For the past two decades, Joe Amato, a professional musician and retired New York City police detective, has had privileged access to one of Brooklyn’s hidden historic treasures. Mr. Amato is curator of a “Mighty Wurlitzer” theater pipe organ that has been owned by Long Island University since the 1950s. The organ came to the university when LIU bought the Brooklyn Paramount Theater (where the Wurlitzer had been installed in 1928) and made it the centerpiece of what has become the LIU Brooklyn campus. LIU’s Mighty Wurlitzer is one of only two theater organs still in use in New York City. The other is at Radio City Music Hall.
Since the 1960s, crews of volunteers from the New York Theatre Organ Society (NYTOS) have lavished time, care, and affection on the instrument, including its “blower,” which is half the size of a passenger-jet engine and forces air through the organ’s myriad pipes to produce the booming resonance of its “mighty” sound.
Now Mr. Amato wants to share his secret with the public. On Sunday, October 28, at 3 p.m. in LIU Brooklyn’s Metcalf Building (at the corner of Flatbush and Dekalb avenues), he and his fellow members of NYTOS will be showcasing the Mighty Wurlitzer as it provides musical accompaniment to a screening of the classic 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. Featured at the Wurlitzer’s four-keyboard console and playing original compositions will be organist Bernie Anderson Jr.
Bucking the Revolution in Sound
The story of the Brooklyn Paramount is really the story of its Mighty Wurlitzer organ. In the 1920s every theater in the country had an organ. The leading manufacturer of theater organs, which provided the sound effects for what was happening on the screen, was the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of North Tonawanda, New York.
During this period, Paramount Pictures Corporation dominated the movie business in the same way that Apple Computer now towers over the digital electronics industry. Paramount produced content for the screen, and through its ownership of theaters across the country, it provided the optimal viewing experience in ornately designed, air-conditioned theaters that could accommodate thousands in a single seating.
The American movie palace at the height of its popularity was a full-service entertainment venue. Silent films were accompanied by vaudeville singing and comedy acts, as well as lines of leggy chorus girls. Organist Jessie Crawford—dubbed the Poet of the Organ—and his wife, Helen, were top draws at Paramount theaters around the country. Their dramatic entrances included rising on a platform from beneath the stage into a darkened theater as each played at a Wurlitzer console.
By 1927, when the Twenties were at the height of their roaring and The Jazz Singer, the best-known early “talkie,” had been released, all did not bode well for theater organs. The revolutionary shift to sound in motion pictures was a gradual one, occurring over a period of years. But there was no stopping the spread of talkies. Elaborate and expensive theater organs were no longer needed.
At that pivotal moment, the Brooklyn Paramount was built in downtown Brooklyn, at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Dekalb Avenue. Michael Hittman, LIU Brooklyn professor of anthropology and curator of the Brooklyn Paramount Museum Project, says that the Paramount was the first theater in the world designed specifically to show talking movies. With its more than four thousand seats and rococo stage, ceiling, and wall trimmings, it was also meant to be the most luxurious movie palace ever.
According to Joe Amato, the Paramount Corporation did not want what some saw as an enormous musical dinosaur in its state-of-the-art theater. But the Wurlitzer Company’s exclusive arrangement to outfit all Paramount Theaters with theater pipe organs allowed the company to strong-arm Paramount into installing one of the largest Mighty Wurlitzer models ever produced. Professor Hittman says that the Paramount’s organ was “floated down the Hudson” to New York City. Wurlitzer’s action was akin to insisting that an early television manufacturer build a radio into its first TV sets in case the picture and sound were not to the viewer’s liking.
The majestic Paramount was an immediate success when it opened in late November 1928 with live entertainment and a screening of the part-talkie Manhattan Cocktail. Nancy Carroll, the film’s female lead, appeared live on stage alongside rising singing star Rudy Vallee and a young Ginger Rogers, while Jessie Crawford’s organ playing combined with beautiful chorus girls to create a spectacle of sight and sound that “thrilled and amazed” the 25,000 movie fans who attended the premiere, according to the Brooklyn Evening Journal.
The Paramount’s Theater Organ Is Almost Lost to History
During the Great Depression, the Paramount was the grandest and most popular entertainment destination in all of Brooklyn, overshadowing competitors like Loew’s Kings Theater in the Flatbush neighborhood. But tastes changed following World War II, and attendance waned at the largest theaters, including the Paramount.
Television and home air conditioning spelled doom for movie palaces. Grand had become grandiose. Many of them were razed. Others were abandoned and left to decay. A postwar enrollment boom led Long Island University to purchase the aging Paramount and an attached office building in 1950 in order to create a new campus for itself.
A second revolution in sound—the arrival of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s—saved the Brooklyn Paramount from a drawn-out death sentence. Its stage became home to the legendary Alan Freed and his rock ’n’ roll extravaganzas. From 1955 through 1960, Freed emceed some twenty shows at the Paramount. Headliners of Freed’s productions included Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Fats Domino, and many others.
Professor Hittman recalls that Jim Morrison and the Doors also played the Brooklyn Paramount in June 1967, but he notes that rock ’n’ roll had no monopoly there. Jazz greats, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, also graced the Paramount’s stage.
Throughout this period the Paramount’s Wurlitzer was something of a forgotten relic. When it was in active use, it would be stored between performances below the floor of the theater. That was where it now sat—not so much abandoned as ignored, a circumstance that, ironically, probably saved the Mighty Wurlitzer.
As LIU Brooklyn president Dr. David Steinberg explains, “When LIU purchased the Brooklyn Paramount in 1950, it also took ownership of its Mighty Wurlitzer, an instrument which has been a delight and grace for thousands.” For Dr. Steinberg, caring for this musical treasure is a weighty but necessary responsibility. “How iconic and special is this organ, he says, adding, “There is no limit to how a Mighty Wurlitzer can be used.”
By 1963, LIU had converted the Paramount into an athletic center for its basketball team, the Blackbirds, removing the seating and several balconies. In 1965, the New York Theatre Organ Society, a volunteer organization devoted to preserving New York State’s dwindling number of Wurlitzers, entered into an agreement with LIU Brooklyn to maintain the Mighty Wurlitzer. In return, NYTOS receives use of the organ several times a year for concerts and programs.
The partnership, which has lasted to this day, brought immediate benefits. The theater organ was an extravagance that required tremendous amounts of time and money, both of which were then in short supply. With seven thousand moving parts and an array of 1920s electromagnetic and pneumatic technology, the Paramount Wurlitzer is a mechanical as well as a musical marvel. The organ required devoted supporters to prevent it from being dismantled and sold piecemeal—the fate of many of the two thousand theater organs produced by Wurlitzer.
Larry Atherton, a member of LIU Brooklyn’s Buildings and Grounds department since 1974, recalls that when he first arrived at LIU, the organ master was Bob Walker, who had been a member of the NYTOS volunteer maintenance crew since 1970.
It was Walker, says Atherton, who fought to preserve the organ from scavengers seeking to cannibalize what is now New York City’s only completely original theater organ. Spearheading the ambitious restoration effort, Walker toiled for thousands of hours over the course of 27 years to keep the Wurlitzer in top playing condition. Eventually, he became “curator” of the organ.
Additional help for NYTOS arrived in 1989 in the person of Warren Laliberte, who had recently retired from the New York City Transit Authority. Laliberte’s expertise as an electrician proved invaluable in helping to repair the serious damage that the Wurlitzer’s electronics had suffered in 1987 as a result of leaking drainage pipes inside the walls of the Paramount.
A New York Times story quotes Bob Walker explaining that water seepage caused some of the organs 16-foot wooden pipes to disintegrate. Leather valves that opened and closed the pipes rotted.
LIU president Steinberg was instrumental in arranging private donations to pay for the repairs. In 1997 Laliberte succeeded Walker as organ curator and held the position until Joe Amato became curator earlier this year.
The Paramount organ was seriously damaged in 2003 by a second flood. Refurbishment took two years, with some of the $100,000 repair cost being raised by NYTOS and other funds again coming from private donors.
Besides paying for the Paramount organ’s upkeep, LIU president Steinberg has also been instrumental in keeping it in the public eye. He has arranged regular musical performances at trustee dinners and at select public events.
As Dr. Steinberg recalls, “Eddie Layton, who played the organ for our home games, used to go full throttle with chords of support during decades of Blackbird basketball games.” Renowned for his organ playing at Yankees, Knicks, and Rangers games, Layton brought the Mighty Wurlitzer full circle to its original function of producing vibrant music to accentuate visual action.
A One-Man Orchestra With Lights
The Wurlitzer Company’s insistence decades ago that the Brooklyn Paramount install one of its theater organs now brings tremendous pleasure to devotees of the ethereal sonic creations produced by these instruments. LIU Brooklyn’s theater organ is a Wurlitzer Publix 4 Opus 1984 “4/26.” The console contains four keyboards and looks like an opened rolltop desk embellished with scrollwork. There are 26 arrays (or “ranks”) of pipes—two thousand pipes, in all. When the organ is to be played, the console, with organist seated at the keyboards, is raised to floor-level by an elevator.
According to Joe Amato, the “Mighty Wurlitzer” is designed to be a “one-man orchestra.” creating more than just organ music. Its 257 “stop pads” above the four keyboards control other musical instruments that are built into the organ, including a full piano, a drum set, marimbas, harp, and violins.
A precursor of synthesized music, the Brooklyn Paramount Wurlitzer uses mechanical means to make a powerful impression on its audience. The organ produces a range of sounds that were meant in the 1920s to accompany a host of visual effects generated by the Clavilux—an innovative lighting system invented by Thomas Wilfred. The Clavilux operator could alter the color scheme of the entire theater to suit the mood of any specific cinematic moment.
Joe Amato is gratified by the casual visitor’s response to hearing the Wurlitzer. “When the console is up and is being played, you should see the students and instructors who come in to listen and ask where the speakers are.” Amato continues: “It’s hard for them to imagine that they are hearing a real piano, real drums, and other real percussion instruments.”
For Larry Atherton, the Paramount organ is at the core of his LIU work experience. “Occasionally I forget it’s here,” he says, “But it’s truly a part of my life. I get a real kick out of watching people when they hear it for the first time.”
That the Brooklyn Paramount organ is still functioning is a testament to its caretakers’ passion for the instrument and its history, as well as to the Wurlitzer Company’s superbly built equipment. “The craftsmanship is so perfect,” says Amato, “that the organ, which was designed to last for 25 years, is still entertaining after almost 85.”
While much of the Paramount Theater’s elaborate interior decoration remains intact—including the great latticed ceiling and arches along the side walls that once contained artificial plants and working water fountains—the theater is literally a shell of itself, the result of its conversion into the home court of LIU Brooklyn’s Division 1 basketball squads.
When LIU built a new athletic facility—the Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center—in 2006, the Brooklyn Paramount became something of an afterthought, used for large university functions, roller derby contests, the occasional pick-up basketball game, or as a play space for squealing children. For the general public, the Mighty Wurlitzer is now mostly silent, though this past August NYTOS held a mini-concert at the Paramount with Bernie Anderson Jr. Although relatively young, Anderson has his own ties to the legacy of the Wurlitzers. He studied under masters from the golden age of theater organs, including legendary silent movie organist Lee Erwin and former Radio City Music Hall house organist Ashley Miller.
The Past is The Future
The recent concert and the upcoming film screening are part of an expanding public program that is being made possible by LIU Brooklyn’s extensive investment and by support from NYTOS members Dan Minervini, Tom Stehle, and John Zych. After years of extensive repairs, the Paramount organ is ready for another close-up.
“Now that we have an experienced crew maintaining it,” says Joe Amato, “Dr. Steinberg and the New York Theatre Organ Society hope to make its presence known through concerts and silent movies open to the public.”
The grand plan is for the Paramount to come full circle with the installation of a full-size, removable screen to show silent movies accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer. The screening of The Phantom of the Opera is yet another step in restoring the theater to its original function.
Peter Tymus, LIU Brooklyn’s associate vice president for capital projects, suggests that the Brooklyn Paramount’s future may be bright, indeed. “Discussions are underway,” he says, “regarding a possible refurbishment of the [Paramount] Theater that would allow the University to continue to use it as a multipurpose space when performances are not booked. This would pave the way for at least a partial preservation of this remarkable piece of American history.”
Whatever the future, the Brooklyn Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer will always inspire its resident caretaker. “When you stand in the Paramount and hear the organ,” exclaims Amato, “what other instrument do you know of that can whisper ever so softly and in the next second shake the building so that you can feel your chest rattle? No amps, no speakers. The Wurlitzer is all natural!”
NYTOS will screen the original Phantom of the Opera at LIU’s Brooklyn campus on Sunday, October 28 at 3 p.m.. For tickets and further information, visit www.nytos.org.
JOHN D'ANTONIO is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and creative writing teacher.Michael Randazzo
MICHAEL RANDAZZO works for LIU Brooklyn and is a Brooklyn Rail board member.