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MMD > Archives > September 2008 > 2008.09.08 > 05Prev  Next

Wurlitzer Band Organ Registration Controls
By Art Reblitz

Dear Justin and group,  Owners of the Wurlitzer company, especially
Howard Wurlitzer, were very frugal, and cared more about profit than
musicality of their band organs.

At one time, Wurlitzer's music roll arrangers were paid a nickel a foot
for their arrangements, a pay scale that didn't contribute to spending
any more time on arranging than absolutely necessary.  Paying an
arranger to arrange one verse and one chorus, and then string copies
of the same arrangement together to make a full-length tune, was less
expensive than paying for a roll with unique arranging for each chorus
and verse.

This was in contrast to some of the finer organs and music arrangements
made in Germany and France. If you investigate the state of fine arts
in general, including music performed by humans on each side of the
Atlantic in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of the more
sophisticated Europeans looked down on Americans in general as lacking
in good taste.  While this generalization is somewhat unfair, the
acceptance of the American public of repetitive, boring music arrangements
is partly to blame for Wurlitzer's unimaginative arranging.

The owner of one carousel who had a less expensive Wurlitzer 105 with
no automatic registers and five bass notes probably made as much money
as the owner of another did, with a more expensive small Gavioli having
an automatic register and eight bass notes.  After all, this was
background music at a fairground, not something that most people
listened to on recordings in their living rooms 10 or 20 tunes at
a time.

Robert Hope-Jones, the developer of the theatre organ for Wurlitzer,
eventually did complain to Howard Wurlitzer that the company had a
problem with the quality of its music arrangements compared to those of
its competitors, and by the time music rolls were imported from better
arrangers in Europe the popular tunes were stale.  This finally
resulted in Wurlitzer using QRS piano rolls -- based on arrangements
by some of the finest popular pianists of the day like Pete Wendling,
Victor Arden, Max Kortlander and others -- as the basis for many of
its 65-note APP rolls used on coin piano and orchestrions in the 1920s.
Unfortunately, Wurlitzer never sought more creative music arrangers
for band organ, PianOrchestra, or Pianino rolls.

Another important factor entering into the concept of small deKleist
(and later, Wurlitzer) band organs was that it was desirable for
a small organ to be as loud as possible per size and cost. The loudest
music -- per size of organ -- is produced by having as many of the
pipes in the organ as possible in play at any given time.  One way
to decrease the cost and size of an organ is to eliminate pipes that
aren't played very often.  The most obvious way to make a smaller organ
was to eliminate the bass notes that were rarely played in those simple

Taking that concept to its extreme, having several ranks of pipes that
could alternate for different sounds also meant a lower volume level
than if everything always played at once.  Adding the automatic register
mechanisms to a small organ also would have cost more.  Many simple
waltzes, marches and popular tunes of the late 1800s didn't need more
than a few bass notes and chords, and they sounded fine when played on
an organ with a limited musical scale.

Today we're spoiled after hearing the sophisticated music arrangements
pioneered by the likes of Gustav Bruder, Carl Frei and the finest
arrangers of our generation, but the average arrangements for barrel
organs in the late 1890s, or even pre-WW2 Mortier dance organs, were
simply not as sophisticated as what came later.  While later Wurlitzer
carousel organs like the styles 153, 157 and 165 are musically more
sophisticated than the early, louder brass trumpet/clarinet/piccolo
skating rink organs, by the 1920s there were so many early organs in
use that it wasn't considered desirable by the Wurlitzer family to make
the early organs obsolete by changing the musical scales just to keep
up with the increasing sophistication of American popular music.

Incidentally, another reflection of Wurlitzer's fondness for cutting
corners is in the way its band organ cabinets were constructed -- many
of them with nothing more than a simple butt joint at each corner, with
the end grain of one piece of wood glued to the veneer and crossbanding
that cover the core of the other piece.  Using dovetail joints, or even
just removing the veneer under the butt joint for a more solid type of
construction, would have cost more.  But the construction was good
enough for the organs to survive heavy use, so Howard Wurlitzer
wouldn't have seen any point in paying for better joinery.

Art Reblitz

(Message sent Tue 9 Sep 2008, 02:17:50 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  Band, Controls, Organ, Registration, Wurlitzer

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