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Rare Wurlitzer for Santa Cruz

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June 17, 2007

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk announced that a rare Wurlitzer 165 Band Organ, from the former Playland-At-The-Beach in San Francisco, has a new home in Santa Cruz, CA. The organ was shipped to San Francisco’s Playland amusement park from the Wurlitzer factory in upstate New York in December 1918. San Francisco’s historic seaside amusement park Playland-at-the-Beach closed in 1972.

The Santa Cruz Boardwalk has the only working Wurlitzer 165 known in California. The organ was installed and tuned recently and has been playing inside the carousel building daily since March 31st.

“We are very proud to be able to preserve this beautiful piece of California amusement park history,” said Charles Canfield, Santa Cruz Seaside Company president. “Many people around the San Francisco Bay area may remember this organ from childhood visits to Playland.”

According to band organ expert and historian, Tim Trager, “The Wurlitzer Style 165 band organ was a highpoint in band organ engineering. Its orchestral pipework, expression, and percussion are controlled by a sophisticated duplex perforated paper roll system, which allows the instrument to play the music of a concert band. Each selection featured on the vintage music rolls is a nostalgic time capsule of history allowing the instrument to perform the same music heard by the patrons of Playland years ago. There are less than a dozen Wurlitzer Style 165 band organs known to exist. Most are in private collections.”

Band organ expert Don Stinson, of Stinson Organs in Ohio, worked with Boardwalk staff to set up and tune the Wurlitzer in the Boardwalk’s Looff Carousel Building. The Boardwalk’s original carousel organ, an 1894 Ruth und Sohn, is currently at Stinson Organs for refurbishment.

A new display area was prepared inside the Boardwalk’s carousel building, beside the Boardwalk’s 1911 Looff Carousel, a National Historic Landmark. The new exhibit will eventually showcase the Boardwalk’s three antique organs: the recently acquired Wurlitzer 165, a smaller Wurlitzer 146, and the Boardwalk’s original 1894 Ruth und Sohn organ. All three organs are expected to accompany the historic Looff Carousel later this year.

The antique 165 organ, which entertained people at San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach until 1972, has been outfitted with MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface], and performs hundreds of songs, from the “William Tell Overture” to “Under the Boardwalk.”

The organ was discovered just in time for this year’s centennial of the amusement park, operated by the Santa Cruz Seaside Co.

Beach Boardwalk Sound Engineer Donaven Staab, who has worked at the boardwalk for 16 years, got a tip from Dan Horenberger of Brass Ring Entertainment, that the Wurlitzer was available. The 165 model organ is one of the largest that Wurlitzer ever made.

Staab flew to Indiana with Seaside Co. President Charles Canfield to meet broker Tim Trager, an organ enthusiast. They met restorer Hayes McClaran, who lives in Batesville outside Indianapolis, and owns a collection of mechanical music machines.

“We listened to the organ and fell in love,” Staab said. “It was designed for a dance hall with 2,000 people. I can’t wait for everybody to hear it”

The organ’s exterior is painted with a rendering of the Clift House above the beach in San Francisco and scenes of 1850s goldmining in California.

McClaran had considered selling before but never found the right owner. He felt that sending the 2,000-pound Wurlitzer back to California made sense.

The Boardwalk purchased Playland’s “Laughing Sal” in 2004. Laughing Sal can be seen (and heard!) near Neptune’s Kingdom at the Boardwalk. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the last of the great seaside amusement parks on the west coast and is celebrating its centennial this summer.

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