Pipe organ ready for close-up at Virginia

Pipe organ ready for close-up at Virginia

CHAMPAIGN — The master organist sat down at the Wurlitzer on Friday, played the Gershwins' "S'Wonderful" — and pronounced the organ s'wonderful, too.

The majestic pipe organ at the Virginia Theatre will have a big Saturday night, celebrating 90 years and 900 pipes with a nearly two-hour rededication concert.

Chris Gorsuch was putting the finishing checks on the newly restored instrument Friday afternoon, making it perfect for his performance, which starts at 7 p.m. today.

A Gershwin devotee, Gorsuch played "S'Wonderful," introduced six years after the theater opened in 1921, as part of his Friday rehearsal. He expects to include the songwriters' "I've Got Rhythm " and even parts of "Rhapsody In Blue" for tonight's show.

It's a coup for the Virginia, which had decades of service from the late Warren York and now has a night with one of the most famous organists in America.

Though the organ has been refurbished several times over the decades, this may be the biggest such project.

John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders removed the Wurlitzer from the Virginia in December 2010 for a complete rebuild.

There are 122 new pipes in two ranks, said Brian Davis, Buzard tonal director. They allow Gorsuch to include many effects Mr. York could not, "since he had no budget," Davis said.

The restoration was made possble by donations from Jill Knappenberger and others over the years.

Gorsuch declared the organ magnificent except for one problem: His legs are longer than Mr. York's were and there's no room on the elevated platform for him to stretch out.

"That kills one's back" after a two-hour show, Gorsuch said.

Gorsuch, 58, was named Organist Of The Year in 2008 by the American Theatre Organ Society and has recorded more than a dozen CDs of theater organs.

He began formal studies on the organ at 14, soon playing for several churches in his Ohio hometown. At 20, he moved to San Diego, to become a staff organist for the Organ Power Pizza chain.

In 1979, he formed his own company to design and manufacture electronic systems for pipe and electronic organs. His company has created digitally sampled sounds and computer software. He is also a tonal finisher and a recording engineer.

Wurlitzer opus 490 was installed in the Virginia Theatre shortly before it opened in December 1921. Originally a Style 185, it was upgraded in June 1924 to a Style 185 Special. A relay addition was made in 1928, the park district said.

Now it's a 216, a product not yet available when the Virginia opened, Gorsuch said.

During the 1990s, various minor additions were made, including the addition of sound effects.

Buzard's workers began reinstallation of the organ on Jan. 25 and, as a memorial to Mr. York and his years of service, enlarged it to a Style 216.

Buzard employees found many problems, mostly associated with high humidity, as well as ciphers, which are mostly stuck notes, Davis said.

The Gershwins aren't all that's on Gorsuch's program.

At one point Friday, he played an excited theme suited to a classic silent scene, a train bustling toward an innocent maiden tied to the tracks. He said that actually the music was by Mozart, his overture to "The Marriage of Figaro."

Gorsuch said the classic music has been widely used in action scenes, such as the "Roadrunner" cartoons.

If you go

Wurlitzer Organ Rededication Concert

Performer: organist Chris Gorsuch.

Where: Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C.

When: 7 p.m. today. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Tickets: $8 adults, $5 children. Theatre tours at 6, 6:15 and 6:30 p.m.