One of the largest and most versatile theatre pipe organs in the world is not housed in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. That monster instrument comes in second to the one at the Sanfilippo Estate in Barrington, Illinois. The Sanfilippo organ has five rows of keys and 8,000 pipes (compared to Radio City’s 4,500), and that’s just the start of what it brings to a performance.
The organ is connected to a 32-note set of Deagan Tower Bells (one of them weighs 426 pounds), which also play when someone rings the doorbell. It can replicate the sound of thunder or of a train whistle, among other things. Some of its pipes are so big, they physically shake audiences and the room at their loudest. To pump air through it requires a 50-horsepower, 440-volt blower.
The Wurlitzer Opus 1571 theatre pipe organ housed in the Music Theatre of the Sanfilippo Estate was originally built in 1927 and assumed its final, record-setting size and versatility in 1993 after it was bought, restored, and enhanced by Jasper Sanfilippo, a collector of the kind of musical machines that seem to house entire orchestras in small bodies, like nickelodeons and orchestrions.
With five chambers of pipes, most hidden behind a large curtain that towers over the platform, and all of these other accessories, the organ requires a large space, and Sanfilippo provided. Mounted on the wall to the left are the 32’ Diaphone pipes, and to the right are the 32’ Bombarde pipes. The Music Theatre is 27,000-square-feet and four stories tall, and houses other instruments from the collection as well.
The elaborately decorated organ console is mounted on a lift that carries it between the performance space and a cage on the lower level of the music room. On the platform where it is played, it is flanked by a grand piano; a 9’ Knabe concert grand with an Ampico ‘A’ reproducing player mechanism and a Deagan Piano-Vibraharp (a rare instrument), both of which are connected to the organ’s console. The theatre is designed to evoke elaborate early movie houses—appropriate since theatre organs were originally used to provide music and sound effects during silent film screenings.
Know Before You Go
The Sanfilippo Estate is a private home, not open to the public, but it does host charity events at which the organ is often played, and offers prearranged tours to groups of 40 or more.