Pipe Dreams: Effort To Keep Famous Wurlitzer In Wichita Amid Century II’s Uncertain Future

May 2, 2019

A famous Wurlitzer pipe organ has been based at Wichita’s Century II for about as long as the performing arts center has been open. With Century II’s future in question, the organ’s caretakers are working to increase public and city support so the Wurlitzer can remain in Wichita. 

David Bernstorf is the president of the Wichita Wurlitzer organization, the nonprofit that owns and maintains the 93-year-old theatre organ. It premiered at Century II in 1972. He says many people in the community don’t know about the Wurlitzer or its history.

“Some people are surprised to even know it’s down in Century II. Others aren’t quite sure what to make of it,” Bernstorf says. “They think it’s an organ, and organs don’t have positive connotations to many people.”

The Wurlitzer was built in 1926 for New York’s Paramount Theatre in Times Square. The instrument accompanied silent films and provided music during intermission and other times. It was removed in 1964, and went to Los Angeles to be housed in a theatre. When that deal fell through, Bernstorf says a group of Wichitans raised money to buy the instrument and bring it to town.

“The city commission at that time had asked us to find any instruments that we could recommend for the new civic center [Century II],” he says.

Credit Wichita Wurlitzer

The white and gold console stands about six feet tall and weighs 1,700 pounds. It sits on a carpeted wood platform with wheels to enable easy maneuvering to the stage at Century II’s Exhibition Hall. When it’s not in use, the Wurlitzer is kept in a locked storage room stage right.

The console is the control center for the organ. It has four keyboards, 32 foot pedals and hundreds of stops that trigger more than 2,000 pipes to create that signature Wurlitzer sound.

Bernstorf says the original voicing, or sound of the organ, has been retained since its debut.

“It can replicate all the sounds of an orchestra — whether it’s the strings, or the brass or the woodwinds or even the percussion,” Bernstorf says.

The organ is called a “unit orchestra” because it only needs one player. Bernstorf says the organ’s sound is so powerful, the audience can actually feel the music.

“There’s just no other musical instrument that has that power and can develop those frequencies that are radiated by the walls, the ceilings. It is really an experience that you have to be there in person,” he says.

The Wurlitzer is physically built into Exhibition Hall so its future depends on what happens with Century II. The pipes, ranging from six inches to 32 feet, are installed behind hidden decorative screens in chambers above the stage. Bernstorf says the Wurlitzer had to be located in Exhibition Hall – one of five halls in Century II — because the cement walls were the only ones in the building that could hold 50,000 pounds of pipes.

The foundation chamber.
Credit Wichita Wurlitzer

The organ was idled for a few seasons in the past decade so board members could figure out what to do in case the organ has to vacate Century II.

Bernstorf says the Wurlitzer organization has only had a limited role in the city’s engagement process to decide future options for Century II.

A report by citizens committee released in February recommends the city build a new performing arts center. So far, the Wurlitzer has not been addressed in building plans.

Brett Valliant is the Wurlitzer's artist-in-residence. He is also an active solo performer with performances across the country. He serves as the organist and music director at the First United Methodist Church in Wichita.
Credit Brett Valliant

Brett Valliant is the Wurlitzer’s performing artist-in-residence. He says the city’s support of the organ has changed in recent years.

“When I look at the information we know now, the different ideas that are being discussed, I don’t feel a lot of support from the city, and I find that disappointing,” Valliant says.

In addition to his Wurlitzer duties, Valliant performs throughout the U.S. and in other countries. He serves as the organist and music director for the First United Methodist Church in Wichita. He started playing the Wichita Wurlitzer 20 years ago.

“For so many years, I could go into Century II after 11:30 or midnight…and I could practice for as long as I wanted until the sun came up and other events began,” Valliant says. “I spent so many hours playing that organ, practicing there, I know it like the back of my hand.”

Back then, he says city leaders pushed for the organ to be used during banquets, exhibitions and other events taking place at Century II.

“When you have a performing arts organization where the leaders implement an organ into the life of the theater, shall we say, it becomes a useful element,” he says.

Valliant says more recently, limitations on access and the building’s sound bleed problems impact how and when the Wurlitzer is used. The Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Music Theatre Wichita use Concert Hall for their annual performance series. Trade shows, conventions and consumer events are often in Convention and Expo halls. Drama productions, recitals and Music Theatre for Young People are often set in the Mary Jane Teall Theatre.

“It’s become difficult to hold concerts," Valliant says. "It’s difficult if not impossible to get in and practice."

The Wurlitzer uses percussion like these cymbals to replicate sounds of an orchestra.

The Wurlitzer has managed to co-exist with the other arts tenants for 47 years. Bernstorf is hoping changes to Century II or moving to a new performing arts venue would allow the Wurlitzer to be co-located with the arts groups to be able to offer collaborative performances.

“Our primary goal is to keep the Wurlitzer in Wichita, and if there’s a new venue built, to have it included in the new venue," he says. "If there’s a decision made to refurbish Century II, we are advocating moving the instrument to it could be used in Concert Hall."

The fate of Century II and possible new venues likely won’t be decided anytime soon. In the meantime, the organization made changes to build its audience and its visibility in the community to make sure the Wurlitzer is not forgotten.

Bernstorf says they are expanding programming offerings. Next year’s season will include five performances. To get younger people involved, the board of directors expanded from five to nine members. And, the group changed its name from Wichita Theatre Organ to Wichita Wurlitzer last fall.

“Because so many people have such a negative reaction to the word 'organ,' we’re starting to call this a 'unit orchestra,' or simply, the 'Wichita Wurlitzer orchestra,' because that’s what it is,” he says.  

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW

If the city moves forward with building plans that don’t accommodate the Wurlitzer, Bernstorf says they will remove the instrument and seek a buyer and new home for the organ. 

Valliant says should the organ move to another city or theater, the community will lose a treasured piece of history.

“The Wichita Wurlitzer is just the definitive theatre organ sound. It was so carefully designed and put together," he says. "When those of us who play, when we think of that quintessential Wurlitzer sound, that is the sound."

Back in 1969, the Wurlitzer’s pedigree and signature sound were all that was needed for the organ to earn a place at the brand new Century II. At some point, we’ll find out if that history is enough for the Wurlitzer to still have a home in Wichita.

“The city needs to support it, and I don’t mean when I say the city I mean the entity as the city of Wichita. Yes, we need their support. But the citizens of the community have got to support it,” Bernstorf says.

The next performance for the Wurlitzer is Space Odyssey with Mark Herman Monday, May 6, at 7:30 pm, in Exhibition Hall of Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.