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If you’ve been to the El Paso Community Foundation Plaza Classic Film Festival in the Plaza Theatre, you’ve heard that rarest of rarities — the music of one of the few theater organs in its original theater home.
The Wyler Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ, as it is now called, is one of six organs of its kind. It was shipped from the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, NY on July 30, 1930 and debuted when the Plaza Theatre opened on September 12, 1930. The Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ, Opus 2123, started life with a rare Moorish-style key desk painted a gold gesso finish, with three manuals, a pedal board, 15 ranks, 1,071 pipes, six tuned percussion instruments, a toy counter (with bells and whistles), a large electro-pneumatic relay and a 10 HP turbine.
In 1972, it was sold to an airline pilot in Dallas. In the 1990s, as the El Paso Community Foundation’s effort to restore and reopen the theater gained momentum, the Community Foundation purchased and partially restored the organ. It was installed in the Sunland Park Mall food court, where volunteers played it daily beginning May 10, 1998. It remained there until the early 2000s, when it was restored and expanded by Pipe Organ Artisans of Tucson, Arizona. The Plaza Theatre reopened on March 17, 2006. The organ, which was renamed for its benefactors, broadcaster Karl O. Wyler and his wife Glyn, returned to the Plaza Theatre with a concert by Walt Strony on November 3 of that year.
Today, it is performed by volunteer organists before the movies in the Plaza Theatre Film Festival, much like it was used when the theater first opened in 1930. It also is used to accompany a silent film during the Plaza Classic. It is used occasionally by the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, and is often featured on free public tours of the theater. The organ has been modified and expanded several times, most recently in 2020, and now features 27 ranks, 1,890 pipes (which range in size from 16 feet to the size of a pencil) and a 15 HP turbine.