The Andy Crow Wurlitzer organ will rise to the stage Wednesday on its own elevator at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts and gleam in the spotlight as its sound fills the theater.
The Wurlitzer organ, named for the man who restored, expanded and installed it, is getting top billing, but it wouldn’t make a sound without someone to play it.
Tacoma organist Sharon Stearnes, who played for the Seattle Mariners from 1985 to 1990, will be at the massive organ’s three keyboards, playing a range of music and showing off some of the instrument’s many sound effects, which include whistles, doorbells and bird calls.
This week, she was still deciding what she might play.
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“It could be anything from ‘Star Wars’ to Bach to anything off the radio to Disney music,” she said. “I figure most of the people haven’t heard the beast played like that before.”
The beast is among her pet names for the instruments. “They are such huge things,” she said. “There’s so much volume in them.”
Stearnes is the music director and organist for Gig Harbor United Methodist Church. She also plays for silent movies — the use for which theater organs were originally designed — but she’s excited about just getting to sit down and play all kinds of music.
So is Jill Barnes, executive director of the center. She got the idea of having Stearnes do a concert after hearing the organist play last year at a Rotary Club of Olympia tribute to Crow.
“It was really an exciting Rotary meeting,” she said. “People love Andy Crow, and they love the organ, and they love The Washington Center. It got me thinking that we don’t use our organ enough.”
The center primarily uses the organ for its annual Silent Film Series, featuring Seattle organist Dennis James. In 2013, internationally-known organist Cameron Carpenter did a concert, and in 2014, experimental pop band Quasar Wut-Wut used the instrument to perform its original soundtrack to Buster Keaton’s “The General.”
The band toured with the film, taking along an electronic organ to use in most venues.
“They sent me a thank-you note,” Barnes said. “It said, ‘Playing on the Andy Crow Wurlitzer organ was the highlight of our tour and one we’ll tell our grandchildren about.’ ”
“When you hear the organ in The Washington Center, you really know you’re hearing something,” said Crow, who saved the organ from the Liberty Theater when that building was sold and torn down to make way for the center.
In 1995, Crow and Les Lehne installed the organ in the center. “We added things to it,” Crow said. “We made a totally new instrument out of it.”
As theater organs traditionally did, the center’s Wurlitzer incorporates other instruments, including drums, a xylophone and even a complete piano.
“The organs sounded a lot different than the electronic organs today,” Crow said. “They sounded lovely. You don’t hear them that often.”
Stearnes agrees that the Crow Wurlitzer is a rare treat.
“I just loved that instrument,” she said. “It is an incredible instrument and very well taken care of.”
She said it reminds her of the ones she used to play at the popular Pizza & Pipes restaurants in Tacoma, Seattle and Bellevue.
The restaurants each featured a theatrical organ with an organist playing all kinds of fun numbers and encouraging audience participation, something Stearnes plans to do at the center as well.
Crow also played at Pizza & Pipes.
“I would go in all the time and just listen to him and ask questions,” Stearnes said. “He’d do classical stuff and Top 40 stuff, too — he was playing Michael Jackson. He was an inspiration to me.”
What: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts celebrates the historic Andy Crow Mighty Wurlitzer organ with a concert by Sharon Stearnes, formerly the organist for the Seattle Mariners.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia.
Information: 360-753-8586 or washingtoncenter.org.
Andy Crow Wurlitzer by the numbers
1924 year the original organ was made for the Liberty Theater, which stood where The Washington Center is now
1995 year the original organ plus additional parts was installed in the center
23 banks (rows of pipes)
1,600 pipes (approximately)