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King City Rockers go on a grand adventure

Red hat club visits a home with a Wurlitzer organ in Gig Harbor
by: Barbara Sherman, NOT AN EVERYDAY SIGHT — Sue Cam (left), a member of the King City Rockers Red Hat Club and a longtime friend of Barbara Hammerman, who with her husband Raymond Lavine owns Wurlitzer Manor, chat in the music room that houses a Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Members of the King City Rockers Red Hat Club usually go to lunch at a local restaurant every month, but for their May get-together, they went a bit farther afield.

Ten ladies from the club, dressed from head to toe in purple and red and led by Queen Al Tabor, boarded an Amtrak train at Portland's Union Station early on Saturday, May 5, and headed up to Tacoma for lunch at the Wurlitzer Manor in Gig Harbor.

The manor, which is a huge estate built around a 1920s' four-manual, 48-rank theater pipe organ, is owned by Raymond Lavine and Barbara Hammerman, who are longtime friends of club member Sue Cam.

"This (was) our third trip to Gig Harbor to see and visit one of only five pipe organs of this size in the world," Tabor said. "The home is filled with lovely collectibles from all over the world. The owners are extremely philanthropic, down-to-earth and lovely people."

At the Tacoma station, the 10 ladies plus a guest were met by Lavine, Hammerman and a friend to transport them on a 20-minute ride across the Narrows Bridge to the 13-acre property overlooking Puget Sound and Mount Rainier.

Once in the home, which was decorated for Cinco de Mayo, the ladies enjoyed cocktails while meandering around the showpiece of the house - the giagantic music room dominated by the organ, which is fully on display behind huge glass windows.

The Wurlitzer organ was installed in 1928 in the Brooklyn, N.Y., Fox Theatre to provide music for silent movies; when the "talkies" came into vogue, the organ was put in storage until the 1970s, when it was moved to the Cardinal Music Palace restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Richard Wilcox, who built Wurlitzer Manor, had always been interested in pipe organs and developed his own computer relay system to control the pipes and accessories so an organ could produce music without an organist.

A man in Aurora, Colo., was one of the first to purchase the relay system, and when Wilcox went to help install it, he met technician Ed Zollman. Wilcox was impressed with Zollman's work and told him to look for a large pipe organ that he could purchase.

Zollman learned that the Cardinal Music Palace organ was for sale, and the two men flew to Indiana to see it. Wilcox purchased it and began construction of his new home that would encompass the organ.

Lavine and Hammerman purchased the property about a dozen years ago and while the manor is a private residence and they do not give public tours, they have been very generous with Seattle-area arts organizations, hosting fundraisers and other events at the manor.

Club member Cam met the couple about 20 years ago in California, and they have been friends ever since.

For this visit, the guests enjoyed a catered Mexican luncheon in the elegant dining room overlooking the Narrows, followed by a duo playing guitar and singing.

Finally, it was time for the organ concert, and Lavine walked through a door literally underneath the organ to set up the computer to play previously recorded songs.

As the beautiful music swelled up in the two-story-high room, Hammerman said, "It's just like being inside the instrument."

She invited the club members to play it, saying, 'You can't hurt it. People have played chopsticks on it.'

For some of the club members, this was their first trip to Wurlitzer Manor, while others were taking advantage of the opportunity for the third time.

"Every time I come, I see new things I didn't notice before," said Dee Schiavone, who was making her third trip.

Tabor added, "There just aren't words to describe this place."

Information on the organ's history is from the May-June 1988 issue of "Theatre Organ" magazine.