Things You Didn't Know About Wurlitzer #2: Wurlitzer was a major company throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
It's easy to mistake Wurlitzer as the little-brother rival to the Fender Rhodes. For one, Fender is still around dominating the market, while Wurlitzer faded away in the 1980s.
In fact, Wurlitzer has a much more storied past than Fender. Wurlitzer was founded nearly a hundred years before Fender, and was a huge retailer of acoustic pianos (among other instruments) back when household electricity was just a mad scientist's fever dream.
Wurlitzer had its fingers in a lot of pies. First of all, it was a solid mid-budget, middle-class staple for home pianists well into the twentieth century. But they also provided coin-operated musical instruments to restaurants and other public places: first, the Tonophone, then the jukebox. And there was also the Mighty Wurlitzer, a massive instrument somewhere between an organ and a synthesizer, which provided sound effects for countless movie theaters during the silent era.
The Wurlitzer electronic piano wasn't conceived as an answer to the Fender Rhodes (which, in its completed, full-sized version, was still a good ten years away) or anything else. It was the logical continuation of Wurlitzer's commitment to the middle-class musical market. Wurlitzer had sold affordable spinets for decades previous, but the electronic piano introduced an all-new level of accessibility and convenience. Here was a piano that could fold up into its own carrying case, go anywhere, and fit into homes of any size. Apartments! Mobile homes! Classrooms! Now anyone anywhere could own a piano.
Thousands of thousands of Wurlitzers were made. They were sold to jazz musicians tired of the poor quality of bars' backline pianos. They were sold to schools to fulfill the utopian dream of effective group piano lessons. They were sold to suburbanites and apartment-dwellers and families and technophiles and amateurs and teachers and touring musicians.
Wurlitzer was a household name. Their tagline, "Gee Dad, It's a Wurlitzer!" was as familiar in the 50s as, say, "Just Do It" or "Think Different" is today. Thanks to the complexity and ambitiousness of Wurlitzer instruments, it also became a metaphor for anything that could be played or manipulated. For instance: in the 1950s, the CIA created a network of fake political organizations to keep tabs on American liberals. The CIA affectionately referred to these front organizations as the "Mighty Wurlitzer," because they could "play any propaganda tune."
During its heyday, Wurlitzer was a behemoth. It boasted factories throughout the eastern United States, including one in Corinth, Mississippi, opened in 1954 to specifically produce electronic pianos. In 1965, their DeKalb, Illinois, factory was capable of simultaneously producing up to 14,000 acoustic pianos. "Wurlitzer Plant So Large Messengers Use Roller Skates," a St. Louis Star and Times headline read in 1929. Wurlitzer had celebrity endorsements, such as television stars Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, who appeared in 1959 advertisements.
So, although Wurlitzer is all but forgotten today, thirty-some years after it shuttered production of its musical instruments, it was actually a major corporate force during its time. Keep in mind, however, that the 80s were rough on the musical instrument market in general. Fender could have easily gone bankrupt at the same time and joined Wurlitzer as a historical footnote. But that's a different story. Suffice to say, for now, that although Wurlitzer is less well-known now, their electronic pianos are very much equivalent in quality and vintage tone as the Fender Rhodes.
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