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4/32 Wurlitzer | Fargo Theatre
The current Wurlitzer at the Fargo Theatre was built around a 1926 Style E Wurlitzer - a two-manual, seven-rank instrument. It was built in North Tonawanda, New York and was installed in the theatre in February, 1926. However in 1927, the new technology of "talkies" emerged and the organ was rarely used. Occasionally in the 1930s, Hildegarde Kraus, the house organist at the Fargo Theatre and at WDAY radio, would use it for the radio show "Lady of the Evening." It was last used in 1948 for Easter services. The organ lay dormant for the next 25 years.
In 1961, Lance Johnson - an organist and organ builder from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, attended a movie at the theatre and saw the organ in the orchestra pit. The manager of the theatre at that time happened to be Hildegarde's husband, who disliked all things organ. Lance asked the manager to start up the organ, and was turned away.
Five years later, the Fargo Theatre came under new management. There was only one problem - the new manager disliked organs even more. Lance's idea of bringing back the organ was not well received. The organ wouldn't come to life until several years later, when a new manager was in charge.
Finally in 1973, the management positions changed. Johnson and Dave Knudtson - another organist in the Fargo/Moorhead community, took the manager out to lunch and asked to start up the organ and restore it at no cost to the theatre. The manager agreed. The next night, Johnson and Knudtson went to the theatre after the evening show and started work on the organ. This was in August 1973. There were many dead notes, out of tune pipes, and a dead three phase blower motor. They worked long nights - from around 11 pm to 5 am the next day - for two nights. When the organ was in working condition, they brought up the idea of organ prologues before the movies to the manager. The organ was well-received when it played the first prologue before Walt Disney's "Robin Hood" in December 1973. The prologues are still played today before various movies. [continue reading below]
Ted Larson, the film instructor at Minnesota State University - Moorhead, as well as a theatre organ enthusiast, wanted live music for silent films on an authentic theatre organ. The first silent movie night at the Fargo Theatre was held on November 4th, 1974 - a Thursday night (as people were not allowed to rent the theatre on weekends, due to new movie releases). The last seat for the show was sold 15 minutes before show time with many waiting outside. The theatre seated 925 patrons - 200 more than it currently holds. Johnson played several musical numbers and did a sing along with slides, then accompanied Harold Lloyd's "Kid Brother."
The next day, the Fargo Forum newspaper ran an article saying that the silent movie night was an entertainment highlight of the year. There used to be two silent movie nights per year (for roughly 20 years following). However, the spring shows were not as well attended. It became apparent that an organ lift was needed to display the organ in a more prominent way. It took several silent movie nights to pay for it, but was instantly justified. In addition to Silent Movie Nights, Noon hour Christmas concerts, now known as "Holiday Pipes," were played starting in 1979 and were well attended.
To attract larger crowds to the Silent Movie Night, the "Fargo Theatre All Stars" Big Band group was organized (1982). The group was already playing, but under the name of "The Scrubs" - as most of the instrumentalists were doctors.
In January 1979, the RRTOS bought a 3/8 Church Wurlitzer from 1st Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It had no traps or effects and was on a lower wind pressure than Wurlitzer theatre organs. The RRTOS heard that there was a bid on the organ from another party. In response, the RRTOS bid $100 dollars over the other bid and purchased the organ. The addition brought the organ up to 15 ranks. The three-manual console was installed. It had an air operated (pneumatic) relay, which was too large to have backstage. Therefore it was put in the Fly Gallery and covered in black plastic - as the roof leaked. It took a team of two people four to five weeks to wire. The organ had a 1400 wire cable that was 300 feet long, and far too heavy to lift. For several years, both the original 2-manual console and the new 3-manual console were both playable simultaneously.
The Fargo Theatre went under complete restoration in 1998, with a grand reopening in March 1999. The renovations completed included a new roof, remodeled lobby, and added dressing rooms backstage. The organ was removed and put into storage in five days. During the renovation, the RRTOS received a grant from Lake Agassiz Arts Council to build a new four-manual, solid-state console. The pipes and new console were reinstalled in the Theatre in 1999, with many additions in the following years to bring the organ up to 32 ranks. The original organ console now resides in the second floor lobby mezzanine.
The Wurlitzer is played before the weekend movies and for theatre tours. It is the largest theatre organ between Minneapolis and Seattle, and is credited with saving the Fargo Theatre from the wrecking ball.
House Organists (bolded names denote current house organists): Ramon Berry, Eddie Borgens, Hildegarde (Usselman) Kraus, Lance E. Johnson, Dave Knudtson, Lloyd Collins, Pat Kelly, R. Gene Struble, Tyler Engberg, Lorraine (Nelson) Jossund, Allen Moe, Steve Eneboe, Alex Swanson, Ryan Hardy, Dillon Swanson, Dylan Thiele, and Alex Moe.
Guest Artists have included Walt Strony, Rob Richards, Lance Luce, Donna Parker, Fr. James Miller, Tom Hazelton, Jim Riggs, Kent Washburn, and Luke Staisiunas.
For best viewing, click on the photo below for a full size image and description.
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