophone and marimba. He incorporated a 1925 Steinway Duo-Art piano that can be played from the organ console. “That expands its musical range and makes it possible to perform more classical pieces.”
The organ debuted with a concert in its new home on Nov. 28, 2009, proclaimed “Mighty Wurlitzer Day” by the City of Cincinnati. Norma Petersen’s successor as SPMH president, Don Siekmann, fell in love with the Mighty Wurlitzer himself and decided to showcase regularly. In late 2010, he says, “I put on my Mickey Rooney hat and said, ‘Let’s put on a show!’” the first annual concert of Christmas music. “We had 600 people at two separate concerts, morning and evening.” He still oversees these events, plus non-holiday shows featuring silent movies, singers, Broadway and Hollywood shows. (Watch a video of the holiday show at Music Hall here.) “I’ve done 99.99 percent of everything,” Siekmann jokes, “except playing the organ.”
On Thursday, Dec. 7, Siekmann will present the Wurlitzer’s 25th and 26th performances, featuring Walt Strony, an award-winning theater organist from California, in a program of holiday favorites. Vocalist Nancy James will sing and young dancers from the Otto M. Budig Ballet Academy will perform selections from The Nutcracker. “I’m told we present the most successful Wurlitzer concerts in the country,” says Siekmann. (For tickets: 513-621-2718)
“Why do we put these on?” he asks. “It’s part of SPMH’s mission to get people to come to Music Hall. Our concerts have brought 13,000 people, many who never came to Music Hall before. Once they’ve experienced it, we hope they’ll enjoy a concert, see the place — and become SPMH members to support what we do.” Such support has expanded outreach programs for local communities and schools. (Become a member: SPMHcincinnati.org)
Spreading the word
One SPMH volunteer who spreads the word is Steve Carlson. Siekmann invited him to play Santa Claus at the first holiday concert. He was fascinated with the Wurlitzer: “Organs aren’t just played,” he says. “The pipes are taught to speak.” The organists must have special skills, he adds. “They have to use three keyboards, all the stops, flick levers and use both feet. It requires great coordination to play.”
Now Carlson travels the Tristate presenting a 45-minute talk, “Pulling Out All the Stops: Music Hall’s Mighty Organs.” Carlson’s presentation describes how Cincinnati was a 19th-century center of pipe organ building and talks about various organs from the Hook & Hastings to the Mighty Wurlitzer. (Community groups can host one-hour PowerPoint presentations by Carlson and others for a $150 fee.)
With the reopening of Music Hall, new tours are planned by SPMH volunteers, including one with an “organic” focus. “The Albee’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ” will show off the instrument in the ballroom, presenting the organ’s history and giving visitors a chance to see its inner workings. It includes a pre-programmed “auto-play” mini-concert demonstrating many of the Wurlitzer’s features. “The organ is the star,” Carlson says, “front row or back. It fills the ballroom, and up close, it blows you away. It’s so powerful, so beautiful — the sounds that comes out of it is just awesome.”
For information about this and other tours of Music Hall’s interior and exterior, visit SPMHcincinnati.org or call 513-744-3293.
Support for this Cincy Sets the Stage series is provided by the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall (SPMH).