The RKO Albee Theatre - Where it all began
Christmas Eve, 1927, saw the opening of Cincinnati's largest and most elaborate movie palace, the RKO Albee Theatre. One of the Albee's finest features was its Wurlitzer organ, Cincinnati's largest. Officially it was Opus 1680, a three manual, nineteen rank Style 260 Special, shipped five months earlier on July 25, 1927. Presiding at the console on opening night was Hy C. Geis, a Cincinnati native who had played in California and at the New York Rialto before being hired away from Buffalo's Lafayette Theatre for the Albee organ's premiere. Popular local organists including Johanna Grosse and Grace Baucom played the organ after its opening. By far the most well known organist, to present day readers, was Lee Erwin, who was named chief organist at the Albee in 1932.
Despite it’s auspicious beginning and popularity with local citizenry, use of the organ had declined considerably within ten years and by the Forties, it was seldom heard at all. By the Fifties it was as silent as the films Wurlitzers were built to accompany. Many people had forgotten that it was there, or else never even knew, until the Ohio Valley Chapter (founded in 1960), then of ATOE (American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts), began to present silent film and organ shows at the Albee, using electronic organs and mentioning the presence of the long dormant Wurlitzer.
Opus 1680 - The Original Albee Wurlitzer
The original organ, Opus 1680, was a 3/19 Style 260 Special instrument, one of 62 of this style with varied specifications built by Wurlitzer. A basic 260 was a 3-manual 15 ranks, which in this instrument grew into 19 ranks by the addition of an Open Diapason, second Vox Humana, second Tibia and a Tuba Mirabilis . Wiring schedule #819 was assigned by Wurlitzer for this instrument. Several other 260 Specials were built having different wiring schedule numbers, indicating a variation in specifications from the Albee instrument. The Style 260 was the largest production three-manual made by Wurlitzer. The Albee instrument was equipped with a 15-hp blower, although a 10-hp unit was standard for a Style 260.
In the Albee, the organ was installed two chambers high adjacent to the proscenium arch on both sides. The Chrysoglott was in the Main chamber and the balance of the tuned percussions and toy counter in the Solo. The console was a scroll design, located on a lift on the left side of the theatre.
Tote Pratt Jr., who eventually become the organ crew chief of the Ohio Valley Chapter stated that the organ was unplayable. After getting permission from the Albee Theatre manager, two young organ enthusiasts (Jack Doll Jr. and Ron Wehmeier) got portions of the Wurlitzer playing. The organ was never played in public. Ironically, Ron would be hired 40 years later by the Ohio Valley Chapter to rebuild the Albee Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ at Cincinnati Music Hall.
Arranging an Organ Transplant
In 1968, when RKO-Stanley Warner began the giveaway of the organs left in its theatres, Walter Froehlich of RKO contacted Ed Wuest, Ohio Valley Chapter chairman at that time, to see whether there might be a place for the Albee organ in Cincinnati, subject to RKO's conditions of donation. A search was begun for a suitable location for the organ which would fulfill RKO's conditions; namely, a school or charitable institution willing to accept the organ, with sufficient space to house it properly.
After much searching, the Ohio College of Applied Science Ohio Mechanics Institute (OCASOMI) was found to be the best place for the organ. Ed, who was on its staff at the time, talked to the president and interested him in the idea. The school agreed to accept the organ; however, it was without the money and technical knowledge required to handle the removal and reinstallation of the organ, which was where the chapter came into the picture.
Connected with OCAS-OMI is Emery Auditorium, a fine old auditorium in downtown Cincinnati with excellent acoustics. Once the home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, this would be the organ's new home. A preliminary verbal agreement with the school was reached, and in July 1968, the chapter's executive board voted to have the chapter undertake the removal of the organ from the Albee and its reinstallation in Emery Auditorium. Removal was begun late in 1968 by OCAS-OMI personnel and chapter members.
Before the Wrecking Ball
During the time between the decision to donate the organ in 1968 and the destruction of the theatre in 1977, the Ohio Valley Chapter sponsored a series of silent movie presentations in the beautiful Albee Theatre, using electronic organs loaned by different local dealers, with numerous external speakers to fill the auditorium, and with the good graces of Gaylord Carter, we played to full houses every time. This provided two things: money to help the chapter refurbish and install the organ, and exposure to Cincinnati audiences of the silent movie phenomena and theatre organ in general.
The last slient movie concert at the Albee was on March 31, 1974. The wreching ball made it's appearance in 1977.
NEXT - The Seven Year Itch - Rebuilding the Albee Organ
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LEFT: The E F Albee Theatre in 1930 (Ohio Valley Chapter collection).
CENTER: The Grand Lobby (Strader photo collection).
RIGHT: Left Side and Organ console (Ohio Valley Chapter collection)
LEFT: Left organ chamber (Photo credit: Jack Doll Jr.)
RIGHT: Right organ chamber (Photo credit: Jack Doll Jr.)
LEFT: Jack (Doll Jr.) in the Box (Photo Credit: Jack Doll Jr. collection)
RIGHT: Ron Wehmeier poising for the pipes (Photo Credit: Jack Doll Jr. collection)
LEFT: Left Organ Grill in color (Michael Detroy collection).
CENTER: Gaylord Cater warming up (Blanche Underwood collection).
RIGHT: September 17, 1974 the Albee closes (Michael Detroy collection).
First and third paragraphs written by Michael Detroy
Second and last paragraphs written by E. S. Tote Pratt
Marilyn "Bubbles" (Libbin) McClain performs Alabamy Bound on the
RKO Albee Mightly WurliTzer Pipe Organ at the Emery Theatre in 1979.