RTOS Story – In the Beginning

In the beginning there was an organ, a theatre, and an organist. Wurlitzer Opus 1951 was built at the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company factory in North Tonawanda, NY in the summer of 1928. At that time the 2916-seat Keith-Albee Palace Theatre (later renamed RKO Palace) was well on its way to completion on Clinton Avenue North and Mortimer Street in Rochester, NY.  A native of Great Britain, Tom Grierson had experience playing organs in St Louis, Brooklyn and Buffalo, and eventually settled in Rochester.  Here he had held several church organist positions and played engagements at several local theatres before being retained to play at what would soon become Rochester’s most beautiful movie palace. Tom custom designed the organ, a 4-manual, 21-rank, ‘special’ which was probably shipped by rail to Rochester on September 12, 1928.  Installation took three months and local lore suggests that due to Tom’s close relationship with Wurlitzer (he recorded many organ player rolls for them) and since Rochester was only a short distance from the factory, that the organ was the recipient of voicing and regulating services not afforded most Wurlitzer installations.

Tom Grierson

The Palace Theatre opened on Christmas Day 1928 with Tom Grierson at the console, a position he would hold for fifteen years.  Coming at the tail end of the silent era, the organ never accompanied films, but was used for spotlight solos, sing-a-longs and thousands of radio broadcasts. Over the years many others played the Palace organ, the most famous being Jesse and Helen Crawford who appeared there during Easter week, 1934. One of the twin consoles from the neighboring Piccadilly (later Paramount) Wurlitzer was brought over and wired into the Palace instrument so they could play the duets they had become famous for.  Use of the organ continued well into the 1940s until vaudeville and other live shows at the Palace had ended.  Then to cut costs the console was lowered into the pit and the organ was silenced and would remain unused through the rest of the 1940s and throughout the ‘50s.