Help Restore the Wonder Organ - Phase III: Reinstalling the first pipes
In collaboration with the New York Theatre Organ Society (NYTOS), the United Palace is working to repair the theatre’s one-of-a-kind 93-year-old Wonder Morton Organ to its original state. After years of sitting idle, water damage, and a small fire, the organ became unplayable in the early 2000s. Our efforts will make this grand instrument playable again so it can become the only remaining consistently used theatre organ in New York City, inspiring and educating future generations of musicians and theatre-goers.
The beginning of the 20th century was the golden age of films, but they weren't always silent like you’d think. Live orchestras would provide the soundtracks to these early movies with sweeping scores for romantic sunset kisses and fast-paced horse chases in the wild west. However, in the late 1910s, movie theatre operators wanted a more cost-effective way to get that symphonic sound out using just one person. Enter the brand-new technology: the theatre pipe organ or “unit orchestra.” Now one performer could command the entire orchestra and all the necessary sound effects for films using only two hands and two feet. At his fingertips was a colorful pallet of all the voices of the symphony orchestra from a console as impressive as the theatre itself.
In 1930, there were approximately 12,000 theatre organs in the United States. Today, only a few hundred remain, with fewer than 30 still in their original venue in any semblance of original condition. The Robert-Morton Wonder organ in the United Palace is the last one of its kind in the United States still in its original venue and one of the last remaining all-original theatre organs in the world. All the others were removed, altered, or destroyed.
Built in 1930, the last of the five Loew’s “Wonder Theatres,” the United Palace was one of the region’s premier vaudeville and movie houses. For 25 cents guests were treated like royalty, enjoying a full afternoon of entertainment, including newsreels, animation, live performances, and the feature film.
Robert Morton, the second largest manufacturer of theatre organs in the country, was commissioned by the Loews Corporation in the late 1920s to construct five identical theatre organs for Loews’ new flagship movie theatres in New York and New Jersey. These organs were described as Robert Morton’s magnum opus and they were called “Wonder,” a fitting name which would inspire the moniker for the entire group of theatres.
The Wonder Morton pipe organ was, in its day, the most seen musical instrument in our theatre. The decorative console sparkled while bathed in colored lights as it rose from the orchestra pit. Before the movie, the organist played the popular hits of the day, shaking the building with the organ’s thunderous power. During the movie the organ played the “soundtrack” to the film live. The organ was the sound of the silent movie era and the voice of the theatre itself.
The multistage restoration started in 2016 and will take several more years to complete. Now that one of the organ chambers have been renovated, the next step is to purchase materials to restore and return the first 900 pipes, drums, and sound effects. Eventually, with your support, the one-of-a-kind Wonder organ will once again fill the theatre with music for films, concerts, and other performances.
Last October 29th, we celebrated our progress in the fundraising campaign by screening the classic silent movie "Nosferatu," accompanied by an organist playing live on a rented organ. Proceeds from ticket sales went to the organ restoration fund and all donors who contributed at least $25 were also invited to this special event.
Thank you for helping us in Restoring the Wonder!