Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Sound of Music

Yesterday, I wrote about the progress being made in the renovations to Maple Leaf Gardens. The massive re-do to rejuvenate and bring the building back to life. Since 1999, the structure has fallen into a state of disrepair. With no commercial purpose or use, only basic maintenance has been carried out. However, with major repairs underway and a defined future in place, a new energy and life is being pumped into 60 Carlton Street.

Another piece of Maple Leaf Gardens history encountered a similar state of abandonment and subsequent re-birth. In fact this other piece of history pre-dates MLG by 9 years. In July 1922, the Shea's Hippodrome Theatre, located on Bay Street in Toronto, made a purchase that would ultimately come into play with  three major landmarks in the city. And we mean literally "would come into play". The item in question is a Opus 558 Wurlitzer Organ.


Shea's Hippodrome
The Shea's Hippodrome opened in 1914 and would become known as a Vaudeville House. The greats ranging from Jimmy Durante to Louis Armstrong would play at the "Hipp".

After 40 years of providing the city of Toronto with fine entertainment, came word that Shea's would be demolished. The plans called for a new civic centre. In the mid-1960s the land at Bay and Queen Streets would become the address for the new Toronto City Hall. In 1956, there was concern over the fate of the Wurlitzer Organ housed at Shea's. The instrument had become a part of Toronto's cultural history and fabric. Also, it became a tourist attraction.

The entire situation played out like the frantic end to a close hockey game. The home team up by a single goal in the last minutes of play. The visitors on the attack with their goalie on the bench, pulled for an extra skater. The defending goalie facing a barrage of shots and making spectacular saves. In the case of the Wurlitzer, the enormous save would be made by Conn Smythe. The ownership of Maple Leaf Gardens paid $2000 to the wrecking company bringing down Shea's. In the process, they became the proud owners of a piece of Toronto history. Within the National Hockey League, the organ had become an important part of the entertainment package presented to fans. Smythe, now in possession of one of the finest, could market this fact to his paying customers.

Next up for Smythe and Maple Leaf Gardens was fitting the massive organ into the Gardens. The Wurlitzer was dismantled and it took approximately one year to install the unit in it's new home. The south end of Maple Leaf Gardens was restructured to accommodate the new acquisition. The organ (console & pipes) were fitted into a new band shell area below a new and huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Also, a new clubhouse and press box occupied the south wall.



1958

The work came under the direction of Doug Morris and his staff (Bob Wood, sound director & Don "Knuckles" Gordon, organist - both pictured above) at Maple Leaf Gardens. Due to the size of the building, the organ had to be enlarged with new pipes and other bits and pieces. A consultant from Boston and a local Wurlitzer expert would assist in the operation. The estimated cost was under $100,00.

The premiere of the Wurlitzer Organ at Maple Leaf Gardens came on December 20, 1958. The contest between the Bruins and Leafs was part of  "Young Canada Night".

In 1963, the Gardens was remodelled to add 1800 seats. The Wurlitzer became a casualty to economic progress at the home of the Maple Leafs. It was purchased by the Toronto Theatre Organ Society for $3850. In 1964, the unit was moved from the Gardens and stored at the Imperial Theatre in downtown Toronto.

In June 1970, the Shea's/Gardens Wurlitzer became part of Casa Loma in Toronto. It remains at that location to this day on exhibit for the residents of Toronto and tourists to the city to appreciate.



The Wurlitzer Organ at Casa Loma

Casa Loma
 The rich history of this instrument shows that it has undergone many changes in order to adjust to changing circumstances and times. The main thing is it has survived. The Opus 558 Wurlitzer, though transformed, can be traced to it's roots in 1922. In much the same way, Maple Leaf Gardens is travelling down the same road - a major face-lift, but still here in 2011. Just like the Wurlitzer.

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