Union County Arts Center
2/7 Wurlitzer EX
Rahway, NJ

Console Picture: Jean Siegel

smallnew.gif (926 bytes)New Jerry Mendelson CD !!! "The Biggest Little Wurlitzer"
Recording of the Wurlitzer in the Rahway Theatre
, Rahway, NJ from the 1970 American Theatre Organ Society annual convention.

The Biggest Little Wurlitzer Jerry Mendelson

History of the Biggest Little Wurlitzer
The Organ That Saved a Theatre!

Rahway Interior
Restored Interior of the former Rahway Theatre now
known as the Union County Arts Center.

Bratter and Pollack's Million dollar Rahway Theatre opened on Tuesday, October 16, 1928 at 7:30 PM, with a gala benefit film and stage show that was the city's social event of the year. The 1600 seat theatre was "the last word in elegance and opulence" according to a local newspaper review. The Rahway was strategically located along the US Route #1, Penn-Central Railroad corridor between NYC and Philadelphia enabling the management to readily avail themselves of vaudeville shows traveling between the two cities.

Further accounts of the grand opening state that, “The splendid decor and lighting of the auditorium were crowned by a pendant dome with a 9 foot wide by 13 foot tall crystal chandelier with over 500 lights." Outside, the front facade displayed a huge vertical “Rahway” topped with a flashing diamond. It also boasted a marquee with over 2500 lights. Keynoting all of this was a $20,000 2 manual 7 rank Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ, installed in 2 lofts on either side of the proscenium.

Both the vaudeville pit band and the organ music were short lived however, since sound movies arrived a few months after the opening. In 1936 Mr. Sam Englemen, who built the theatre, sold it to new owners, the Colombia Amusement Corp. Although the huge crystal chandelier and 2500 lamp marquee are long gone, the auditorium and its classy Wurlitzer have been restored to much the same as on opening night.

In 1962, responding to an article in the newspaper, music teacher and theatre organ enthusiast Wendel Rotter, together with Mike Hughes, began working on the Wurlitzer. It had not been played since the 1930’s and was unplayable. Bob Balfour also became aware of the pipe organ through the newspaper and joined Wendel and Mike. The three became the triumvirate crew, caring for the organ for many years.

On October 31, 1971, 40 years ago, Bob Balfour, Walter Froehlich and Jinny and Joe Vanore called a special organizational meeting at the theatre to form what is now the Garden State Theatre Organ Society.

Over the years the theatre lost its audience. It was neglected, but fortunately never twinned, and it finally closed. GSTOS cofounder Bob Balfour and other concerned residents became active and "Rahway Landmarks" was organized. Starting in 1979, the group, which was formed out of the organ crew, was successful in saving and restoring the theatre. They raised $185,000, purchased the theatre in 1984, and renovations slowly began. Later the venue was renamed the Union County Arts Center.

Since the 1960’s, when the instrument was first restored by our volunteers, it has been played regularly by celebrity organists and organ buffs. The unique acoustical design of the chambers, auditorium, and instrument work together to make remarkable sounding theatre pipe organ music. Because of its enormous sound, though small size, this organ has become known as the “Biggest Little Wurlitzer”. It is one of the few theatre pipe organs in New Jersey still playing in the original venue it was acoustically designed for, and it still operates via its original pneumatic relay.

In the year 2001, Bob Balfour produced a CD of the organ for GSTOS played by well known organist Jerry Mendelson. It was mastered from tapes of a live performance recorded by Bob during the 1970 ATOS convention. The CD features 20 never before released selections, 62 minutes of popular music with a touch of the classics. (Copies are still available. To order, click here: Recordings.)

Over the years the instrument has been cared for by a number of GSTOS organ crew members. Back in the early 1990s Russ Sattur took over maintaining the organ from Bob Balfour. After Russ’ passing, Bob Raymond restored the secondary pneumatics (bellows that opens the valve to each pipe) in all 7 ranks of the organ. Three of the five regulators were also restored at that time. In 2001 Bernie Anderson (who also became House Organist) took over maintaining the organ. Since that time the console has been releathered with the exception of the blow box (A small wind chest in the console that sends air to the stop tablets to turn them on or off). As of September, 2005 the organ was probably in as great a shape as it had ever been with only 4 dead notes, and no major problems.

That same month, upon application from GSTOS member and officer Paul Jacyk, the Biggest Little Wurlitzer was entered into the American Theatre Organ Society National Registry of Historic and Significant Instruments as a Level I Vintage instrument. A certificate was presented to the Union County Arts Center as owner of the organ.

In recent years an addition was added to the building behind the stage. It houses new dressing rooms and office space. Today Union County Performing Arts Center has become the anchor of the Rahway Arts District.

GSTOS has held 50 events featuring the Biggest Little Wurlitzer over the last 40 years. Artists who have concertized or accompanied silent films for us (in order of their first appearance) include: Don Kinnier, Patty Germain, Ashley Miller, Rex Koury, Richard De Karski, Jerry Mendelson, Brian Bogdanowitz, Frank Cimmino, Bob Brunner, Jack Moelmann, Lowell Ayers, Greg Owen, Lee Erwin, Don Hansen, Bernie Anderson, Ed Baykowski, Ralph Ringstad, Jr., Michael Xavier Lundy, Karen Nahra, and Coralie Dreyer. We last visited the venue on January 8, 2006 for open console, and an organ registration demonstration by Bernie Anderson.

Not long thereafter, the theatre was closed for over a year for construction on the stage, backstage area, and to update heating ventilating and air conditioning. The front of the stage and orchestra pit were restored back to the 1928 look and a removable thrust stage built for use only when needed. (Neither the orchestra pit nor the organ ever had lifts, and still don’t).

During that construction time, subcontractors pressure testing a newly installed water line located above the solo chamber of the organ failed to close a temporary valve they had installed, and the chamber was flooded, badly damaging the organ and rendering it unplayable.

The instrument then went into limbo for 5 years as different organ restoration entities evaluated it and insurance claims were processed. As most of us know, pipe organs have two big enemies: water and lack of use. The Biggest Little Wurlitzer had been hit with both.

Enter professional organ technician Gary Phillips, who learned about the state of the instrument from a posting by Bernie Anderson on Pipeorg-L, the internet organ chat site. Born in Paterson, NJ. and raised in Pompton Lakes, Gary had known Bob Balfour and had been intimately involved with the Biggest Little Wurlitzer in its past. In 1986 he had moved to Rhode Island and currently operates GHP Associates an organ restoration company across the Rhode Island border in Seekonk, Massachusetts.

Besides working on pipe organs, Gary’s firm restores Hammond electronic organs, and Gary himself is an organist, having studied under the late famed silent film accompanist  Lee Erwin.
Gary Phillips
Gary Phillips at a Hammond X-66

Gary and his firm have now been engaged to restore the Biggest Little Wurlitzer! As his first task, Gary was asked to see if he could get the majority of the instrument playing by the 2011 Halloween/Christmas season. This has been accomplished, and GSTOS members will be able visit the venue for our 51st event there on January 14, 2012. A few days later, components will be removed from the theatre and transported to Gary’s 8,500 square foot organ shop in Seekonk for complete restoration.

It is gratifying to know that an instrument that is so significant, both historically and to GSTOS, and an instrument into which GSTOS volunteers (many of whom are now deceased) have put so much time and effort, will rise once again in all its sonic glory to entertain the public.

We are thrilled to be able to visit and play this instrument once more before its restoration, and look forward to its return in ever better voice. Stay tuned!
(Source- January, 2012 Pedals and Pipes Newsletter)



  Designates this as an organ of exceptional historic
 and musical merit, worthy of preservation.
   The 2-Manual, 7-Rank Wurlitzer Organ
 Union County Arts Center, Rahway, New Jersey
  has been entered into the Registry, #0053.
  This Registration is given to the owner in trust
 as long as the organ is maintained in a manner
 consistent with its musical and historic significance.
___________________________________            DATED: May 2006

Gus Franklin, President

Organ Specification


Tabs from left to right on console (L = Main, R = Solo)  

 L Diaphone 16
 L Bourdon 16
 R Trumpet 8
 L Diaphonic Diapason 8
 R Tibia Clausa 8
 L Cello 8
 L Flute 8
 R Bass Drum
 R Kettle Drum
 R Crash
 R Crash Cymbal
 L Contra Viol 16
 L Bourdon 16
 R Vox Humana 16
 R Trumpet 8
 L Diaphonic Diapason 8
 R Tibia Clausa 8
 L Violin 8
 L Violin Celeste 8
 L Concert Flute 8
 R Vox Humana 8
 L Octave 4
 R Piccolo 4
 L Viol 4
 L Octave Celeste 4
 L Flute 4
 R Vox Humana 4
 L Piccolo 2
 L Chyrsoglott
 R Snare Drum
 R Tambourine
 R Castanets
 R Cathedral Bell
 R Tom Tom
 R Sleigh Bell
 L Diaphonic Diapason 16
 R Tibia Clausa 16
 L Bourdon 16
 R Vox Humana 16
 R Trumpet 8
 L Diaphonic Diapason 8
 R Tibia Clausa 8
 L Violin 8
 L Violin Celeste 8
 L Concert Flute 8
 R Vox Humana 8
 L Octave 4
 R Piccolo 4
 L Viol 4
 L Octave Celeste 4
 L Flute 2 2/3
 R Tibia 2 2/3
 Piccolo 2
 Concert Piccolo 2
 Tierce 1 3/5
 Cathedral Bell
 Xylophone 8

2nd Touch: Trumpet 8, Tibia Clausa 8
 Couplers: Solo Suboctave, Solo Octave
 Trems: Main Solo, Solo Solo, Vox