RESTORED AND RESOUNDING: Lucas Theatre's pipe organ finds its voice once again

Updated April 11, 2023 at 4:30 p.m.

The Savannah College of Art and Design has announced the return of the original 1925 Wurlitzer organ to the Lucas Theatre for the Arts as part of its ongoing commitment to historic preservation across its university locations. The move is part of the university’s commemoration of the Lucas Theatre’s 100-year anniversary.

“Five years ago, President Paula Wallace made the decision to bring the Lucas’ Wurlitzer home. 

A call from Savannah native (and owner of Leopold’s Ice Cream) Stratton Leopold alerted SCAD that this may be the last opportunity,” said Danny Filson, executive director office of the president at SCAD.

Filson, who grew up in Savannah and has been with SCAD for over 25 years, has memories of going to movies at the Lucas Theatre.

Arthur Lucas opened the eponymous Lucas Theatre in December, 1921, during the silent film era. The building was designed by noted Richmond, VA, architect C.K. Howell. 

The Theatre’s Wurlitzer was produced in 1925 and installed with a three-manual console, 11 ranks (speaking voices of pipes), plus full percussion. It holds the serial number Opus 1180.

During the heyday of the theater pipe organ and the movie palace, Wurlitzer was renowned for installing the finest instruments of the era.

Dubbed “The Unit Orchestra,” the theater organ had pipe voices that mimicked a full orchestra of sounds including strings, clarinets, trumpets, flutes, xylophone, marimba, drums, cymbals and sound effects necessary for making music for silent films.

As populations shifted to suburbia, television and watching entertainment at home increased, and the Hollywood studio system changed, the Lucas Theatre was hit with a decline in attendance, and closed its doors in 1976. It was sold shortly thereafter to new owners.

“I remember when the Lucas closed, but it was converted into a comedy club and restaurant right there in the lobby of the Lucas. I remember when everything closed down at the Lucas, and it was just a shell of a crumbling building,” said Filson.

Also during this time, the organ was purchased and removed by Dr. Ed Simmons. Following his death, it came into the hands of the Theatre Organ Society, which assisted in moving it from Atlanta back to Savannah.

A decade later in 1986 after the restaurant and comedy club failed, those owners obtained a demolition permit and made arrangements to turn the Lucas Theatre into a parking lot. This news encouraged a group of Savannah citizens to come together, and they founded The Lucas Theatre for the Arts nonprofit.

RESTORED AND RESOUNDING: Lucas Theatre's pipe organ finds its voice once again
SCAD

They pulled together their assets and used their resources to purchase the building to start what would be a $14 million-dollar restoration. All of these things Filson remembers.

“I think it’s important to remember that the community of Savannah saved Lucas. Some very dedicated historic preservationists banded together to actually, physically, keep the Lucas from being demolished, and then the community stepped up and put together the funding with support from the city of Savannah,” said Filson.

The Lucas Theatre was saved and the doors reopened, but once again maintaining the building and keeping the doors open proved to be a challenge.

“I believe the owners turned to SCAD because of its reputation in preservation. But not only that, it’s one thing to preserve a building, it’s another to bring it back to life. That’s what SCAD did when it became a partner and was entrusted with the stewardship of the Lucas,” said Filson.

Now, the Lucas Theatre hosts an array of diverse events throughout the year. Some are SCAD functions, while others — like the MountainFilm Fest, Savannah Jazz Festival, Savannah Black Heritage Festival, Savannah Music Festival and more — keep the theater accessible and open to the entire community.

Like the theater, the organ has been through its share of tribulations. After disassembly, storage in an outside barn, a fire, and numerous attempts by others to restore the organ failed, Wallace took the lead to restore a unique Savannah treasure before it was gone forever.

Now audiences can travel back in time to the golden age of the Lucas Theatre during a special concert on April 14 at 7 p.m. that will future the Wurlitzer organ at its finest.

At 98-years-young, the instrument is being reinstalled with seven additional sets of pipes for a much larger scope of sound, featuring over 1,620 pipes in total.

“We have an extraordinary event planned, a little bit of vaudeville, a little bit of speaking, a little bit of thanks and appreciation, and a whole lot of great fun and great memories that will be created. At the heart of the celebration is a brand new short film,” said Filson.

The live vaudeville show will feature SCAD performing arts students and the premiere of a SCAD student and alumni-produced silent film made in honor of the theater’s centennial celebration. There will also be a  “one-man orchestra” performance by renowned organist Ken Double.

“In addition to the opening event, SCAD will host programming throughout the year showcasing the historic Wurlitzer organ,” said Filson.

Tickets can be purchased online at lucastheatre.com, by phone at 912-525-5050, or in person at the Savannah Box Office, 216 E. Broughton St.


Published April 11, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

     

Kareem McMichael

Kareem McMichael is a filmmaker, documentarian, writer, and multimedia content creator. The Macon native enjoys entertainment, and sharing with locals and visitors’ stories about Savannah’s art and culture scene. When he is not working, he enjoys relaxing at the beach, grabbing a beverage, hitting a fun art event,...
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