Mighty Wurlitzer to shine in organ concert tonight at Peery’s Egyptian Theater

Mighty Wurlitzer to shine in organ concert tonight at Peery’s Egyptian Theater

OGDEN — You’ll forgive David Park if he gets excited on those rare occasions that Peery’s Egyptian Theater gets a chance to show off her “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ.

It’s kind of his baby.

Park was a volunteer with the Egyptian Theatre Foundation in the summer of 2004 when this latest organ was installed in the historic downtown theater. The foundation asked him to be in charge of taking care of it, and the Pleasant View man has been the self-described “keeper of the organ” ever since.

“I don’t do the major maintenance, but everything else — including the lighter maintenance or when other issues come up — is my job,” he said.

This evening, the theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer will shine in a concert by Portland, Oregon, organist Martin Ellis. The concert begins at 7 p.m. on March 28 in Peery’s Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd. Tickets are $8, available through SmithsTix.com, 801-689-8700, or at the door.

Ellis has played the Ogden instrument before. Back when the city still hosted Sundance Film Festival screenings, Ellis was hired in back-to-back years to come in and play the organ for a half hour before each screening.

“He loves this organ,” Park said. “He’d said at the time that he’d sure love to come out and do a full concert, and the stars just kind of aligned for this one.”

Ellis isn’t the only one in love with Ogden’s Mighty Wurlitzer. Park says the instrument has built a solid reputation among professional organists around the country.

“We’ve had some big players come through here and play the organ, and every one says it’s one of the best ones out there,” Park said.

The Egyptian Theater’s Wurlitzer organ was built in 1927 and started its life at a theater in Hollywood, California. The bulk of the pipework, and the chests the pipes sit on, is vintage 1927 technology. There are about 1,500 separate pipes associated with the organ.

“I like to say it’s simple, but there’s a whole lot of it,” Park said. “People see that console sitting out there and think that’s the organ. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Back in 1927, if you wanted your organ to produce a xylophone sound, you needed an actual xylophone attached to the contraption. Theater organs were originally built to accompany silent movies, and as a result organists had to have all sorts of sounds at their fingertips — doorbells, car horns, anything they’d need to help tell the story in a silent film.

“The average person has no idea what’s in there,” Park said. “All kinds of interesting things are hidden in the top of the theater.”

The Peery’s Egyptian Theater organ loft includes the aforementioned xylophone, along with tuned sleigh bells, drums, cymbals, bird whistles, horns, tambourines, wood blocks and a whole lot more.

“Most people, when they think of organs, their mind goes right to church — and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Park said. “But this is as far from church as you can get. I’ve played the organ in church for many years, and every once in awhile I want to reach for that crash cymbal.”

Park says when the organ was installed at the Egyptian, it was modernized with some electronic controls to make playing it a bit easier. Still, breakdowns must be a common occurrence with an instrument that’s nearly a century old, right?

“I don’t ever have problems with the stuff built in 1927,” Park said. “But the modern stuff? When something goes wrong with that organ, it usually involves the modern stuff.”

The 52-year-old Park, who was born in Ogden and grew up in West Point, figures he was destined to be caretaker of the Mighty Wurlitzer. He took piano lessons growing up and played the organ in church from the time he was 18.

But before that, when he was just 5 or 6 years old, Park remembers his family taking him to a pizza parlor in Murray called Pipes and Pizza.

“It had a Wurlitzer, with drums and bells all around the restaurant,” Park said. “I was fascinated by it.”

That restaurant ended up closing, and when Park served a mission to Oregon for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints he was reintroduced to the concept with two restaurants up there that were similar to the one in Murray.

“I loved the whole concept,” he said. “But a few years after I got home from my mission, I ended up helping move some friends up to Oregon, and both places were gone.”

So smitten is Park with pipe organs that he once bought one of his own — from a high school in Denver that had gotten it from a movie theater that closed.

“Funny story, I went and bought this thing, and it took the biggest truck we could rent from Penske,” Park said. “It took nine days to take it out of the high school.”

When he got all the organ parts back to Utah, Park didn’t even have a place to put it. So a buddy in his Clinton neighborhood said he could store it in the 1,500-square-foot garage behind his house.

But then, a year later that friend called and said he was moving. Park didn’t want to have to move the organ again, and he has the world’s most understanding wife, so …

“Piece by piece, it was easier to just buy his house,” Park says with a laugh. “So we sold our house and bought his, just so we didn’t have to move the organ.”

In the end, Park never even installed or played that organ; he sold it about four years ago and ended up buying an electronic theater organ.

As for tonight’s Martin Ellis concert, Park says the organist — who is employed playing for a church in Portland and is also associated with the American Theatre Organ Society — will offer a varied program featuring “upbeat, lively stuff.”

Although the concert is sponsored by AARP, Park said it’s “not just a concert for old people.”

“The biggest thing going against us is people hear of an organ concert and it’s not the type of thing they want to do,” Park said. “I enjoy organ music, I play organ music, but sometimes I’d rather slam my head into a door than listen to organ music for 90 minutes.”

But Park said tonight’s concert won’t be anything like a church organ concert at, say, the tabernacle. The organists around here are quite good, he says, but not spectacular.

“This is what Martin does for a living,” Park said. “He can make that thing just dance. I’ll guarantee if people come they’re be impressed. Someone who’s never been to an organ concert like this will walk out saying, ‘Wow!’”

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