Organ transplant: Eliza the 1920s theatre organ going home to Capitol

Asia's Tech News Daily

Her name is Eliza, she’s a Wurlitzer theatre organ and can handle a blues standard, a disco tune or a Broadway show-stopper with equal panache.

© Paul Jeffers Theatre Organ Society of Australia’s president Scott Harrison. Enthusiasts from the Theatre Organ Society of Australia are recording one last concert before a 98 year old historic Wurlitzer Theatre Organ is returned to its original home from 1924, the Capitol Theatre in Swanston Street, thanks to a deal with RMIT, the owner of the Capitol. It’s been at the Dendy Cinema in Brighton for over 50 years, after the Capitol was redeveloped in the 1960s. Now the Dendy is redeveloping it’s own cinemas and has no room for the organ. Photograph by Paul Jeffers The Age NEWS 17 Oct 2021

The mahogany beauty, who has over 1000 pipes, had her big moment early in her career – accompanying the silent epic The Ten Commandments at the dazzling opening of Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre in 1924.

© Argus collection, Age archives Organist Stanfield Holliday in suit seated, perusing a book of sheet music, at the Wurlitzer organ of the Capitol Theatre, Melbourne. c.1946. PICUTRE: Argus Collection, The Age Archives. ID: mls.

Having resided at the Dendy Cinemas in Brighton since 1967, Eliza is about to return “home” to the Capitol, in Swanston Street, thanks to a campaign by organ enthusiasts.

The Capitol’s owner, RMIT University, and the organ’s owner, the Theatre Organ Society of Australia’s Victorian division, are raising $500,000 to fund the installation.

On Sunday, society members recorded a last recital at the Dendy before the organ is disassembled — it has about 6000 pieces – to be stored before it can be installed in the Capitol.

Lisa French, a member of Friends of the Melbourne Capitol Theatre, and dean of the school of media and communication at RMIT, said she was “really excited” about the move.

Made in 1923, Eliza was purchased from the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, in the state of New York, for £15,000, to accompany silent films and vaudeville acts at the Capitol.

The over 2000-seat Capitol was packed when it opened on November 7, 1924, and organist Horace Weber and an orchestra would have been flat-out playing music and special effects for Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The Ten Commandments.

But by 1963, the popularity of cinemas was waning and the Capitol’s ground floor stalls — 1500 of its 2137 seats — were razed and replaced by a shopping arcade.

The organ society purchased the organ, which was unveiled at the Dendy cinema in Church Street, Brighton, on April 27, 1967, with Horace Weber again playing before the movie Zulu.

Mr Weber repeated a song from the Capitol opening, Look For The Silver Lining.

In later years at the Dendy, the organ was played at members’ sessions, concerts, alongside silent movies and before Saturday night films.

In recent years, RMIT University raised $26 million to renovate the Capitol. Professor French said the organ would be incorporated into student learning in areas from filmmaking to cinema studies.

“It will bring the organ to new audiences. Apart from saving it, and putting it back where it belongs, it’s a fantastic gift to Melbourne.”

Scott Harrison, the organ society’s Victorian president said Sunday’s last Dendy recording was sad but also happy. “Having it go back to its original home will be astonishing,” he said. “Acoustically, the instrument will sound magnificent in that theatre.”

David Johnston, 77, who first played Eliza at a society night at the Capitol in 1962, said his favourite piece to play on it was a Bee Gees disco song from 1977, Manhattan Skyline. But he also loves 1920s songs.

Mr Johnston is “thrilled” with the organ’s move back to the Capitol. “It’s going to its home and it’s also going to an auditorium, a performance venue, and will be among students in an educational environment. It’s a pretty good future for it.”

Donations can be made at rmit.edu.au/donate.

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