Since the iconic Paramount Bristol opened in February 1931, only two organs have graced its stage.
The original organ was dismantled in the 1950s when the theater was remodeled. Parts of the organ were distributed to various locations in the Southeast, including the organ’s keyboard, which was donated to King University.
Project leaders began looking for a new theater organ when the theater was being restored in the late 1980s for its grand reopening. Ultimately, they learned from the Piedmont Theatre Organ Society that a Mighty Wurlitzer dating from about 1926 was available.
The Mighty Wurlitzer is the only instrument that can reproduce the sound of a complete orchestra, all by one person. The organ is not a synthesizer. Real instruments, including a xylophone, marimba, drums, and harpsichord, are mounted in the chambers on the left and right side of the stage, and all are played from the console.
In the early 20th century, thousands of the gigantic pipe organs were installed in movie theaters throughout the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia to accompany silent movies. As there are approximately two dozen remaining in the country, it was incredibly fortunate to find a Mighty Wurlitzer for the Paramount.
The remarkable organ, affectionately known as “Miss Marlene,” is valued at more than $700,000; however, the Piedmont Theatre Organ Society leases it to Paramount Bristol for $1 a year.
Initially located in the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, Va., the organ was dismantled and moved to Bristol in just one week. Trucks and trailers were leased, and eager volunteers, who guided all the pieces to the H.P. King building in downtown Bristol, worked into the night rebuilding the organ to prepare it for installation.
During the theater’s renovation, a significant change to the original structure widened the stage, and an orchestra pit had been constructed immediately before the front edge of the stage. The instrument is stored under the orchestra pit and can be raised and lowered as needed by a hydraulic lift at stage left.
At The Paramount’s reopening gala on April 26, 1991, the audience was treated to “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on the Mighty Wurlitzer, which was also the first song played at the Paramount’s original opening night. “Miss Marlene” was introduced to the public in a 1992 performance by noted organist Lee Erwin, who played the theme song from “The Phantom of the Opera.”