Fox Theater’s next fundraising goal: Sound of a silent film-era Wurlitzer organ

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — It took the Fox Theater 91 years to celebrate its 90th birthday, thanks to the ongoing pandemic, but its supporters aren’t taking a break. They’ve got plans for the old majestic movie house and concert venue: the silent film-era sound of a movie-house organ.

The Fox Theater Foundation has spent years and thousands and thousands of dollars to bring back the look of the old classic theater. Now it’s embarking on a new venture. Theater manager Matt Spindler would like to bring to the Fox a classic Wurlitzer organ – the kind that used to provide the soundtrack for silent movies back in the 1920s, before talkies became technologically and economically feasible. Spindler says the addition of an organ would be a huge step in the continuing efforts to restore the grand dame. But the foundation will have to compromise.

“Part of the hope was to acquire an original pipe organ that you’d put pieces back in the original chambers and have an old instrument being played in there,” he said. “There’s a lot of challenges involved in that.”

Namely, cost. Not just the price tag of an old original theater quality Wurlitzer but the cost of refurbishing, maintenance and installment all together, perhaps a half-million dollars, Spindler said. But there’s an alternative.

“The hope is changed and modified a little bit,” Spindler said. “We’ve come to find out that there are recreations of instruments like the Mighty Wurlitzer that look and sound exactly the same as an old theater organ. They’re just now played through a computer and through our very impressive PA system.”

And at a fraction of the cost. But still not cheap. Perhaps $100,000, according to Spindler. The acquisition of a new age Wurlitzer would allow the Fox to offer patrons a sample of the theater-going experience at the time the Fox first opened its doors 91 years ago.

“Originally, with the silent movies, these organs were installed as kind of the heart of the building,” Spindler said. “You had the movie delivered here and before the movie is ever played you had an organist with a cue sheet, learning what he was to play as the movie is being played along.”

After talkies came along, the house organist played during intermissions, and before and after the show. That experience, Spindler believes, is something the community’s many Fox admirers would relish. All that’s needed, once this fundraising effort is formally announced in the days ahead, is some community generosity – which the theater manager knows is very much in abundance in Bakersfield.

If you want to participate in bringing back the Fox Theater’s old organ – or a close facsimile – call the Fox Theater Foundation at 661-324-1369.

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