Giving It a Wurl(itzer) 5

Glenwood Vaudeville’s Rare Photoplayer Brings Back the Sounds of Another Era

“Life is one grand, sweet song, so start the music.” When former U.S. President Ronald Regan made this statement, he could very well have been recalling the days of his childhood, when silent films were brought to life by the accompaniment of instruments such as a photoplayer. Built between 1910-1928, there are very few left in the United States, but a painstakingly restored one sits perched above the stage at Glenwood Springs’ very own Vaudeville Revue.

Ever since acquiring this particular photoplayer, Artistic and Managing Director John Goss has been able to add to the charm and fun of the shows by using not only the instrument’s literal bells and whistles, but also its levers, switches, and pull cords. The photoplayer can create a variety of sound effects which are regularly incorporated into the Vaudeville’s various acts, simulating an old-fashioned car horn, racing hoof-beats, or even the chirp of a bird. Weighing 2,000 pounds and manufactured by Wurlitzer, this three-piece hybrid between a player piano and an organ has had a long trek.

Purchased in Oregon, renovated in Washington, and then shipped to Colorado, the photoplayer at the Vaudeville is a dream come true for Goss, who, 30 years ago, acted in shows in the Old West mining town of Virginia City, Montana. During this time, he experienced the sounds of some of the other old-fashioned instruments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One was the steam-powered calliope: think carousel, riverboat, or circus to imagine the happy, attention-getting music. Goss characterizes the calliope, photoplayer, and their ilk as “…obnoxious, loud, and fun. They make people smile.”

Over the last several years, some of these smiling people have included members of the Hassel family. Paul and Carrie Hassel, along with their two children Will and Eva, enjoy Vaudeville performances so much that going to a show has become an annual tradition—one they share with the kids’ grandparents around Christmastime. When asked about the Wurlitzer, Will, a seventh grader at Glenwood Springs Middle School, remarked that “I thought it was cool that it needed such a big instrument back in the old days to make those sounds. It was astonishing how many sound effects the guy could produce at one time.”

When extended families come to shows, the appeal of the music, its technological history, and the secrets of how sounds have been reproduced throughout the decades can be shared across the generations, creating fond memories and fun in the process. Goss notes that many parents have come up to him after shows to not only thank him, but to let him know that their children didn’t even glance at their digital devices.

The fast pace of the shows keep everyone interested, and the photoplayer is a gem from the past that allows contemporary audiences to be transported in time via sound. If you and yours would like to join in the fun and hear the grand old Wurlitzer live, information is available at GVRShow.com.