Better Days Ahead for the Wurlitzer and the Brooklyn Paramount
By: Paulanne Simmons
If you’re a fan of organ music, there are only two places in New York City you can enjoy the sounds of the magnificent Wurlitzer theater organ. One is in Radio City Music Hall. The other is in the Schwartz Athletic Center at Long Island University, formerly the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. And in the latter, the sound of a dribbled basketball and running feet most often replaces the swelling music of the mighty organ. But not for long.
The Paramount opened in 1928 with Nancy Carroll in the silent film Manhattan Cocktail, as well as a 10-act variety show featuring vaudeville star Eddie Cantor. It had 4,500 seats covered in purple velvet. The ornate lobby was covered by a vaulted ceiling and graced with chandeliers and fountains. Side walls had arches that were decorated with artificial foliage and conceal the lights of the Wilfred Color Organ, a device that subtly changed the color of the whole theater. Long velvet draperies were everywhere.
The theater helped introduce jazz to Brooklyn audiences, with such stars as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. But it is best remembered for Allan Freed’s 1950s rock ‘n’ roll concerts, featuring the likes of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Buddy Holly.
The Wurlitzer cost $60,000 in 1928. It is a four-manual, 26-rank organ with 2,000 pipes and 257 stops. It can rise from or descend into the orchestra pit. It’s network of pipers, wires, cables, bells, drums, symbols and other mechanisms replicate the sound of a full orchestra. The sound it makes is rich, overpowering and soul-stirring.
LIU purchased the building in 1950 and was already occupying much of the building when the university decided to use the theater as well. They removed the marquee, roof and blade signage, and placed a new entrance into the building. The lobby was transformed into a student canteen. The lounges in the basement were made into office and meeting spaces.
As for the auditorium, the orchestra floor was leveled and made into a basketball court. The mezzanine and loge levels were removed. And The rear balcony was closed off for office space.
But they kept the organ.
Joe Amato is the organ curator today. If it were his own creation he couldn’t be more proud of the instrument. If you’re lucky (or a member of the press), he’ll take you on a tour that includes the many, many pipes (some as narrow as a pencil, others wide enough to accommodate a man), the relay room (which houses a computer-like apparatus that connects the keyboard to the pipes), and the bowels of the building where the 89-year-old motor resides. Warning: you’ll have to climb lots of ladders and get used to lots of dust.
If the theater today is a forlorn shadow of its former self, help is on the way. Bruce Ratner and Mikhail Prokhorov (owners of the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets) are planning a three-year, $50 million renovation to restore the auditorium, while preserving many of the original architectural details. During this time the Wurlitzer will be hibernating in the orchestra pit.
And so, on Oct. 8, the mighty Wurlitzer bid farewell (temporarily) to an enthusiastic audience. The event was produced by The New York Organ Society and featured Mark Herman at the keyboard. Herman played many of the great standards from the 20s, 30s and 40s, songs by Irving Berlin, Harry Warren, and Hammerstein and Kern.
From the sorrowful tones of “Ol’ Man River” to the riotous chords of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to the plaintiff strains of “Danny Boy,” it was an afternoon to remember.