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Restored Wurlitzer pipe organ will get a grand debut at the Oriental Theatre

The pipes of a nearly century-old organ extend to the ceiling of a small room with wood paneling.
Milwaukee Film
Milwaukee Film spent years restoring this 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ, which will makes its debut at an upcoming event.

When you’re restoring an instrument that’s nearly a century old, it doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to rush the project. Milwaukee Film adopted that sensible approach in its efforts to revive a 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ and now has the finish line in sight.

Back in 2019, the organization announced that it secured the instrument with the aid of Jeff Weiler, president of pipe-organ restoration experts JL Weiler Inc. More than four years later, audiences will finally get their eyes and ears on the Wurlitzer at a red-carpet fundraiser taking place from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, at the Oriental Theatre.

“Coming Home Again: A 1925 Wurlitzer Pipe Organ’s Grand Debut” will celebrate the iconic instrument that served as the voice of silent films by returning it to that role. For its visual accompaniment, Milwaukee Film selected the 1923 silent comedy Safety Last!, which will be shown via a 35mm print provided by the estate of actor Harold Lloyd. Renowned organist Ron Rhode will bring the Wurlitzer to life, performing the live score to the film.

“When considering how best to celebrate and unveil the newly installed Wurlitzer at the Oriental Theatre, we wanted to honor the overlapping histories of cinema and the theatre organ,” Milwaukee Film artistic director Cara Ogburn said. “So Lloyd’s classic — always a crowd-pleaser and celebrating a major anniversary this year — was an easy, natural and perhaps obvious choice.

“We are thrilled to be working with the Harold Lloyd Estate to present this film in such a reverent way with Ron Rhode’s masterful performance of the Wurlitzer as exactly the right coda to conclude this phase of our historic restoration work at the Oriental Theatre.”

A lobby card advertising "Safety Last!"
A lobby card advertising "Safety Last!"

The screening will take place toward the end of the evening’s proceedings, which will also include opportunities to learn more about the instrument at its center. The 1925 Wurlitzer is one of the last of its kind, and the restoration undertaken by Milwaukee Film was careful to maintain its original period elements and sound. As a result, the organization noted that “audiences will hear the instrument exactly as it sounded in the 1920s.”

“I can’t tell you how delighted we are that the installation process of our own Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ has reached its final phase and is ready to be unveiled to the public,” Milwaukee Film board chair Susan Mikulay said. “Milwaukee Film has always been a champion of cinematic history and culture, and the addition of this instrument to our majestic Oriental Theatre reflects its historic and significant importance.”

You can find more information about the fundraising event, including how to purchase tickets, on the Milwaukee Film website.