BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) — When patrons come to Paramount Bristol to see a show with singers and actors gracing the stage, most don’t realize the longest-reigning star in the building stands on alert and ready to perform just beneath the stage’s floor.
Her name – Miss Marlene.
“I call it the Mighty Wurlitzer Experience,” said organist Rex Ward.
For 30 years, he’s played the Wurlitzer Theater organ at Paramount Bristol, which he thinks is one of only 20 still in use across the United States.
“The organ was built in 1932, and therefore she is 90 years old,” he said.
“Miss Marlene” as some call her is The Paramount’s second organ. The first accompanied silent movies and vaudeville shows. It was dismantled when movies started to include sound. Miss Marlene’s first home was in a theater in Charlottesville, Virginia. After narrowly escaping a fire, she was moved to Elon College where the organ remained until the fall of 1989, when the Paramount was in the early days of its restoration.
Ward heard about the Wurlitzer and, along with Paramount Board member Mary Beth Rainero and a team of volunteers, brought the organ to downtown Bristol.
After spending years in storage, The Wurlitzer was refurbished and installed in The Paramount. On April 26, 1991, an audience stood as, for the first time in decades, the sounds of a Wurlitzer organ filled the building with a version of The National Anthem.
Through the years, Ward said he’s been amazed by the audience reaction when the sounds of the Wurlitzer swell through the building.
“For many, it triggers immediate memories,” he said. “It’s preservation of an art form that is probably not going to exist many more years.”
Ward says many think the sounds they hear are digitally created. But The Mighty Wurlitzer is no ordinary keyboard.
Each key, stop and pedal floods air into nearly 2000 pipes and activates real instruments.
“It was invented to reproduce the sounds of every sound in an orchestra,” Ward said. “It has all the sounds of the orchestra that can be played by one man.”
While he’s a devoted fan of the rare musical instrument, Ward is realistic. He knows that The Paramount’s Wurlitzer may not appeal to everyone in 2023.
But he’s a firm believer that, in its unique sounds, everyone can find something wonderful in the instrument.
“It’s pure entertainment with no special effects,” he said. “No gimmicks, no tricks. It’s just the real thing.”
Ward will offer the public “The Mighty Wurlitzer Experience” on Tuesday, June 6th at 6 p.m. in a free concert with a silent movie – Laurel and Hardy’s “Liberty”.
The concert is free to the public.