During the silent film era, the California Theatre in San Diego (photo shown) had a two-manual, 10-rank Wurlitzer, and the California Theatre in Santa Rosa, a single-chambered, six-rank Wurlitzer.
When the ‘talkies’ arrived, the San Diego theatre organ was silenced and eventually removed, but the organ in Santa Rosa was still being used. The San Diego theatre was closed and remained vacant until it was purchased in the mid-1970′s and reopened for live shows.
At the same time, the theatre in Santa Rosa was doomed for urban renewal. Then entered organ buff Preston “Sandy” Fleet, who purchased the 6-ranker and donated it to the newly-organized Theatre Organ Society of San Diego (TOSSD). Sandy, along with a crew from TOSSD, personally went to Santa Rosa to help remove the ill-fated pipe organ. In 1977, after the organ had been reworked and renovated, work began on installing it in the San Diego California Theatre, along with additional ranks of pipes and chests, also donated by Fleet.
Five years later, in April 1982, after TOSSD members had built wind lines, releathered parts, cleaned pipes, and held their breath hoping all would go well during concerts, the California Theatre organ came to life again. Chris Gorsuch, TOSSD member and budding theater organist (now recognized as one of the nation’s leading artists) played the premiere concert. His opening number, “This Could Be The Start of Something Big” voiced the feeling of every active member of the TOSSD Chapter.
And it was “something big.” For years, TOSSD sponsored theatre organ concerts, recruiting outstanding organists from around the world to preserve the heritage and expand the possibilities of theatre pipe organ music. Then, in the early 1990s, the ownership of the California Theatre changed, and TOSSD was asked to vacate the premises so that the building could be demolished. And evacuate they did – carefully removing all of the pipes and valves and parts, hoping to find a new place to install their theatre organ. (It is interesting to note that the California Theatre still stands today, but without the grand King of Instruments)
That place turned out to be the Trinity facilities in Spring Valley. It seems that the builders of Trinity had included plans for an organ chamber, but didn’t have the funds to obtain an organ – and TOSSD had an organ but no chamber to put it in. So TOSSD members went to work again, refinishing, retooling, releathering; doing all the things you need to do to install a theatre organ. The resultant 3-manual, 13-rank organ was premiered on October 1, 1995 by artist Walt Strony. Six months and four concerts later, the Trinity facility and organ were destroyed by arson fire. One story held that the organ played a last cacophony of music before going down in flames.
But that was not the end.
Immediately, the search began for a replacement organ for a new installation. Within a few months, TOSSD arranged to purchase a 4-manual, 20-rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ that was previously located in Sacramento. (This organ was actually a combination of two organs; one had been installed originally in the Strand Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin in 1926 and the other in the Tiffin Theatre in Chicago in 1922.) It was removed from its location in Sacramento and transported to a storage location in Spring Valley where TOSSD members were on hand to receive their new treasure.
It was decided that the console, along with other parts of the organ, would be sent to contractors for restoration and refinishing. The rest of the work would be done by TOSSD volunteers. Meanwhile, the Trinity facility was being restored; ready to house the new organ. It took a long time. The pipe chamber had to be rebuilt, the pipe layout had to be designed, and all the bits and pieces had to be installed.
Finally, on March 21, 1999, the beautiful like-new console arrived from the contractor, ready to be connected to the pipes and chamber. The final organ, a 4-manual, 24-rank Wurlitzer was premiered on Saturday, September 11, 1999.
Again, the artist was Chris Gorsuch, and his first selection was “This Could Be The Start of Something Big” … and it has been!
For further information about our chapter’s events, please visit our events section for full details of our of programs.