Seven years ago, my family and I took a road trip around Western New York to visit my parents’ childhood homes, to check-in with a few distant relatives and to make copies of some records in the local archives. My dad’s family church–St. Albert the Great Roman Catholic Church in North Tonawanda–was located next-door to the old Wurlitzer factory building, and he grew up only a few houses down the street. My dad, ever the storyteller, parked in front of the famous Wurlitzer fountains and told us the story of the building, the company, the theater organs and the jukeboxes as he knows it. This week’s 52 Ancestors “music” post features Wurlitzer’s world-class musical instruments and the company’s former North Tonawanda facility: the largest musical instrument plant in the world of its time.
The Armitage-Herschell Company built the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory–later the Wurlitzer Building–in the spring of 1893 to make organs for merry-go-rounds and churches. After a series of name changes, partnerships and lawsuits, the factory was purchased by Rudolph Wurlitzer, the founder of The Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company, in 1908. Wurlitzer was a German immigrant who settled in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1854 at the age of 23; his father was a successful music retailer in Germany, and Rudolph decided to start a business selling his family’s musical instruments in stores in the United States. Twenty years later, the company was producing its own instruments–including music boxes and player pianos–instead of importing them from Germany. In 1880, the first Wurlitzer piano was built in the United States, followed by the first coin-operated electric piano in 1896.
After purchasing the building in 1908, Rudolph sent his youngest son, Farny, to North Tonawanda to run the new Wurlitzer factory. Farny expanded the factory and designed the building as it appears today; likewise, he initiated the production of the “Mighty Wurlitzer”–a theater organ that was used in stage shows and, most notably, provided the music and sound effects for the silent films of the era. Once sound-on-film became the standard, though (with the production of the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, in 1927), electrical sound amplification replaced theater organs and the “Mighty Wurlitzer.” The Wall Street Crash of 1929 initiated the Great Depression, and Wurlitzer, like many other companies, was at risk of bankruptcy.
In 1934, Farny purchased a patented jukebox mechanism and struck a deal with Homer Capehart to manufacture his “automatic phonograph” at the Wurlitzer factory; the automatic phonograph later became the iconic Wurlitzer jukebox. The jukeboxes, in addition to a series of electronic organs for home use, kept Wurlitzer in-business throughout the Great Depression; by the late 1930s, Wurlitzer was mass producing an estimated 45,000 jukeboxes each year, and North Tonawanda’s Wurlitzer Building had become the largest and most-successful of Wurlitzer’s facilities.
By 1972, jukebox and organ production was in significant decline, and all manufacturing at the Wurlitzer Building in North Tonawanda stopped in 1975. Although Wurlitzer invented and developed a variety of products, the “Mighty Wurlitzer” and the Wurlitzer jukebox may be Rudolph’s and Farny’s greatest legacy. Wurlitzer’s theater organs could be found all over the world in places like Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, the Hollywood Bowl, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Metropolitan Opera Music Hall, and Kleinhans Music Hall, and the company’s popular jukeboxes became known as the “small man’s concert hall.”
Wurlitzer made a lasting impact on the city of North Tonawanda, too: “Its iconic tower has presided over Sawyer’s Creek and Martinsville for almost 100 years. The sprawling industrial campus left behind by the world-famous Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company produced merry-go-round organs, band organs, church organs, theater organs and jukeboxes that have left an indelible mark on the world, and on generations of North Tonawandans.”
To learn more, follow the Wurlitzer Building on Facebook, read about the Wurlitzer Building’s latest events, watch the company’s documentary on coin-operated phonograph production or listen to a “Mighty Wurlitzer” theater organ from the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Maryland.