Warragul Theatre Organ Society Inc. (WTOS) Gippsland division in Victoria, Australia of the Theatre Organ Society of Australia (TOSA)


History Archive



Norma Wilson

At a celebratory dinner on 20 November 2010, outstanding voluntary work was recognised
and final payment cheques for the Wurlitzer were presented.  Norma Wilson authored and presented this  —

Tonight sees the culmination of a dream Kent [Norma's late husband] and I had of having a theatre pipe organ in the Gippsland area for the benefit of our local community.  People east of Melbourne were unable to enjoy the sounds of a theatre pipe organ without the trip to Melbourne.

Our Constitution includes the aim of promoting the theatre pipe organ and its unique style of music.  In the 1980’s, we made investigations for a venue to install a theatre pipe organ if one became available – Darnum Musical Village, West Gippsland Arts Centre, The Old Drouin Butter Factory among those investigated.  A submission was made for the Cinema North Christie when it was moved from the Reservoir theatre.  We missed out as it was kept in the Northern suburbs and was installed in the Coburg Town Hall.

In the mid 1990’s the late Ray Thornley bought the 3/14 Wurlitzer from Ian McLean in Canberra.  Kent and I actually assisted with unloading components into his Wonthaggi garage when it arrived there.  Ray planned for it to be installed in a specially constructed tourist complex at Kilcunda.

In 2002, following Ray’s death, Julien Arnold, John McLennan and the late Stan Wilson bought and salvaged the organ.  They asked Kent if our Division would be prepared to install it in Warragul.  That very week, the Wesley Heritage Preservation Association negotiated to purchase the Wesley building from the Uniting Church.

Some committee members had to be convinced that this was an offer we couldn’t refuse – ‘who was going to do all the restoration work – and how could we possibly raise the funds to pay for it?’

Wesley’s architect heard and inspected the theatre organ in the Malvern Town Hall and was impressed and stated that this was a great possibility for Wesley and prepared plans for chambers to be incorporated into the renovations to Wesley.

Organ builder, Ian Wakeley, came up to assess the building for the number of ranks he considered suitable and the specifications were drawn up by John Atwell for a 3/10 instrument.

Large Grants from the State Government and the Baw Baw Shire [Warragul is in the Baw Baw Shire] towards Wesley building restoration were received enabling the work to be carried out.  The extensions included the installation of the chambers for the pipes and blower room – approximate value to our Society of $70,000.

Meetings were held between the Wurlitzer owners, the Wesley Committee and WTOS in 2003.  The massive task of the restoration and installation then began to take shape.  Also fundraising for the Wurlitzer Fund was set up in early 2003. 

In the middle of that year a Briefing Session was held with the Baw Baw Shire Council, the Wurlitzer owners and WTOS representatives.  An agreement was then drawn up between the owners and WTOS after a resolution was passed in December 2003 to install the theatre pipe organ and financially support the project.

A deposit of $5,000 and the agreement signed by Kent Wilson and John Lagerwey were delivered to Stan Wilson.

On 5th September, 2004 the first components of the Wurlitzer –wooden pipes and shutters arrived at Wesley.  Large boxes of pipes were brought from Julien’s factory in Mentone to Andy’s workshop at Drouin West where they were unpacked for the first time since arriving in Australia.  Andy spent many hours of toil having been instructed by John McLennan on the intricate work required to restore them.  John Lagerwey was also instructed on how to manufacture some parts.

With the completion of Wesley restoration, and the moving of our Conn Martinique organ into Wesley we held our first club day on 1st May, 2005.

Work was proceeding well in Julien’s factory and Andy’s workshop as well as the preparation of the chamber and blower room above the Wesley meeting room.  One of Kent’s last tasks was the sealing of the chamber prior to being painted by John and Andy.

It was on Club Day in March 2006 we heard sound from the first restored pipe (blown by Andy and David).  A new bench was handcrafted by local woodworker, Ron Lapham, using the bench from the Geelong College Wurlitzer as a sample.


End of December 2006 saw many components of the organ in the chamber and blower room –chests, pipes and percussion instruments.  The grille in the hall was installed and we appreciated the voluntary work provided by two local tradesmen – a saving of thousands of dollars.

With the chamber filling up there were the weekly visits from our ‘Fab Four’ – Julien Arnold, John McLennan, Neville Smith and Neil Hunter - plus other members and non members who worked from early morning till dark installing, wiring – it was an education watching Neville and Neil ‘fiddling’ with so many fine wires.  So much for good eyesight!  This was after hours of work done in their homes.  I was very grateful to be able to be present and take part in this installation work at Wesley.

It was a great day – 2nd January, 2008 – when the console arrived at Wesley.  There were many hands on deck to assist with eventually getting it onto the stage.  It really was a ‘wow’ day.

The Grand Opening weekend in March 2008 was spectacular with full houses for concerts and events.  We welcomed visitors from around Australia, England, New Zealand, and the U.S.A.   A special delight was to have Rus and Jo Ann Evans from Seattle, being the ones responsible for our Wurlitzer coming to Australia and following up with components for Wesley.

Many people contributed to this special weekend for which we are most grateful. The Baw Baw Shire presented us with the Australia Day 'Event of the Year Award' which we prize.

Norma received award on behalf of WTOS

Fundraising was well under way and was greatly boosted by the offer of David Johnston to ride his bike “Huffy” from his home in Mentone to Warragul in 2005 with sponsorship from many friends and members from all over Australia – a second ride two years later – total sponsorship raised over $4,000.  Many Grants were received over the years from Baw Baw Shire, State Government, The Ross Foundation.  Large donations were gratefully received from TOSA (Vic.) Division, also the closing funds from the Bendigo Division.  Many others, large and small – all were most encouraging and helped us to realise our dreams.

There are many people I would like to acknowledge but time and space do not allow me to go into detail.  We have reached our aim to have our Wurlitzer paid for – it has been the effort of so many over the past seven years.   We acknowledge the support given to the Society by the Wesley Heritage Preservation Society and look forward to continuing co-operation for the benefit of both groups.

Please accept my personal thanks and appreciation for all that has been achieved.  May we all enjoy the fruits of our labours and keep the Warragul Wurlitzer alive for many many years to come.


TWO epic bike rides by David Johnston to raise money for a new theatre organ in Warragul

(From left) Jo-ann Stenton, David Johnston, Kent Wilson (WTOS President) and Ian Maxfield MP


Following Warragul Theatre Organ Society
30th Birthday,
Julien Arnold wrote:-

Saturday evening was the main concert celebrating the 30th birthday (3 October 2009) of the Warragul Theatre Organ Society — a small group that began with an electronic organ and distant dreams of owning a theatre pipe organ......some day!

The late Kent Wilson was the main dreamer, and over the years, accomplished many things, one of which was to save the old Wesley Church in Warragul, a City one hour East of Melbourne, and oversee the refurbishment of this landmark building.

During the years it took to refurbish the building, he announced that "If it is the last thing I do, I will get a Wurlitzer pipe organ in the Wesley Centre".  It was, unfortunately, the last thing he did, as Kent died of cancer before the organ was opened.

Saturday evening, John Atwell played an inspired program on this 3/10 Wurlitzer, which was recently tonally finished by Stephen Leslie and Kerry Bunn (of Schantz Organ Company), and the organ has now arrived among the top theatre organs in Australia with a unique sound which John fully exploited in a sensational performance of music from Vienna.

He proceeded to show how a very fine theatre organ can, and should be played......it WAS a unit orchestra under his hands, and led Albert Fox, a local piano man and owner of the Darnum Musical Village to say..."Now I know why it is called the Mighty Wurlitzer".......

During the Tonal work, Stephen said the Style "D" trumpet was the best he had heard, and the Strings (Salicionals) were superb....and the Flute.....and the Tibia....and the VOX....!!!!!!  The interesting thing was that the Wurlitzer Orchestral Oboe (from Hell) had to be discarded, and at Stephen's suggestion, a Dennison Kinura which was left over from the assorted pipework inherited with the organ parts was put in it's place. This rank works a treat, with the Trumpet, and the Tuba and the Tibia, and certainly gives this organ some 'punch' and colour, and also a very fine unique sound.

WOW....what an organ......what a performance.  Kent would have been thrilled, his wife Norma, certainly was.

Many cheers,


Earlier Times

from The Warragul & Drouin Gazette

from our Newsletter July/August 2005 

from The Warragul & Drouin Gazette

The extension has a lower roof height, but same pitch as the original main roof

from The Warragul & Drouin Gazette
29 July 2003