What It Looks Like Inside One Of Hollywood's Most Famous Wurlitzer Pipe Organs
The top movie at the box office last weekend was the House with a Clock in its Walls, the family-friendly gothic-horror movie starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. If you bought a ticket, you unknowingly heard a piece of movie history -- because the score features the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that used to sit inside the walls of the scoring stage at 20th Century Fox.
THE FOX WURLITZER
"It had all the bells and whistles that Wurlitzer could put into their machines -- and it was magnificent," said Armin Steiner, who has recorded film scores on the Fox stage since 1979. He was hired by Lionel Newman, head of music at the time, and he was the last of the contract studio engineers. He loved working with that Wurlitzer.
The piano was built in 1928, at the same time as the stage, he explained. It was never a shooting stage -- it had been built for Shirley Temple to audition her dance routines.
Pianist/arranger/organist Clare Fischer, one of Los Angeles's great musicians, used to play that organ, Steiner said.
"And Clare thought that the organ was his curse, because every time he came on the stage he had a stuck note," Steiner said. "We had rodents up there, and the rodents used to eat through the canvas -- the air supply was by canvas. And all of a sudden, 'BAAAAAA!' -- and my engineer had to go up with earplugs and earmuffs, with duct tape, and tape that up so that we could continue the session."
THE MOVIE HISTORY IT SCORED
Most of the major film studios had pipe organs on their scoring stages back in the day, but only Fox had a Wurlitzer. It was heard on everything from Bernard Herrmann's Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1959, to the wedding scene in 1965's the Sound of Music.
Steiner said they only used it about once a year for films, but remembers a particularly fun session in 1987 for John Williams' score for the Witches of Eastwick -- "where the devil goes to the pieces in the end. John called a special session on a Saturday, as I recall, and the organist was Ladd Thomas. We rehearsed it for like three hours, and then did the whole thing, I think, in one or two takes."
Elliot Goldenthal used the organ in 1992, in the climax of his score for Alien3.
Howard Shore was going to record his score for Ed Wood at Fox in 1994, but the Northridge earthquake hit just before the session dates -- damaging the organ. He ended up recording it in London.
UNEARTHING THE ORGAN
In 1997 -- long after the other studios had gotten rid of their organs -- Fox sold the Wurlitzer, and it was packed up and put in storage in Reno, Nevada.
Which is where Nathan Barr found it seven years ago.
"When I was a kid, my mom let me sit at the console of the organ in the church one day. And it just blew my mind that there were pipes up above in these rafters being driven by wind that I was controlling," said the Emmy-nominated composer. He's scored shows like the Americans and True Blood.
When Barr started conceiving a new recording studio for himself in Tarzana, he said, "I wanted to make it something different from many of the other studios that are closing down these days. So I started thinking about a pipe organ in the space. I dove into that world of pipe organs, which is very small, and found out that the former Fox Studios Wurlitzer was available for sale. The guy opened these warehouse doors [in Reno], and I had no idea of the size and scope of this. I just thought: 'this is insane, but I have to do it.'"
Barr bought the Wurlitzer and had it painstakingly restored to its former glory. He designed his new Bandrika Studios -- which sits on a floating floor for sound isolation, and can fit a small orchestra on its recording stage -- around the organ.
A TOUR INSIDE THE MACHINE
The console, like a steampunk time machine, sits on the main stage. Barr showed off some of its capabilities, like recreating the famous THX logo music by punching in a chord on the keyboard as the organ "wakes up."
Then, he took me on a tour of the organ behind the walls.
On the ground floor, we entered what looks like an engine room in an old ship, filled with a loud, constant thrum.
"There's a lot of mechanical noise generated that you wouldn't want to hear when you're recording the organ," he said. "When this organ was at Fox, this stuff was up with the pipes. If you were recording a very soft passage on the organ, you would hear this stuff in the background. So we took this stuff and put it in a sound-isolated room, so you hear none of it.
"And that rhythm you're hearing is the sound of the organ generating vibrato. That's done through these boxes, called tremulants, that change the air pressure. That waver in the air pressure gives the pipes the vibrato sound."
From there, we walk up a spiral staircase to the floor where several more rooms contain all of the pipes and musical elements. Inside the main chamber -- where you can look into the recording stage through a panel of louvers, which open and close when the organ is playing -- "there are a horde of pipes that are way above us -- they actually go up to 12 feet tall," Barr explained. "There are wood pipes, there are alloy pipes, there are tin pipes. Each of these sets of pipes is meant to approximate the sound of a section in an orchestra."
"You can see here the smallest pipes, which are very tiny -- like, smaller than a ballpoint pen, basically -- and that makes a very high-pitched sound," he said.
He pulled out one of the tiny pipes and blew through it, producing a dog whistle-like noise. Then he called down to his assistant on the stage to demonstrate one of the bass notes -- and the room rumbles with its own kind of musical air-conditioning as a deep tone rattles our insides.
There are 1,366 pipes in total, Barr said, "so that means 1,366 notes are generated by those pipes. And those are all accessed through the three keyboards on the console."
Wurlitzer organs experienced their heyday during the silent movie era, when the organist provided the entire soundtrack, from music to sound effects. Barr walked me into another room, the middle, or "percussion," chamber.
"We're standing in a forest of unusual, cool musical instruments," he said. "You have these tuned sleigh bells over here -- those are actual sleigh bells, mounted to a piece of leather that gets shaken by a mechanical device.
"This box here was built just to make the sound of the ocean, so you could complement a silent film that takes place at the ocean. These two coconut-looking cups were the mechanical element that could create the sound of horses galloping. You've got an Acme whistle here. And then there's the marimba -- and it's actual mallets playing a real marimba, just mechanically triggered by the console."
PUTTING IT TO USE
(Note: You can listen to the audio version of this story here.)
The first film Barr got to use this massive musical beast on was the House With a Clock in its Walls.
"When I was building this building, I thought: when is a film actually going to come along that will allow me to use the organ?" he said. "And like Field of Dreams, 'if you build it, they will come.'"
One of Barr's regular collaborators is Eli Roth. He's scored most of the director's R-rated horror films, including Cabin Fever and the first two Hostel movies. Two months after the composer completed his installation of the restored Wurlitzer, Roth showed Barr his new film.
"And I was like: you've gotta be kidding me. Sure enough, there was a very prominent place for this instrument in the score. And then Eli completely fell in love with the sound of it. So I got to use it in the most classic way it's known for in a film."
This Wurlitzer looks to still have some life, and scares, left in it.
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