Two of a kind

Downers Grove, IL

It is said that Johann Sebastian Bach once walked 200 miles to hear an organ played. If he were alive today, and were he to walk to Downers Grove, he would have the option of hearing two organs played.

According to Downers Grove resident Bill Wrobel, the presence of two working, antique organs is a distinction for the village.

“This is a part of our uniqueness. This is part of our character,” Wrobel said.

A resident in town since 1963, Wrobel is a regular at the village’s weekly council meetings.
At a village council meeting in March, Wrobel stood and spoke at length of his pride of the village’s two organs; one is at the Tivoli Theatre and the other resides at Downers Grove North High School.

“It’s a gift to the community, to keep people close to the community. It’s an entertainment source, it’s art, it’s a musical treasure,” he said in a recent interview. “So many people in our community don’t realize (the organs are) there. It’s a hidden treasure.”

What Wrobel wants people to know is that the two working WurliTzer organs in Downers Grove are regularly being used and always deserving of an audience.

Take the Tivoli Theatre’s WurliTzer. Built in 1924 and rich in history, it is played Friday and Saturday nights before and after movies.

The theater’s owner, Willis Johnson, said the organ is on loan from an organization called the Chicago Area Theatre Organ Enthusiasts, or CATOE for short. Wrobel is a member of CATOE.  

Jeff Weiler, an expert theater organ restorer and conservationist, travels all over the country, and sometimes internationally, bringing organs to their original condition. His company is based in Chicago and he is familiar with the two organs in Downers Grove.

“From 1910 to 1943... there were approximately 10,000 theater-type organs built worldwide.

Of that number, of that 10,000, there are 19 left unchanged, in original, unaltered condition,” Weiler said.

Of those 19 organs, 12 are WurliTzers.

Weiler does not count the two Downers Grove WurliTzers among those 12, but that does not mean they are not special.

“These are cultural icons that should be preserved. Unfortunately, only about 1.9 percent of (existing organs) have been preserved” he said.

According to CATOE, the organ at the Tivoli is called 2-manual, 5-rank, and the WurliTzer at North High School is a 3-manual, 10-rank. The numbers refer to the size of the organ and how many pipes it has.

Weiler said the individual instruments represent a cultural legacy.

“Theater organs were created initially to be the voice of silent film,” Weiler said.

And in the case of the Tivoli’s organ, it is still used for silent films. In addition, it is used for special organ concerts and other special events.  

“People enjoy it for Christmas. We had a sing-a-long,” Johnson said.

To a degree, the Tivoli’s organ could be considered a community icon.

“But we also are a little judicious who can play because the organ is a reflection of the theater, not the event taking place,” Johnson said.  

The WurliTzer at North High School is in the Johnson Auditorium, where it is regularly used in school concert performances. According to Wrobel, CATOE donated the organ to the school in 1969.  

Brayer Teague, the fine arts chair at North High School, said very few public schools have an organ like North High School’s WurliTzer.  

“DGN has one because 40 years ago the principal of the school was approached by the CATOE organization to see if the auditorium could be a new home for an organ that was going to be moved from a theater in Ohio. The theater was being demolished and they wanted to save the organ,” he said.

At the time of the installation, a short documentary was produced promoting CATOE’s efforts to save the country’s old organs. Now viewable on YouTube, the film shows the detailed and meticulous work involved with the organ’s installation. There are even interviews with Downers Grove students, who called the performance “groovy” and “boss.”

The organ is still used at the school.

Teague said the school has 12 major concerts in the auditorium each year. CATOE is invited to send an organist who performs prelude music 30 minutes before the concert starts.

Wrobel gets excited when he talks about the two WurliTzer organs in Downers Grove. A concert at the Tivoli Theatre, April 19, showcased student musicians from Downers Grove High School District 99 and a visiting band from Germany and incorporated the theater’s organ. And of course, Wrobel was there.

“You should have heard it last night,” he said.

For Wrobel, the night was another opportunity to show off the unique relationship an organ has on a community. “We have two of them.”