1929 Wurlitzer brings silent films back to life

 

Hidden beneath the stage of the purpose-built Australian Cinémathèque at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), and only revealed for special screenings is our much loved 1929 Wurlitzer Style 260 Opus 2040 Pipe Organ.

It is a rare opportunity to be able to view silent films on the big screen some hundred years since ‘talkies’ became a theatre sensation — thus ending the silent film era — however our Wurlitzer brings these films back to life as they were intended to be enjoyed.

QAGOMA is the only Australian art gallery with purpose-built facilities dedicated to film and the moving image. The Australian Cinémathèque provides an ongoing program of film that you’re unlikely to see elsewhere, offering a rich and diverse experience of the moving image, showcasing the work of influential filmmakers and international cinema, rare 35mm prints, and recent restorations including silent films with live musical accompaniment.

Upcoming | Live Music and Film | Ticketed

Sunday 21 November | 11.00am
Horror-comedy delight
Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary 1927 (84 mins)

Organist David Bailey will accompany the silent films on the Gallery’s Wurlitzer Pipe Organ

1929 Wurlitzer

This Wurlitzer Pipe Organ was originally in Brisbane’s Regent Theatre which opened on 8 November 1929, installed on an electric lift to the left of the orchestra pit. At a cost reported in the press of £25–30,000, it was the last instrument of its type in Australia and remained at the Regent until 1964.

Comprising 15 ranks — sets of pipes producing the same timbre for each note — and percussion, spread over three keyboard manuals and pedals, it claimed to be the largest organ possessed by any theatre in the county. Its largest pipe is 32 feet in length and 3 feet 6 inches in diameter and the organ boasted 600 miles of electric wiring and over 2,000,000 separate electric contacts.

By 1944 when the Regent Theatre Orchestra was disbanded, the Console was moved to the orchestra lift in the center of the stage, by then its timber casing had been painted white.

Arrival in Brisbane

The Wurlitzer console unpacked at the Brisbane premises of Whitehouse Bros, 1929
The Wurlitzer being transported to the Regent Theatre, 17 September 1929 / Courtesy: Trove, National Library Australia

Installation at the Regent Theatre in 1929

Installation of the Wurlitzer console at the Regent Theatre in 1929 by the staff of Whitehouse Bros / Photography: Howell Whitehouse / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane
Staff of Whitehouse Bros inside the main chamber of the organ at the Regent Theatre in 1929 / Photography: Howell Whitehouse
Diaphone pipes for the Wurlitzer organ being installed in the ceiling of the Regent Theatre in Brisbane, 1929 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Console painted white

Organist Les Richmond playing the Wurlitzer organ at the Regent Theatre, c.1964 / 46254 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Regent Theatre

Opening in 1929, the Regent Theatre accommodated all classes of theatrical entertainment from opera to vaudeville and films, with construction approval in 1926, at a time when picture palaces were gaining popularity worldwide. The theatre located on a prestigious Queen Street address in the heart of the city, was the only ‘American-style’ picture palace to be built in Queensland, reflecting the opulence and grandeur of the great Hollywood era.

Seating more than 2,500 patrons it was one of the largest theatres in Australia and comprised an extensive stage featuring the Wurlitzer Pipe Organ. The Theatre auditorium was even cooled by the first air conditioning in Queensland.

A large dome stretching above the stalls featured a one-ton bronze chandelier in the centre of an oval ceiling medallion set within a “sunburst” surrounded by elaborate decorative plaster work, one of many crystal chandeliers in the dress circle ceiling.

Unfortunately the auditorium interior was demolished and converted into a four-screen complex by Hoyts in 1979, however the building exterior, including the entrance, main foyers and marble staircase remains intact and are now heritage listed. The Hoyts Theatre closed in 2010 to be replaced with offices.

Brisbane

Queen Street viewed from Edward Street toward North Quay, with the Regent Theatre (middle left) just after opening in 1929, photograph 1930 / BCC-B120-31476 / Courtesy: Brisbane City Council
Queen Street with the Regent Theatre (middle right) / 31955-0001-0005 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Regent Theatre, Queen Street facade

H.B. Green & Co. / Exterior, Regent Theatre, 1929 / 27003732 / Courtesy: Trove, National Library of Australia

Regent Theatre auditorium

H.B. Green & Co. / Auditorium, Regent Theatre, 1929 with the Wurlitzer Organ on display (left of stage) / 27003732 / Courtesy: Trove, National Library of Australia
H.B. Green & Co. / Auditorium side wall, Regent Theatre, 1929 / 27003732 / Courtesy: Trove, National Library of Australia
The interior of the Regent Theatre, Brisbane, c.1955 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane
View of the auditorium inside the Regent Theatre in Brisbane, c.1969 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Demolition of the Regent Theatre auditorium in 1979

Demolition of the Regent Theatre auditorium in 1979 to be converted into a 4-screen complex / 135072 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Main foyers and marble staircase heritage listed

Regent Theatre foyer, c.1959 / 6523-0001-0109 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane
Regent Theatre foyer remains today and was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 1992 , photograph c.1965  / 135066 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Wurlitzer installed at GOMA

Once removed from the Regent Theatre in 1964, the Wurlitzer remained in private ownership in New South Wales until it was negotiated to be returned to Queensland in 2004 when it underwent restoration and installed in the Australian Cinémathèque when GOMA opened in December 2006. Rechristened in early 2007, it has hardly been altered over the years and remains an important part of Queensland’s cultural heritage, now used regularly to score classic silent films under the fingers of talented organists.

Two main organ chambers stretch back beneath the seating in Cinema A and contain the organ’s largest pipes and many components including musical instruments, sound effects and the bells and whistles that are pneumatically operated from the Console, with the sound ultimately surging into the cinema through chutes that open through grilles in front of the stage. This Wurlitzer model incorporates more elements than any other theatre organ in Australia to give audiences an exceptional and unique audio experience.

Edited research and supplementary material compiled by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer, QAGOMA

Further reading
PSTOS-Pipeline
Gallery of Modern Art Wurlitzer
Theatre Organs of Queensland

GOMA Theatre Organ

Installation of the Wurlitzer console at the Gallery of Modern Art in 2006 / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA
Installation of the Wurlitzer console within the central lift below the stage in Cinema A, 2006 / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA
The Wurlitzer console installed at the Gallery of Modern Art / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

Organist David Bailey playing the Gallery’s 1929 Wurlitzer organ / Photographs: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

Dip into our Cinema blogs / View the ongoing Australian Cinémathèque program / Know Brisbane through the QAGOMA Collection / Delve into our Queensland Stories

Featured image: Organist David Bailey playing the Gallery’s 1929 Wurlitzer organ / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA
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