by John Gagnon
Tech’s Mighty Wurlitzer, age 84, passed on in May after long and harmonious service to the University community and to the public. Having produced a repertoire fit for both hockey games and commencements, her pipes have fallen silent.
Originally fashioned in 1925, the storied and well-traveled organ resided in Houghton for thirty-nine years. She was distinctive—believed to be the only organ gracing a college hockey rink in the nation—and she was modest, content to be hidden in the rafters of the ice arena.
Born in humble circumstances as a church organ, she reinvented herself as a theater organ—a noteworthy transformation, “for the pipe organ,” it is said, “is the most complex of musical instruments, and the theater pipe organ is the most complex of pipe organs.”
Tech’s Wurlitzer was an imposing diva: 1,119 pipes, some the size of a pencil, some 16 feet long; a three-part keyboard; more than 130 stops; and 32 pedals. In all, she weighed nearly ten tons. In full voice, one observer noted, she produced music that was “glorious.”
The organ was built in 1925 by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. In the 1960s, she found her way from a church in upstate New York to the home of James Thomas, a pipe organ enthusiast from Olean, New York. John Wagner, a Michigan Tech student from Grand Rapids, persuaded Thomas to give the organ to Michigan Tech, which he did in 1970. She languished for several years, bouncing around from storage space to storage space before finding a home in the ice arena.
Although valued at $75,000, she was a victim of the rigors of age, dismantling, and transportation and eventually underwent a makeover worthy of any performer on the far side of fifty. She was releathered and rewired; cables were traced and spliced; pipes, some smashed and deformed, were replaced and “revoiced”; switches, relays, and air valves were fixed.
Powered by a lowly ten-horsepower blower, she made her Tech debut in 1975. The Wurlitzer produced a versatile range of sounds: trumpet, harp, oboe, violin, clarinet, cello, and flute, and percussion instruments like snare drums and tambourines. She blended it all into a distinctive voice. “Parts move, shake, click, chime, and chatter,” one contemporary said. “See what this baby can do when the air pressure is on.”
Like any musician, she thrived on practice. “An organ needs playing,” one observer said. “It’s made of leather, glue, wood and metal . . . They all have to be exercised or they get stiff. . . . This is sort of a living thing.” Left unplayed, the organ “sounded like a sick duck,” he said.
Occasionally thwarted by flies, dust, and disuse, Mighty Wurlitzer again had a tough go in the 1980s, when, said one observer, she started whistling by herself. “I took a screwdriver to it,” said a repairman. “Nobody wants an organ that decides to play itself—and the incorrect notes at that.”
The Mighty Wurlitzer is survived by thousands of devoted fans who mourn the passing of her majestic chords. Organist Gerrit Lamain, who elicited sweet sounds from her for years, caressed her keyboard one last time at Spring Commencement in May. “It’s always sad,” he said, “to say goodbye to an era.”
Editor’s note (sic): It was with great regret that the University retired the beloved Mighty Wurlitzer, a decision forced by mounting repair bills.