Mundelein organ is restored, ready to shine
David Rhodes plays the dismantled 1920s era Wurlitzer organ, which will be ready to play May 5 at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary. | Ruthie Hauge ~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 4, 2012 8:00AM
While most theater organs are remnants of a bygone era, the historic one at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein seminary can still play heavenly music.
The ebony Wurlitizer organ console, which once graced the halls of the Chicago Theater, has been in the auditorium of the Mundelein seminary since 1934. It has been rarely played in recent years, but a group of organ enthusiasts has spent countless hours over the past 16 months attempting to restore it to its original glory.
“Because of its rich history, we determined it was worth restoring properly,” said David Rhodes, president of the Chicago Area Theater Organ Enthusiasts (CATOE), a group which restores theater organs and has been doing the restoration for the seminary.
Volunteers from CATOE have working on the project nearly every Saturday since January 2011. They have replaced about 1,500 individual components and 800 strands of wire. The console was also refinished and repainted.
“It’s a labor of love for the craft, for the music and for the organ,” said Linda Cerabona, director of music at the seminary.
Joe Jonas of Chicago has been restoring organs since 1970 and is part of the CATOE crew.
“The organ has its own alphabet. G is for great, which is how it will sound, and M is for music, which is why we’re doing all this work,” he said, with a chuckle.
The old theater organ is unlike most church organs that people see today. It is powered by a 10-horsepower blower which blows air through a system of pipes and percussion instruments located in large chambers on the sides of the auditorium stage.
“This is an entirely acoustical instrument,” said Tim Charlton, vice president of CATOE. “There is no amplification or speakers. The sounds are made by real drums, bells and pipes.”
Most theater organs of the 1920s and 1930s were phased out after the days of silent film ended and were replaced by newer electronic sound systems.
“There are whole generations that have never heard a pipe organ,” said Cerabona. “The sound is magnificent because you just don’t heard it, you can feel the sound.”
The Wurlitzer console was the original console at the Chicago Theater in 1921. Radio organist and entertainer Al Carney purchased the console from the theater in 1929. After Carney died in 1931, Cardinal Mundelein purchased the console and organ and it was first performed at the seminary when the auditorium was completed in 1934. The last restoration of the organ was done in the early 1960s.
Cerabona said it was important to restore the organ “because it is such a historic instrument” and many of the mechanical parts were starting to fail.
The organ was last performed publicly during a Mundelein Centennial event at the seminary in late 2009 and visitors couldn’t believe the sound.
“People who live in the area had never heard this instrument before and were just overwhelmed and awed by the sound of the music,” she said.
Rhodes and Cerabona showed off and played the restored organ for a class of seminarians last week.
Michael Olson, a first year seminarian, said he was very impressed by the quality of the sound.
“It’s great because when you’re on the stage, it really surrounds you,” he said. “You could really hear it vibrating everywhere.”
The organ will be performed for the first time in almost a year during the University of Mary of Lakes Mundelein Seminary’s convocation ceremony on May 5. Rhodes said he expects to be completely done with the restoration by the fall.
Cerabona hopes to eventually be able to use the organ for university and community organ concerts. Rhodes said he’s glad the organ will be around for future generations of seminarians and visitors to enjoy.
“It’s certainly worth the effort because it’s going to be good for another 50 years,” he said.