by Brian Manning
WALSENBURG- Our own Fox Theatre in Walsenburg is a historic treasure and a valuable venue that serves Huerfano County even today. Built in 1917 as the Star Theatre, it staged vaudeville, play productions and silent pictures until talkies were introduced in 1929. A rare Wurlitzer Hope-Jones organ was installed in 1923. In 2011, it is being renovated and will be playing again in the near future in the theater.
The Wurlitzer Hope-Jones pipe organ is unusual because it has two keyboards: a piano keyboard and an organ keyboard. Not many of that design were made and it is not known how many are still in existence. It was installed in the theatre in 1923. Robert Hope-Jones was the father of the theatre organ and developed the concept of the organ as an orchestra to accompany silent movies. His organ can create sound effects appropriate to the action on the screen. Hope-Jones sold his company to the Wurlitzer Company in 1910.
One woman who loved to play this organ was Jewel Geiger who was born in Walsenburg in 1920. Jewel’s father Paul Krier bought the organ and brought it to Walsenburg in 1923. While Jewel was growing up, her father ran the theatre where she worked at the counter and as an usher. At that time the price of admission was ten cents. She remembers that they had live canaries in the lobby.
She went to St. Mary School and then high school in Walsenburg. Later she went to University of Colorado where she earned a Bachelors Degree in Music and then a Masters in Education at Adams University.
She began her musical career with piano lessons when she was seven years old and later learned how to play the organ at the theatre. Jewel played the Wurlitzer organ on special occasions once the silent era was over and the organ was no longer needed for the movies but was popular for live shows.
The Fox Theatre and the organ have contributed to the arts for nearly 100 years. In the mid-50’s Frank Piazza, still to this day a dedicated film-lover, leased and later purchased the theatre and ran it as a film house until his retirement in 1987. The theatre then closed and was in very poor condition. The theatre was reopened in 1992 by the Huerfano Youth and Arts Foundation under the direction of George Birrer.
Prior to that time, the organ had been donated to St. Mary Catholic Church where it found a home in the choir loft for half a century until the church did some renovations. George Birrer moved the organ from St. Mary Church back to the theatre around twelve years ago. It took three months to move it due to the walls that had been built around the organ. The organ is now stored behind the stage of the Fox Theatre.
Birrer is arranging for the organ to be restored by an organization in Colorado Springs that specializes in such work. The Pikes Peak Theater Organ Society will charge the FOX only $600 for the cost of a necessary part, a blower. The full cost of restoration would have been closer to $7500, but the Society will find a grant or absorb the labor for the full cost. As a side note, the Society is giving free sack lunch concerts on a larger Wurlitzer from 12-1 every Thursday from May through August at the historic City Auditorium in Colorado Springs.
If the project to restore and bring our Hope-Jones Wurlitzer home is successful, Birrer would like to have a live show at Christmas or Easter with the refurbished organ. To help the FOX Theatre pay its $600 share of the restoration, donations can be sent to The Spanish Peaks Alliance for the Arts, Box 206, Walsenburg, CO 81089.
This bit of history sets Walsenburg apart from other cities since this pipe organ is so rare and will be unique in that it will be playing back in its original location.