In crafting their grandest creation, The Whiteside Theatre in 1922, Samuel and George Whiteside used the most sumptuous décor and latest, state-of-the-art technology. This included the $20,000 purchase and installation of the second Wurlitzer Style F theatre pipe organ ever sent from the factory! (The first Style F was sent from the Wurlitzer factory only 26 days before to the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, KY.) A Wurlitzer Style F has 2 manuals, or keyboards, and 8 ranks of pipes; this is often noted as 2/8. The instrument is installed in two organ chambers: a Solo chamber containing the Tuba, Tibia, Vox Humana, percussions, and sound effects; and a Main chamber containing the Diapason, Flute, Strings, Clarinet, and Chrysoglott. The "Strings" are not actually string instruments but pipes tuned to produce sounds similar to stringed instruments.
This original organ, Opus 569, must have been especially beloved by the Whiteside Brothers because when a fire damaged the console on October 19, 1927, they ordered exactly the same model as a replacement. The 2/8, Opus 1807, Style F organ was sent from the Wurlitzer factory on November 30, 1927 and was proudly played for the grand re-opening ceremony on January 2, 1928. It was the last Style F sent to an American movie palace. There were only a total of 81 WurliTzer Style F organs ever made; there were only 3 more made after Opus 1807 and they were all sent overseas to England and Australia.
The replacement organ functioned in the same way as the original, providing sound accompaniment to motion pictures and some vaudeville acts in the theatre as well as providing the community with special organ concerts. Mrs. Lillian Hunt (later Taylor) was the organist, and well known for her musical abilities. In December of 1928 "talking" pictures were introduced to the citizens of Corvallis at The Whiteside Theatre. These new films with sound were just as wildly popular here as they were across the nation. Their success had a disastrous effect on the vaudeville art form as well as relegating audience interest in silent films to a level on par with yesterday's Morse code telegram. Although there was no industry standard, by the end of 1929 virtually all Hollywood-produced films included sound.
From the 1930s until the mid-1950s the organ continued to be used when the theatre was rented for meetings, and conventions. Occasional organ concerts were an advertised draw at The Whiteside Theatre, especially popular on New Years Eve. Noted local organists Tom Roberts and especially Roland Hall played these concerts, to the delight of Corvallis audiences.
In early 1954, a new Astrolite screen capable of showing CinemaScope films and RCA StereoScope Sound equipment were installed. These changes made the viewable area eight feet wider and wowed audiences with stereo sound. Although this screen was dramatically wider than previous screens at The Whiteside Theatre, it coexisted with the theatre pipe organ without difficulty. Christmas season on 1954, Tom Roberts played concerts and requested favorite standards for the Corvallis community before the shows and during intermissions.
From the 1950s to 1961, community organists were allowed to enter the theatre while it was being cleaned in the morning to play the organ. Included in this group of enthusiasts were the aforementioned Roland Hall and Tom Roberts as well as Laurel Ruby, Jim Monroe, Karl Warner, Chalmar Haith, and Hans Schmidt.
From Sunday, August 20th to September 14th 1961 the Whiteside Theatre was closed and the proscenium arch of the stage remodeled in order to accommodate a newer, even wider Vocalite screen. Vocalite is a brand of commercial movie screen with a heavy layer of glass beads for better picture brilliance that is porous to allow better sound permeation from the speakers behind the screen itself.
At the time these changes were made to the theatre, it was determined that more people would be able to play, hear and enjoy the organ at Oregon State University than in the Whiteside Theatre. The organ was removed from the theatre and donated to Oregon State University in September 1961.
The theatre pipe organ resided in Gill Coliseum from 1961 to 2002 and early during this period was used for special concerts. Over the years the organ was played at games and graduation. A new large scoreboard installed in the mid 1990s muffled the voice of the organ by completely blocking the volume controlling swell shades. Attempts were made to work around this by fitting in microphones within the organ chamber boxes and amplifying the organ sound to fill the arena. This did not preserve the intended volume of the organist, as the swell shades that control the volume were made useless. Additionally this amplification significantly distorted the sound of the organ.
When the OSU athletic department decided that the organ was used infrequently they removed the console from Gill Coliseum and brought it to the surplus department. Dr. David Brauner, Professor of Anthropology, realizing the historical importance of the Whiteside Theatre Wurlitzer called the Benton County Historical Museum. Within an hour of being alerted, Mary Gallagher at the museum made arrangements to collect the console.
In June of 2008, more than two dozen volunteers took on the awesome task of moving the organ pipes from their swell boxes mounted on the wall of Gill Coliseum. The floor of the boxes was 17' 8" above the inclined seating behind an enormous scoreboard. The Whiteside Theatre Foundation organ committee with guided help from the Columbia River Organ Club and the Oregon Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society successfully removed the pipes, wind chests, etc. out of the swell boxes from Gill Coliseum and delivered them to their temporary climate controlled storage for restoration. John Cheney, Assistant Athletic Director for Facilities and Operations from Oregon State University was instrumental in providing support.
Currently, the pipe organ is in three different climate controlled storage spaces (pipe organs are not small!) The WurliTzer has its own restoration timeline. Firstly, the instrument is undergoing re-leathering of all pneumatics. Every Monday evening from 6 to 8 PM volunteers assemble to work on this project. Do you have steady hands, a sharp eye, and attention to detail? You are welcome to come participate, and the training is free! Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
The next phases for this pipe organ are: rewiring the instrument (replacing cotton-covered wires with more contemporary wiring); refinishing the console (removing white paint that covers the original surface); and finally, remarrying Opus 1807 with The Whiteside Theatre, and having it professionally voiced.© Louise-Annette Burgess