Made in WNY: Fairs, Carousels, and Movie Theaters – The Mighty Wurlitzer’s Place in History

The Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ is the most famous product of North Tonawanda’s Rudolph Wurlitzer Company.  Between 1910 and 1943 the Wurlitzer Company produced 2,143 pipe organs.  At its peak in 1926 the company was shipping a Wurlitzer per day.  The organ was considered one of the most technically advanced machines of its time.

The Wurlitzer Company had a long history with developing and manufacturing musical products, with the Mighty Wurlitzer being its most famous.  The company was founded in Ohio but moved to North Tonawanda in the early 1900s.  Before moving to North Tonawanda, the company bought an interest in the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Company in 1897.  The Barrel Organ Company produced fairground organs for amusement rides, most notably barrel-shaped organs for carousels.  Interestingly the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Company was partially owned by Allan Herschell, of carousel fame.  His carousels were also manufactured in North Tonawanda.

The Mighty Wurlitzer was developed to accompany silent films.  Early silent films were accompanied by orchestras in the evening and a lone piano for other performances.  Orchestras, however, were a financial burden for theater owners.  The Mighty Wurlitzer provided a cost-effective alternative. The organ was able to imitate an orchestra and create special sound effects.  Theater owners rushed to buy them.  Once talkies became the range in the late 1920s the organs began to lose favor in the industry. In later years the company was not able to keep up with changing technology and in the early 1970s the Wurlitzer brand was sold to the Baldwin Piano Company and the Wurlitzer Company ceased to exist.

The Mighty Wurlitzer in Buffalo’s Shea’s Theater was custom designed by the Wurlitzer Company and was used by the company as a demonstrator for potential customers.   The Mighty Wurlitzer in North Tonawanda’s Riviera Theater was also used as a demonstrator.  Today both venues have working organs used for various performances.  Scroll to the bottom of this link The Mighty WurliTzer – Riviera Theatre to hear the Mighty Wurlitzer in action.


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