PINELLAS PARK – For nearly 20 years, the City Auditorium, 7690 59th St. N., has helped residents and visitors relive the golden era of film through monthly Wurlitzer pipe organ concerts held every third Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Organized by the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society, these events draw various sized crowds, depending on the time of year. During the summer off-season, between 50 and 70 listeners enjoy the free concert, said the society’s president, Cliff Shaffer, a Pinellas Park resident. In the fall through spring, when snowbirds are in town, the crowd swells to as many as 150.
For years, the organization utilized a donate organ that “had seen better days,” Shaffer said.
He said, “It wasn’t all one organ. It was bits and pieces that people had. Some would say, well, ‘I have this’ or ‘I have that’ or we’d buy something for it and it worked OK for a while.
But now the City Auditorium and organ concerts have a new addition – a restored 1926 Wurlitzer organ with historical significance to the Tampa Bay area.
In 1926, Paramount Pictures built four deluxe movie palaces in Florida – St. Petersburg, Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville. That same year, each theater had a then brand new Wurlitzer organ installed.
Three years ago, the society obtained the organ – a three-keyboard, 15-rank instrument - that once called St. Petersburg’s Florida Theatre home. When that theater was torn down in the 1960s, the organ found its way to a church in Dunedin before making its way to Pinellas Park.
“We’ve worked on restoring it and putting it back to its original form,” Shaffer said. “We wanted it because it was historic to the area.”
The Tampa Theatre still has its original organ, which is maintained by the society.
The society also recently held a portion of its annual convention in Pinellas Park in early July. It held a day-long organ concert for the conventioneers at City Auditorium hosting performers Justin Lavoie and Walt Strony.
The non-profit organization relies heavily on donors to continue organ maintenance and restoration, and community concerts.
“Money is always an issue,” Shaffer said. “It takes a lot of money to maintain these instruments. We’re trying to restore this one and it was made 90-something years ago. So we rely on custom-made orders. We can’t just go grab parts off a shelf somewhere.”
If these organs were made new today, they’d cost more than $400,000 apiece, he added.
These vintage theater organs are rarities these days.
“Florida is lucky because it has quite a few pipe organs,” Shaffer said. “It’s really a rarity. We’re lucky because some cities don’t have any.”
Even New York City, only has one left, he said, at Radio City Music Hall. Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay, there are two organs, in Pinellas Park and Tampa.
For more information about the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society, visit www.cftos.org.