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Egyptian Theatre - 4/18 Wurlitzer
Coos Bay, Oregon
229 S. Broadway
Organ installation timeframe: 1925-present
 
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Egyptian Theatre, 2005
 
The Coos Bay Wurlitzer started as opus 1126, a 3/10 Style H installed in 1925. In 1956, opus 453, a 2/7 from the Rialto Theatre in Hood River was added. Both consoles are connected. The larger one was modified to have four manuals.
 
The most recent organ club event was in July 1994. Bob Vaughn presented a concert with two silent films. This event was sponsored by the Oregon chapter of ATOS.
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Broadway street scene showing Egyptian signage, date unknown
 

Broadway street scene, c.1920s
 
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c.1940s
 
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c.1940s
 
The Coos Bay Wurlitzer started as opus 1126, a 3/10 Style H installed in 1925. In 1956, opus 453, a 2/7 from the Rialto Theatre in Hood River was added. Both consoles are connected. The larger one was modified to have four manuals.
 
Click for a larger version of this image (69K)
c.1955
 


Silent pipes for Christmas concert - December 5, 2000
 
By LARRY BACON
The Register-Guard, Eugene Oregon
 
COOS BAY - Every Christmas season for the past 25 years, Lee Littlefield has perched on the red vinyl bench of the organ in the pit beneath the Egyptian Theatre's main screen and filled the historic building with music during a free holiday concert that usually plays to a packed house.
 
The 76-year-old organ can produce sounds from its 18 sets of pipes powerful enough to shake the old theater walls and their gaudy assortment of Egyptian figures and hieroglyphics.
 
Lee Littlefield usually plays the Egyptian Theatre's big pipe organ for the annual Christmas concert, but the organ is out of commission, in need of repairs.
 
Photo: NICOLE DeVITO / The Register-Guard
 
The notes pour down from two pipe rooms high on either side of the stage - the pipes and noisemakers hidden by murals of Egyptian slaves plucking the strings of lyres.
 
It's the only theater organ in Oregon still in the movie house where it was originally installed, and one of only seven theater organs in public places across the state.
 
But The Mighty Wurlitzer has fallen silent.
 
Years of neglect have taken their toll. Mice have nibbled on the organ's cotton- and wax-covered electrical wires and saltwater seeping through cracks in the concrete during winter high tides has occasionally flooded the orchestra pit.
 
"I've known this day was going to come," Littlefield said as she looked ruefully at the inoperable console, its dark wood marred by years of scrapes and scuffs.
 
The Egyptian's annual Christmas concert still will happen this year - at noon Saturday. Wilbur Jensen's Christmas Brass Ensemble will perform as usual. And a vocal group from Marshfield High School, the New Horizons, will share the stage. But the program won't include Littlefield and the organ.
 
That bothers her. The Egyptian's organ has been part of her Christmas routine for half her life.
 
"It has every possible sound you could want," said the 52-year-old elementary school music teacher, who began playing the Egyptian organ as a teen-ager and went on to get a master's degree in performance organ.
 
The horseshoe-shaped console with its four keyboards offers an array of sounds from car horns to drums.
 
The organ was in place when the Egyptian Theatre opened on Nov. 18, 1925. The instrument was intended to provide the accompaniment for silent films, but talkies soon came along, leading to less and less use. In recent years, the organ mostly has been used for the annual Christmas show.
 
It would take about $40,000 to fix the instrument, said Lanny Hochhalter, a Salem organ repairman who looked at it in November.
 
The main problem is the antiquated wiring, he said. When he turned the organ on during a maintenance check last month, an electrical conduit to one of the blowers started smoking and arcing. "I was really worried the place was going to go up in flames," he said.
 
But other than the wiring, Hochhalter said, the organ is in pretty good shape and well worth fixing. "It's irreplaceable," he said. "These things just aren't built anymore."
 
Hochhalter suggested in a letter to theater manager Mike Dill that a nonprofit community foundation be formed to assume ownership of the organ and raise money from grants and contributions to repair and maintain it.
 
Dill works for Coming Attractions Inc., a company in Ashland that has 15 theaters, all but one in Oregon. Coming Attractions bought the Egyptian a little more than a year ago for $930,000 after it passed through a series of large theater chains. None of them took much care of the organ, Dill said, but his company paid to patch the cracks in the orchestra pit.
 
The theater could spring to new life with regular organ concerts, old silent films with organ accompaniment and organ-accompanied stage shows using some of the original vaudeville backdrops still hanging backstage, Dill said. The main floor seats more than 500 people.
 
Coming Attractions might share in the cost if the community comes forward with a plan to raise money to repair and maintain the organ, said Don Immenschuh, the company's vice president. He has offered to make the organ and theater available for monthly concerts to help in the fund raising.
 
But so far no one has taken the lead in forming such a community group.
 
Jensen, the Coos Bay dentist who heads the brass ensemble, said the historic instrument could remain in jeopardy even if a local group assumed ownership. The theater could close, for example, or fall into disrepair.
 
His "dream of dreams," Jensen said, would be for the city to acquire the building as a performing arts center. City Manager Bill Grile said the idea has merit, but that the city couldn't afford the price.
 
Dean Peden of Portland, chairman of the Oregon Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, estimated that there are less than 200 theater organs across the country still in their original locations.
 
"You've got to find somebody with a little enthusiasm and a little money or an ability to raise money to save something like this," Peden said.
 

 

Broadway street scene, c.1930. Egyptian Theatre on right
 

Raising awareness about Egyptian’s fate - December 8, 2005
 
By Carl Mickelson and Hallie Winchell, Staff Writers
The World, Coos Bay, Oregon
 

The theater is silent and the lights are off, but on the marquee is a sign indicating the historic Egyptian Theatre is for sale. A group from the Little Theatre on the Bay and other concerned people will hold a march Saturday morning before the Christmas performance. The revolutionary fervor is less after the group found out that the city of Coos Bay is equally concerned over the building’s fate. World Photo by Lou Sennick.
 
A group of frustrated residents concerned about the fate of The Egyptian Theatre is planning a march Saturday morning in downtown Coos Bay, just prior to the last scheduled performance at the 80-year-old theater.
 
The theater showed its last movie on Nov. 27, bringing to a close eight decades of providing a house of entertainment for South Coast residents.
 
A combination of swirling rumors of The Egyptian’s fate and tight-lipped ongoing property negotiations have finally boiled over.
 
We’ve just been sitting and listening to so many people who are upset about what’s going on, said Martha Houghton, 59, of North Bend who is organizing the rally. The trouble is when something like this happens all the rumors are out there. You hear one thing and well, it’s scary.
 
Currently, the theater is owned by Ashland-based Coming Attractions Theaters. Now, instead of current movie titles gracing the marquee, there’s a for sale sign with a phone number to call. A North Bend theatrical company, The Little Theatre on the Bay, had been interested in purchasing The Egyptian for months and was working with the city of Coos Bay to secure financing but negotiations took longer than Coming Attractions was willing to wait.
 
The mystery enshrouding the fate of the theater which many consider an historic and priceless landmark in the downtown area prompted Houghton to send out a mass e-mail earlier this week asking people to arrive an hour before the annual Christmas performance set to take place at noon on Saturday.
 
It’s the last performance at the theater for the foreseeable future.
 
The original e-mail Houghton transmitted to about 100 people contained a healthy dose of revolutionary fervor.
 
It’s time for all of us to make some history of our own, by standing up and demanding action, she wrote. We have no more time for dragging feet.
 
However, she said after learning that Coos Bay officials appear equally concerned about the theater’s fate, she said she and others have quelled their tempers.
 
On Tuesday, the purchase of The Egyptian was a topic in executive session at the Urban Renewal Agency meeting, though no formal action was taken. What takes place during executive sessions is not open to the public, however, during interviews Wednesday, city officials shed more light on their intentions with The Egyptian.
 
The agency and the council are very interested in acquiring the Egyptian and preserving this historical building, said Mayor Joe Benetti. We’re in negotiations with Coming Attractions and hopefully we can work out a deal.
 
Benetti also confirmed that the Urban Renewal Agency set up a committee to handle the negotiations and hoped to meet with representatives from Coming Attractions next week.
 
City councilor Kevin Stufflebean, who also is on the URA, acknowledged that negotiations have dragged on for too long.
 
Our problem over the last few months has been being a middle man between Coming Attractions and LTOB, Stufflebean said. So now we are in the position to move this forward and have it be a viable community project.
 
According to Stufflebean, city staff was directed to contact Coming Attractions and initiate the negotiations.
 
Despite the newfound openness on the matter, Houghton, who’s been an active member of LTOB for years and who’s played a major role in the Little Old Opry on the Bay productions since the early 1980s, still plans to march on Saturday at 11 a.m. The march will begin at the Chamber of Commerce parking lot and proceed to the theater.
 
However, her original call for acts of civil disobedience have been tempered. She said while the talk from city officials isn’t concrete, the fact that they’re more aligned with her way of thinking has alleviated some pressure.
 
She sent out a revised e-mail later this week that focused more on concern for the condition of the theater and Wurlitzer organ, instead of fomenting revolutionary angst. Rather than lay blame upon anyone, she said, what’s foremost on her and others’ minds is the damage that could be done during the transition phase.
 
We are concerned about the time of year, she said. The moisture and the cold could make short order of ruining the organ.
 
Last weekend, at a gathering with friends, much of the talk centered around The Egyptian. She said people continued to bat around rumors that resulted in shared feelings of frustration and helplessness.
 
People feel real possessive of this theater, she said.
 
It holds a lot of memories for them. The community cares about the theater. We want it to be preserved.
 
And so, instead of stewing over the matter, Houghton said the idea for Saturday’s march was born.
 
We don’t want to cause havoc but everybody wants to make a real strong statement to not let this theater down, Houghton said, noting she can’t help but envision a Disney-ending to the saga.
 
Let’s do this and get our theater back! she said.
 
I know it sounds silly but I don’t think it is. Not when I have heard the real love coming from them about this theater, the memories, what it means to them.
 
At Tuesday’s Coos Bay City Council meeting, Butch Schroeder of North Bend a musician who’s played at The Egyptian many times said he hoped the city would find a way to keep the theater a vibrant gathering-place for the entire community.
 
I hate to see it just left to the winds of chance, Schroeder told the council.
 

Nostalgia notwithstanding, there is a benefit to preserving community history - February 19, 2006
 
Lionel Youst Editorial
The World, Coos Bay, Oregon
 
In his letter about the Egyptian Theatre in Coos Bay (The World, Jan. 28), Charlie Meyer had a valid point when he asserted that the people of the area have made their choices by supporting the theaters in North Bend. He neglected to mention that the reason the people go to North Bend for their movies is because the owners of the Egyptian Theatre in Coos Bay put up 11 movies screens over here. The people go to the movies where the movies are.
 
I think he underestimates the value, economic and cultural, of retaining the few functional historic buildings that remain. He apparently sees more value in another parking lot, but Coos Bay has done that before. In 1975, it condemned and destroyed the perfectly sound and historically significant Eldorado building, 193 N. Front St., which was built in 1891. It was condemned to make a parking lot to save the Hub department store. The Hub already had been sold to outside interests and was soon closed. Where once had stood the only commercial building that survived the Front Street fire of 1922, we now have a parking lot - which is useful but it's not quite the same.
 
I do not live in Coos Bay, but I have a strong feeling for the need to preserve what we can of the character of the city. I deplored the destruction of the Eldorado building in 1975. I applauded the saving of the Marshfield Sun building at about the same time and its purchase by the city to be made into a printing museum, and whose board I am on. I applauded the purchase by the city of the old Federal Building at 235 Anderson for the Coos Art Museum. I was on the Coos Art Museum Board at that time and would like to think that I did my part to help make it possible, and I believe the downtown of Coos Bay is the richer for having in its center one of the premier art museums in the state.
 
The Egyptian Theatre is probably every bit as historically significant as the Eldorado or the Marshfield Sun and the old Federal Building. Maybe more so.
 
I admit to an excessive nostalgia toward the Egyptian. The first movie I ever saw was there, back in 1939, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and I remember it like it was yesterday. My parents went to town on Saturdays and as a result, I saw almost every matinee movie shown at the Egyptian during the entire decade of the 1940s. I was at the first showing after Stan McSwain took it over in 1948, and I know how lovingly he preserved the stage equipment and the unique set of exquisitely painted vaudeville drops and wings, not to speak of the Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ, the only one known to be fully operational in its original factory installation.
 
I was in the audience at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Egyptian in 1975. The only professional theater organist still active in the United States came up from San Francisco with his personal print of Charlie Chaplin's, The Gold Rush, and he played his original composition for the film. At the end, Stan McSwain stood on the stage and asked if anyone in the audience had attended the opening film at the theater in 1925. At least 25 hands were raised and Stan asked all of them to come up on the stage. He was overwhelmed by the loyalty to the theater shown by so many people.
 
I was there again at the 60th anniversary in 1985, and was privileged to be the stage manager for the full-fledged vaudeville production we assembled for the event. I am here to attest that the working stage machinery, the unique set of painted drops, the operational Mighty Wurlitzer organ, the well preserved art deco Egyptian motif, the warm and intimate auditorium with nearly perfect acoustics make it a treasure, the envy of any town, any place.
 
Mr. Meyers of North Bend stated that he could not entirely understand the big issue of the closing down of the Egyptian Theatre in Coos Bay. I hope and trust that his lack of understanding is not widespread.
 
(Historian and author Lionel Youst lives in Allegany.)
 

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