RTOS and Wurlitzer

RTOS considers themselves fortunate to have two Wurlitzer theater pipe organs.  For those new to the area, it was the organist, Tom Grierson, who performed for many years at the RKO Palace, and had much to do with the specification of the instrument that RTOS now maintains in the Auditorium Theater Center.  This page attempts to provide background with respect to the RKO Palace organ, the organist Tom Grierson and the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company.

An extensive illustrated review of the Rochester Theater Organ Society’s history can be read by clicking on the button to the right.

About Wurlitzer, the Company

The Wurlitzer Company was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1853 by a German, Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer (1831–1914). The company was directed successively by his sons Howard, Rudolph, and Farny. From importing musical instruments, it turned in the 1880s to manufacturing coin-operated pianos.

Farny Wurlitzer was the youngest son of Rudolph Wurlitzer, founder of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Mfg. Company. In 1909, Farny was placed in charge of overseeing the company’s manufacturing plant in North Tonawanda, NY. It was under Farny’s leadership, in association with inventor/organ builder Robert Hope-Jones, that the Wurlitzer Company became the leading producer of theatrical orchestral pipe organs from 1910-1943 with some 2,238 instruments produced.

The “Mighty Wurlitzer” theatre organ was introduced by Wurlitzer in 1910, followed by the successful coin-operated phonograph, or juke-box (1934–74). In 1909 the company began making harps that were far more durable than European prototypes and from 1924 to the 1930s eight acclaimed models were available.

The RTOS Wurlitzer was built during the height of production in 1927-1928, to a specification defined by Tom Grierson, then organist at the Rochester, NY First Universalist Church.  (That Church still has an organ designed and built by Robert Hope Jones, prior to his employment by the Wurlitzer Company.)

Starting in the early 1930’s, under Farny’s careful eye, the company began production of “automatic phonographs”, better known as juke boxes. The most recognizable model being the 1015 “Bubbler” introduced in 1946, and known the world over.

Pianos, Violins, Harps, Trumpets, radios, and military band organs for carousels were also produced in the sprawling North Tonawanda plant, to name a few.

Wurlitzer retired as president of the company in 1966, but remained on the board from 1904, until his death in 1972.

RTOS and Tom Grierson

Tom Grierson is a critical link between the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company and Rochester, NY. Not only did he select the specifications for Opus 1951, but he was the one, and only, house organist. 

Mr. Grierson was born near the Scottish border in England and served as a choir boy in Carlisle Cathedral.  He studied organ under Sir Sidney Nicholson, who was the organist for the Royal family.  Later, Tom held a unique position as organist for a steamship line that traveled to South America. 

His first position on immigrating to the United States was in a Brooklyn theater. Later, he accepted a position in Toledo, Ohio. It was on one of his trips from Toledo to New York in the early 1920’s that his car had a flat tire outside Rochester, NY. The stay overnight in Rochester impressed him to remain. He played the instruments in the Riviera and Strand theatres, among others, before being sought for the organist post for the newly erected Palace.

For a number of years, Tom was organist for the First Universalist Church at Clinton and Court Streets, which contains one of the few surviving Hope-Jones organs, constructed by Robert Hope-Jones, the “father of the theater organ”. Tom made numerous trips to North Tonawanda, NY (near Niagara Falls) where he recorded a number of organ rolls. These trips provide the link between Tom and Farny Wurlitzer. He was also organist at Brick Presbyterian Church. In the early 50’s, Mr. Grierson retired to Florida for health reasons, but later returned to Rochester to teach, and sell organs at a local music store. He died in 1966 just short of seeing his beloved instrument sound forth in its relocated position, the Auditorium Theatre.

Farny Wurlitzer Talk

In 1964, the American Theater Organ Society held their Annual Convention in Western New York, including a visit to Rochester, NY and the RKO Palace Theater. During that week, a luncheon talk with Farny Wurlitzer was captured and is now available on YouTube. The links below will take you to that interview. The interview was recorded July 6, 1964.

Part 1 reflects on founding of North Tonawanda company and its instrument manufacturing facilities, including the hiring of Robert Hope Jones in the spring of 1910.

Part 2 reflects on first installation and learning the technical issues related to installing instruments. Included is the story of the first full length silent with organ accompaniment. Early issues of profitability are reviewed and the losses associated with Robert Hope Jones experimentation.

Part 3 reflects on first successful installation in the Liberty Theater in Seattle, Washington. What follows is a review of early successes leveraged from this first success. Included are how marketing of movie moguls was used to spread the use of Wurlitzer instruments.

Part 4 reflects on high pressure instruments, on the roll player system and later installations such as Radio City Music Hall as well as the later years of the theater pipe organ era, including the impact of World War II on the demise of the pipe organ business. Farny relates with the story of how Wurlitzer acquired the knowledge of the Hope-Jones company and many of the individuals that help create the instrument. The closing part of the talk includes mention of Tom Grierson and other organists that made the instrument popular.