The Mighty McKissick Wurlitzer

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The McKissick Mighty Wurlitzer in Lincoln Hall
Photo: Dennis Keyes

Allegheny RiverStone Center’s Lincoln Hall in Foxburg, Pennsylvania is home to a Wurlitzer Theater Organ – The Mighty McKissickWurlitzer, one of twenty-four built in this style and size. The instrument retains its ornate French console and was painstakingly rebuilt by Paul McKissick over eleven years. ARCA’s Wurlitzer contains seventeen ranks of pipes and is characterized by a balanced blend of unmistakable Wurlitzer ‘sounds’. It was purchased by Patricia and Dr. Arthur Steffee, ARCA’s Founders, to enhance the newly restored Lincoln Hall.

The McKissick Mighty Wurlitzer was built in 1928 at the Wurlitzer Organ factory in Towanda, New York, outside of Buffalo and numbered OPUS 1989. The organ originally was installed in Cleveland’s Uptown Theater. It was played for several years accompanying silent movies. It is one of twenty-four built in its size and style and is today one of the best examples of this class of theater organ. With the end of the silent film era it was subsequently purchased by Richard Wheeler, a Cleveland organist and remained in his home until Wheeler died. In 1998, Paul McKissick purchased it from the Haynes Company in North Canton,Ohio, where it had been in storage, destined for a pizza parlor in Florida.

Paul McKissick lovingly and painstakingly rebuilt the instrument over the next eleven years. In 1999 the restored McKissick Wurlitzer was installed in Paul and Sally McKissicks’ garage at their home at Lake LaTonka near Mercer, PA. The organ became known as the LaTonka Pipes and Paul and Sally hosted annual benefit concerts on the LaTonka pipes and held receptions in their home to raise money for the De Bence Museum in Franklin, at which Martin Ellis and others performed.

At this time, Dr. Arthur and Patricia Steffee attended organ performances and benefits at Paul’s home. When Paul decided to downsize and was seeking a place for the Wurlitzer for the next generation, Dr. Steffee offered to purchase The Mighty McKissick Wurlitzer and give it a home in Foxburg at Lincoln Hall, on the second floor of the Foxburg Free Library. The space was being renovated and restored as a performance venue for the Allegheny RiverStone Center for the Arts.

Beginning in September 2005, Paul began putting the pipes in specially built boxes to prepare for their move to Foxburg. Over the next months, Dr. Steffee moved the boxes of pipes using a horse trailer at times, to ease loading and unloading. For the next year Paul personally painstakingly installed the organ in its new home. The Wurlitzer originally had fourteen ranks or voices, one set of pipes. It now contains seventeen ranks of pipes; three were added at the time of the Lincoln Hall installation. This translates to over 60 notes per voice or rank, more than 1200 pipes, and 6,000 moving parts to make the Wurlitzer sound. Only the relay and the computer are not authentic or vintage parts on the organ. The installation included one of the Wurlitzer’s most unique features, the decorative ‘Toy Shelf’ of miniature instruments, which are displayed and all powered by the organ. The marimba was added and with all the associated drums, cymbals, bells and automatic piano; produce a balanced blend of unmistakable ‘mighty Wurlitzer sounds.

By the fall of 2006, the second rebuilding of the organ was completed and ARCA’s theater organ performance series was inaugurated, which has featured nationally acclaimed organists, including David Wickerham, Martin Ellis, Walt Strony, Scott Foppiano, Donna Parker, Jelani Eddington and Ken Double. The patient and diligent work of Paul McKissick has enabled the Lincoln Hall Wurlitzer to live on and entertain new and future audiences. Jason Wiles keeps the Mighty Wurlitzer in tune for each concert.

In 2012, the Mighty McKissick Wurlitzer Legacy Fund was established in honor of Paul and Sally McKissick, to maintain the organ and insure the future of this extraordinary instrument. Anyone wishing to contribute to this fund may do so, contacting ARCA at info@alleghenyriverstone.org.

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