Columns & Blogs

Wichita Wurlitzer one of city's hidden gems

Bonnie Bing
Bonnie Bing

It’s amazing how many things are in Wichita that I haven’t seen even though I’ve lived here nearly all my life.

Case in point, the Wichita Wurlitzer.

I knew there was an organ at Century II somewhere, but that was about it. That changed recently when I was asked to introduce my friend and the unbelievably talented Brett Valliant. The guy can play anything with a keyboard and boy did he change my opinion of organ music.

You don’t have to go to a church, a baseball game or a scary movie to hear organ music. And when Brett played the “Broadway and Hollywood in Wichita” concert it didn’t sound like any of the above.

It was truly amazing how he managed to make one instrument, a 66,000 pound one at that, sound like so many instruments, playing so many styles of music, and at one point it sounded like an entire orchestra. Who would have thought an organ concert would make you want to get up and dance?

Not only did Brett’s music wow the 900 in attendance, vocalists Carrie Heiman and Patrick Greene were amazing. I got to tell a bit of history about the Wichita Wurlitzer, which was a learning experience for many in the audience and certainly for me.

Longtime Wichitans might remember when the organ came to town in 1967 arriving from New York. After being here for only a few weeks, the console of the organ was destroyed by fire. Finally in 1972 the new console arrived and the premiere performance was in December. David Bernstorf, secretary for the board of directors of Wichita Theatre Organ, Inc., encouraged me to get in the know and check out the Wichita Wurlitzer’s webpage and Facebook. Actually he encourages everyone to go to www.wichitawurlitzer.org.

Brett, who has played the organ since age six, told me his first international tour was at the age of 19.

Actually he had just returned from Europe this year when he was the musical director for the “Gridiron” journalism scholarship benefit show I’ve been in for about 100 years. During rehearsal fellow cast member Ted Woodward and I were watching as Brett helped someone find the best key for them to sing in.

Ted said, “Good grief, Brett just returned from a European tour playing in magnificent places and here he is playing a keyboard in a rehearsal room with this group.”

We both laughed, but we do appreciate Brett’s talent. He can transpose music faster than anyone I’ve ever known. He must like it, this year was his fifth Gridiron.

But back to the concert, it dawned on me during about the 10th piece that he did not use music. The music rack was bare. I know musicians have a lot of songs memorized, but wow.

And it was evident Brett, surrounded by all those keys and pedals, enjoyed what he was doing and the instrument he was playing.

“The Wichita Wurlitzer was the flagship instrument of the Wurlitzer company. It was installed in New York City in Times Square in 1926. It was the standard by which all other theater organs were judged.

We are so fortunate to have had the Wurlitzer here for the past 50 years,” he said.

Happy anniversary to an instrument I got to see and hear up close and personal. It was about time. And it made me wonder how many other things there are in this great city I’ve overlooked.

Don’t miss the next performance. Clark Wilson will perform on the Wurlitzer Oct. 2 accompanying the silent movie, 'Safety Last.'

Reach Bonnie Bing at bingbylines@gmail.com
  Comments