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Pieces of the Past: Historic Mighty Wurlitzer graces theater's stage*

Only two organs have ever graced the stage of Paramount Bristol on State Street, since it opened in February 1931.

The original organ was dismantled in the 1950s, when the theater was remodeled to accommodate updates to the sound system and picture display. Parts of the organ were sent to various places in the Southeast, including the organ’s keyboard, which was donated to King University.

When the theater was being restored in the late 1980s for its grand reopening, project leader Mary Beth Rainero and the Paramount’s house organist Rex Ward began looking for a new theater organ. The pair received word from the Piedmont Theatre Organ Society that a Mighty Wurlitzer dating from about 1926 had suddenly become available.

This was a remarkable find because there are now only about 25 left in the U.S., never to be built new again. In the early 20th century, thousands of these gigantic pipe organs were installed in movie theaters throughout the U.S., Canada, England and Australia to accompany silent movies, according to an article on the Smithsonian Magazine’s website.

The organ is valued at more than $700,000, but The Piedmont Theatre Organ Society leases it to Paramount Bristol for the sum of $1 per year.

“Miss Marlene,” as the organ is affectionately named, was originally in the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia. They had one week to dismantle the organ and move it to Bristol.

Trucks and trailers were leased, and eager volunteers guided all the pieces to the H.P. King building in downtown Bristol. Volunteers worked into the night rebuilding the organ to prepare it for installation.

During the theater’s renovation, a major change to the original structure widened the stage, and an orchestra pit had been constructed immediately before the front edge of the stage. The instrument is stored under the orchestra pit and can be raised and lowered as needed by a hydraulic lift at stage left.

At The Paramount’s reopening gala on April 26, 1991, the first thing the audience heard was “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on the Mighty Wurlitzer, which was also the first song played at the Paramount’s original opening night. “Miss Marlene” was introduced to the public in a 1992 performance by noted organist Lee Erwin, who played the theme song from “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The Mighty Wurlitzer is the only instrument that can reproduce the sound of a complete orchestra, all by one person. The organ is not a synthesizer. Real instruments, including a xylophone, marimba, drums and harpsichord, are mounted in the chambers on the left and right side of the stage. All are played from the console.

“If you’ve never witnessed a Mighty Wurlitzer Organ being played, there are not enough words to explain it,” Ward said. “But once you have, I assure you, you’ll never forget it. As the movie runs, you forget that there is not a magnificent orchestra behind it.”

*“Pieces of the Past: Historic Mighty Wurlitzer graces theater’s stage” by Dalena Mathews and Robert Sorrell appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier June 1, 2018 and is reprinted here with permission.