Radio City Music Hall

From an article by Ronald Cameron Bishop
November/December 2002 issue of Theatre Organ

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Radio City Music Hall Grand Organ . . ."
This announcement has been heard by millions of theatre patrons,
introducing them to the most famous theatre organ in the world.

The Radio City Music Hall Wurlitzer was the leader in the order of four organs requested by Rockefeller Center and the largest to ever leave the organ factory in North Tonawanda, New York. The other instruments in the group being the four-manual for the Center Theatre, the three-manual to be installed in the Music Hall Broadcasting Studio, and the three-manual (with two consoles and automatic player) for the beautiful Rainbow Room.

The Music Hall organ was installed in just four week's time. During the latter part of 1932, last minute changes abounded in the organ installation process. Several alterations involved the chamber layouts along with a major downsizing of the relay room.

This 58-rank organ was built with two separate 73-note manual relays so that its two consoles could operate independently. (The relay room remained jam-packed until the day of the solid state installation.) Special permission was required to set pistons and make combination action repairs because two setter board combination machines were installed just off one of the Rockettes' dressing rooms.

A major deviation from the original specification was the elimination of two console elevators -- one at each end of the orchestra pit lift -- which were to lower the consoles 27 feet into the basement where they could be placed in storage.

Dick Liebert and Raymond Bohr,
pioneer organists at Radio City Music Hall
The twin consoles ended up in the alcoves on each side of the stage, covered by the electrically operated curtains we see today. Unfortunately, these alcoves had been designed for other uses and the consoles have never fit in them properly. In this revised installation, all the electric cable ended up in a relay room storage box, adding to the congestion. Richard Bishop has headed the organ crew on the Music Hall restoration project that has included a new 99-level capture combination action on each console. (No more elevator rides to the third floor to set pistons!) Every primary and secondary pneumatic has been renewed, bellows have been rebuilt or replaced, and the vast expression shutter system has been reconstructed. The entire organ has been rewired and solid-state relay actions have been installed.

The solid-state conversion has made it possible to provide plug-in connections for each console. In addition to their alcove locations, the consoles can be placed anywhere on the stage elevators, turntable, or the orchestra pit lift and its movable band car.

Contrary to speculation, none of the organ is installed above the stage. The Music Hall installation follows the typical pattern of organ chambers located on either side of the proscenium arch. The majority of the organ, Great and Orchestral Divisions, is installed on the 50th Street side of the auditorium, spread out over two floors with independent expressive control for both sections. The Solo Organ, containing 13 ranks, is placed on two levels located on the 51st Street side of the auditorium, along with the trap chamber, also under full expressive control. The Mason & Hamlin Grand Piano and Deagan Chimes are in this same area in an unenclosed arrangement at the second floor level.

It is often said that the Kimball Organ Company (which initially bid on the organ project) developed the tonal design for the Music Hall Wurlitzer, and that the influence of the late Senator Emerson Richards was also reflected in this aspect, both at the Center and Music Hall Theatres.

Former Rockette Emmie Bishop and her husband
Ron, organ technician and author of this article
To support this theory, note that the Music Hall's Great Division is based on an independent Diapason Chorus from 16' Double through 1st and 2nd Opens 8', Octave 4', Mixture II, and Mixture IV ranks. This concept was not typical of Wurlitzer but quite like many of the larger concert organs that had been built by the Kimball firm under Richard's consultation.

This Diapason Chorus provides the organ with its wonderful en