RTOS Story – The Golden Years

During January of 1967 the finishing touches were applied, wind pressures were set, pipes were adjusted and tuned and a host of ‘little things’ were attended to.  The plan had been to have Tom Grierson play the opening concert but unfortunately he had passed away in 1966 while the organ was silent.  So, on Saturday, January 21st, 1967 at 8:00 P.M., Don Scott, a former student of Tom’s, ascended into the spotlight to inaugurate the new life of Wurlitzer Opus 1951 in its new home to the nearly full house of enthusiastic Rochesterians as they once again thrilled to the sounds of the Palace’s  Mighty Wurlitzer.

Following the debut of the organ RTOS membership grew rapidly.  With a family membership that covered two adults and their minor children costing a mere $10 per year, RTOS quickly became known as Rochester’s undisputed best musical value.  Most concerts were free for RTOS members, (a policy that is still in effect 50 years later) and many were free for all attendees.  For ‘public’ concerts, admission tickets for the general public were usually priced at $2.00 per person.  Rochesterians attended en masse with attendance often approaching the 2,000 mark.

By the end of 1967, ten more artists had graced the RTOS bench.  The list of luminaries included Eddie Weaver, Jack Ward, Billy Nalle, Don Kinnier, Allen Mills, Lyn Larsen (age 22) and Reginald Foort.  Featured artists who made their first appearances at the Auditorium in 1968 included John Muri, Rosa Rio, George Wright, Kay McAbee and Ashley Miller.

It is significant to note that George Wright made a total of six appearances under RTOS auspices between 1968 and 1979 and was named the society’s 6th Honorary Member at his fourth appearance in November of 1972.  The RTOS Wurlitzer was, in fact, one of a very few organs outside of California that George would consent to play during that period and he considered it to be “the finest Wurlitzer in a public venue – anywhere”!

In an age when only a handful of theatre organs were fully functioning in public venues, word of RTOS’ success spread quickly throughout the theatre organ world and one after another, nearly all of the ‘biggies’ were invited to come to Rochester to experience the hospitality, the large enthusiastic audiences and the superb instruments that RTOS provided.  Such has been the case for fifty years.  Over the years many fine theater organs, venues and organizations have come into being.  Audience size and interest among the general public has waxed and waned.  Those who remember the organ in the RKO Palace are few.  Our membership which peaked at nearly 1800 in the early 1980s is less than 400 today.  We probably will never see another audience of the 2,000+ that attended George Wright’s last appearance in 1979.  By the end of 2014 RTOS will have produced more than five hundred concerts, silent film festivals, pizza parties, student concerts, dance parties and other events utilizing our two Wurlitzers.  The roster of the more than 200 artists who have performed for RTOS is a veritable who’s-who of theatre organists, past and present.  The $10 membership is but a distant memory.  For 2015 a family membership will cost $65 and will still admit two adults and their children to eight concerts.

Of the RTOS pioneers named or referred to above, Don Scott still resides in the Rochester area and continues to occasionally attend RTOS concerts.  Charter member Richard Neidich visits Rochester frequently and currently serves on the RTOS Board of Directors.  Another early member who had helped remove then reinstall the organ, Roger Wood, is still active as a director and is still a very active member of the 4/23 work crew.  Last but not least, Dan Schultz, the man with a vision who started the ball rolling in 1960, currently resides in Arkansas and along with his sons plans on attending our 50th Anniversary Gala in October.  We owe a huge debt of gratitude to them and others too numerous to mention for their foresight and perseverance.