The re­turn of the Wurl­itzer


An in­tri­cate ma­chine that wowed youth in the 1920s and 30s will again rise from the stage.

A new home has been found for a 91-year-old Wurl­itzer or­gan that back in the day was the jewel in the crown of Auck­land’s Re­gent Theatre.

With pipes that sound like strings, and all the bells and whis­tles needed to bring a slap­stick Char­lie Chap­lin film to life, it was an en­tire orches­tra played by a sin­gle mu­si­cian.

The mag­nif­i­cent de­vice was now one of only three in the coun­try but has been in ship­ping con­tain­ers for the past year af­ter a change of own­er­ship at Hol­ly­wood Theatre in Avon­dale.

Now the Play­house Theatre in Glen Eden has an­nounced it would con­struct the space to house the con­sole, and its back­stage room of pipes and in­stru­ments, as part of a planned ex­pan­sion.

Stan Hen­shaw was ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the trust that runs the theatre, and said the Wurl­itzer was ex­cit­ing for teenagers back in the day, and its re­turn to him was ‘‘like vinyl coming back’’.

As well as a sound­track for silent movies, its ‘‘big sound’’ was also used for bring­ing alive more mod­ern mu­sic like ABBA, The Bea­tles and The Phan­tom of the Opera. ‘‘Peo­ple are say­ing this is tech­nol­ogy that shouldn’t have been dis­carded,’’ he said.

‘‘We were all on edge un­til the re­source con­sent came through – and now the dream’s be­come a pos­si­ble re­al­ity.’’

Wurl­itzer Or­gan Trust of Auck­land chair­man James Dun­can said the in­stru­ment was housed for 33 years at the Hol­ly­wood Theatre and would draw 200 peo­ple. ‘‘We are def­i­nitely ex­cited to get our ‘box of whis­tles’ out of stor­age,’’ he said. The con­sole would be closer to the au­di­ence when it was in­stalled at the Play­house Theatre by mid-2018, ‘‘lit­er­ally right in their faces’’.

The ma­chine, which be­gan life as a Wurl­itzer Model F Opus 1475 in 1926, was in­sured for about $250,000 and could be repli­cated but never re­placed, Dun­can said.

Hen­shaw said hous­ing the Wurl­itzer would be the first stage in a planned ex­pan­sion of the Play­house Theatre.

The en­tire project would cost about $900,000 and in­cluded a sec­ond storey at the rear of the theatre for a prac­tice room.

Full com­ple­tion was ex­pected by April 2019.


A deal be­tween two his­toric char­i­ta­ble trusts, from left: Wurl­itzer Or­gan Trust of Auck­land’s James Dun­can with Waitakere Play­house Theatre Trust’s Alan Bur­rows and Stan Hen­shaw.


The or­gan has all the sound ef­fects for a silent movie – in­clud­ing sirens, a car horn, train whis­tle and elec­tric door­bell.

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