The Wurlitzer Organ at the Carolina Theatre

When it opened in 1927, the Carolina Theatre boasted a “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ. Thousands of these gigantic pipe organs were installed in theaters throughout the United States to accompany silent movies in the early 1900s. Designed by British inventor Robert Hope-Jones, theater organs could imitate the different instruments of an orchestra—from piano, flute, and violin to trumpet, drums, and cymbals—and create special sound effects, from train and boat whistles, car horns and bird whistles, to crashing thunder and pouring rain. The so-called “silent” movies were anything but noiseless, as audiences were absorbed in an extravaganza of sound and music.

The Carolina Theatre’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” had its debut on opening night as part of an elaborate program of live entertainment that brought the sold-out audience to its feet and made “the rafters ring and the welkin resound.” Over the following years, audiences at the Carolina Theatre enjoyed live musical productions from organ solos and sing-a-longs to jazz bands and the Carolina Grande Orchestra.

Wildly popular in the heyday of silent films, the manufacture of theater organs began to decline with the advent of “talkies.” The first feature-length film with synchronized sound, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolsen, was released the same year that the Carolina Theatre opened, becoming a rapid box office success. Convinced of the potential for profitability, big movie studios began investing in the technology necessary to convert to sound. In the meantime, the country fell into the Great Depression, and theater owners could no longer afford to invest in elaborate organs. The era of the “Mighty Wurlitzer” came to a close.

“Crowds Jam Traffic in Rush to Carolina Theater Opening,” Charlotte Observer, March 8, 1927.
“Carolina Patrons to Enjoy Music by Miss Fae Wilcox,’ Charlotte Observer, March 6, 1927.
Mary K. Miller, “It’s a Wurlitzer: The Giant of the Musical Instrument Collection Makes Tunes Rootin’ Tootin’ or Romantic,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 2002.  Accessed on 2/6/2016, 11:00 AM.