THE SOUND OF MUSIC: THE MIGHTY WURLITZER
Did you know that the extraordinary collection of Berlin´s Musical Instruments Museum includes one of the very few still working, original 1920s cinema organs in the world?
The Mighty Wurlitzer of F.W. von Siemens
Today, out of approximately 7,000 such fabulous orchestra-units built for American (mostly) and European film theatres in the 1920s, in the golden days of silent movies, fewer than 40 remain at their original venues, while an only slightly bigger number are still in good working condition. Two out of nine such instruments located in Germany can be found in its capital: a smaller one, a 1929 Philipps, is occasionally used at the “Kino-Babylon” in Berlin-Mitte. The 1929 Wurlitzer from the museum is its magnificent big brother.
Known as the Mighty Wurlitzer, the instrument was the property of the grandson of Werner Siemens, the founder of the world-famous company from Berlin-Kreuzberg. Werner Friedrich von Siemens ordered it directly from Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in Tonawanda, New York – the makers of some of the most exquisite orchestra-units in the world.
The popularity of cinema organs literally exploded in the heyday of the silent cinema: those complex pipe instruments provided not only musical background but also special sound effects to the presented films. With their characteristic horse-shoe shaped consoles fitted with sets of keyboards (manuals) and seemingly endless rows of colourful, tongue-shaped switches called stop tabs, they were capable of producing a myriad of sounds to illustrate the images flashing on the screen.
At the heart of their construction, like in a traditional church organ, was a range of pipes – those were hidden in pipe chambers placed on galleries above the spectators´ heads. Wooden swell shades, a sort of venetian blinds, behind which the pipes were placed, allowed the musician to regulate the volume: when closed, they created a nearly whisper-like effect.
Werner Friedrich von Siemens´s passion for music and for cinema was so great that he had a concert hall built as an extension to his spreading, 72-room Lankwitz villa. As a result, the lavish house in Gärtnerstrasse 25-32 became alive with the sound of music more often than any hills possibly could. Especially after the industrialist replaced his first proper cinema organ, a smaller 2/8 Wurlitzer (two manuals and eight rows of pipes) – which he sold to the big Berlin cinema, “UFA-Palast am Zoo” – with its mighty, 4/15 brother. Next to conducting orchestras, invited to his property on regular basis, von Siemens loved to spend his time playing the Mighty Wurlitzer – with or without the accompanying film material.
From 1943, when von Siemens´s whole property was seized by the Nazi regime, until the end of WWII, the Mighty Wurlitzer belonged to the Third Reich. The instrument survived the war virtually intact but in 1962 fell prey to a fire caused by a carelessly thrown cigarette. Renovated in 1962-1963 by an American G.I. stationed in Berlin, Marvin E. Merchant, who repaired the instrument himself and at his own cost, in 1982 the Mighty Wurlitzer was presented to the State Institute for Music Research as a gift and after further, detailed restoration, put on display at the Musical Instruments Museum at Berlin´s Kulturforum where it stands until today. And you can listen to its timeless sound every Saturday at 12 pm during a public guided tour offered by the museum.
Musical Instruments Museum
, Ben-Gurion-Strasse (north-west of Potsdamer Platz); Mondays closed; single ticket EUR 6.00 / reduced EUR 3.00.
PS. Babylon-Mitte, a traditional Berlin cinema at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Mitte, offers regular film-screenings of silent movies with musical background provided by their original 1929 cinema-organ. On March 2nd, Tuesday, it is Fritz Lang´s cult film “Metropolis” which will be presented in this unique. setting – tickets available online on Babylon-Mitte´s page. All those interested in attending the screening are advised to hurry up booking their tickets – for some of us have been faster;)