Paramount Theatre's Flood-damaged Wurlitzer Organ Restored & Reinstalled

By Alison Gowans, Reporter

The console of the Paramount Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer organ sits on stage Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 in downtown Cedar Rapids. The organ has been fully restored after sustaining massive damage in the flood of 2008. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

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By Aaron Hepker

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - In 2008, raging flood waters silenced downtown Cedar Rapid’s Paramount Theatre. But now, the last element of its voice has been restored.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, the organ that accompanied the Paramount’s grand opening as a movie palace in 1929, has been fully restored and was reinstalled Wednesday.

The historic instrument was damaged in June 2008 when 8 feet of floodwater tossed it onto its back on the stage.

“This is sort of the icing on the cake to the tale of the restoration of the theater,” Chief marketing officer for Orchestra Iowa Alexis Kenleigh, said. “The organ is probably the voice of the theater.”

She said theater patrons have shared memories of going to see movies as children, with the organ playing out the soundtrack.

“From a community standpoint the organ is so synonymous with the theater,” she said.

After the flood, a national search and a stroke of good fortune found a new Wurlitzer console, built right after the Cedar Rapids instrument. The console, the part of the organist’s instrument visible to the public, was purchased from a private collector and shipped to Cedar Rapids.

A historic tax credit fund also made possible a full restoration of the 1,300 pipes that connect to the console. They were sent to Crome Organ in Nev. to be fully cleaned and restored, a process that hadn’t been completed to this level in the Wurlitzer’s 80-year history, Orchestra Iowa CEO Robert Massey said.

It was those pipes, capable of recreating sounds from flutes and trumpets to galloping horses and barking dogs, which were being re-installed Wednesday.

The $500,000 organ restoration project was paid for through a combination of Federal Emergency Management Agency and historic tax credit funds and was a small portion of the theater’s total $35 million restoration.

Darren Ferreter, president of the Cedar Rapids Area Theatre Organ Society, said the Mighty Wurlitzer is now one of only 40 such organs in the Unites States still in its original home. But he said the significance of the instrument’s reinstallation goes beyond that history

“It’s really a healing process as well as a restoration process,” he said. “There’s a life downtown again. No one knew if it was going to come back.”

Want to hear the Mighty Wurlitzer in action?

The renovated organ makes its public debut March 1 at 7:30 p.m. for Orchestra Iowa’s “Resurrection” concert, featuring William Walton’s Coronation Te Deum and Gustav Mahler’s No. 2 in C minor. Tickets are available at orchestraiowa.org or the Paramount Theatre box office, 123 Third Ave. SE., 319 (366) 8203.

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