What is it like to rise up from the orchestra pit of the Marion Palace Theatre astride the Mighty Wurlitzer organ – as its powerful sound swirls around you and fills the theatre? In a word, “thrilling,” says Angela Carbetta, who has been among a small, close-knit group of players of this magnificent instrument for the last 20 years.
“Coming up the lift, surrounded by that amazing sound, my heart flutters every time,” said Carbetta, who first began playing the theatre’s organ in 1996.
The Marion Palace Theatre considers itself fortunate to be among the list of historic theatres that are still home to a working theatre pipe organ. According to the American Theatre Organ Society, there were originally several thousand theatre pipe organs around the world and today; only a few hundred remain.
The Palace’s current organ, the Wurlitzer, is the theatre’s second, installed during the Palace’s grand renovation in the 1970s. Before that, in 1928, the theatre was home to an ornate, three-manual Page Rainbow Gold, built specifically for the Marion location. Unique in its finish, the Page shone beams of light into the auditorium as the spotlight reflected off its surface. It gave “voice” to the silent films of the day and provided background music for performing Vaudevillians. The instrument and its player were vital to the success of the Theatre’s entertainment line-up. Eventually, however, the Page was sold by previous management to help pay down the then-struggling Theatre’s debt.
The Wurlitzer, procured by the late Tom Yannitell, was, in its own way, a traveling show. This particular Wurlitzer – a 3-manual, 10 rank Style 235 Special “Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra,” Opus 893 — left the factory on Aug. 30, 1924, and was originally installed in the Mars Theatre in Lafayette, Indiana. It was later installed in the Lavonia, Michigan, home of Al Mason, the national president of the American Theatre Organ Society. It found its forever home in Marion thanks to Yannitell and a crew of volunteers who installed it at the Palace in time for the 50th anniversary and reopening in 1978.
Carbetta followed in the footsteps and company of Yannitell, Marc Peters, John Holsinger, Thomas Buffer, and others who, over the years, have sat at the Wurlitzer’s keyboard. She got her start in 1996 when she was asked to play for a Phantom of the Opera-themed United Way event.
“It was kind of like asking a tuba player to play the flute,” said Carbetta, who was classically trained at Capitol University in piano pedagogy and who describes herself as “happily average” on the Wurlitzer. “I’m more of a church organ lady who just fell in love with the instrument.” She credits Peters, her “musical BFF,” for teaching her the ways of the Wurlitzer. She became a founding member of the Ohio chapter of the Theatre Organ Society.
The Palace’s Wurlitzer sits atop a giant gear that elegantly lifts the mighty machine from the orchestra pit into full view of an awestruck audience. The magnificent instrument is capable of reproducing the sounds of an entire orchestra. It is also equipped with silent film sound effects and other “bells and whistles,” including a train whistle, Chinese gong, siren, sleigh bells and even chirping birds.
“The organ is the King of Instruments. One player can be a whole orchestra,” she said. “Some think organs are for ‘old’ music, but it appeals to all ages. When I worked at Epworth, we would take the preschoolers to the Palace for the Week of the Young Child and all 500 of them just ate it up. They loved the songs and, especially, the sound effects, and they love the lift.”
Over the years Carbetta has performed on the Wurlitzer for numerous graduations, funerals, weddings, and during the once wildly popular Travel and Adventure Series, as well as Christmas at the Palace, and numerous sing-alongs. Her playing has been heard at proms, galas, and dinners. She has played for four Palace directors, from Errol Selsby to the current Bev Ford.
“The management and Board of the Palace have always supported this instrument,” Carbetta said. “And, the community, by supporting the Palace and its fund raisers, support the Wurlitzer, too.”
The instrument takes center stage at various Palace shows, including the recent Pedals, Pipes, and Pizza event and sing-alongs. In July 2016, the American Theatre Organ Society included the Marion Palace Theatre in their tour. Donnie Rankin, the 2007 winner of the Young Theatre Organists Competition, performed on The Mighty Wurlitzer for an appreciative audience. Society president Dave Calendine played it and declared it “grand.”
Carbetta sees great value in the Palace’s Mighty Wurlitzer. “It’s good to have real live music, real air going through real pipes and sound that fills the theatre,” she said. “Marion has reason to be proud.”