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The Sound of Silent Movies

Paul Woelbing ’79 has assembled the world’s largest theater organ.

Paul Woelbing poses in front of a large organ

Woelbing calls the organ’s sounds “the anteroom to heaven.” Kristen Gourlie

When Paul Woelbing ’79 entered the 40,000-square-foot warehouse his family company was thinking of buying in 2000, his father noted the roof and the parking-lot size. Woelbing noticed something else.

“I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a two-and-a-half-second delay in here when you talk. There’s a nice echo — I could do something with that,’ ” says Woelbing, now president of Carma Laboratories, Inc., the third-generation maker of Carmex lip balm.

While the company didn’t buy that facility, it built a similar one — with acoustics to match. Twenty-two years later, the unremarkable warehouse on the outskirts of Milwaukee is filled to the rafters with not only boxes of lip balm but also the soaring sounds of a theater organ.

Woelbing turned to experts at Century Pipe Organs in Minneapolis to assemble his vision with parts from dozens of retired organs. The core is a Wurlitzer console from Chicago’s Nortown Theater. It has four keyboards, plus myriad switches that mimic strings, percussion, brass, woodwind, and voice. Its many pipes vary from a quarter-inch to 32 feet tall.

An American invention, theater pipe organs provided a lively backdrop for silent movies in the early 1900s. Only a few hundred of the nearly 10,000 original organs still exist. At 6,000 pipes, the Carmex instrument is the largest theater organ in the world. “The organ is a manifestation of being a quirky, family-owned business,” Woelbing says.

When Woelbing was young, he was curious about mechanical instruments such as music boxes and player pianos. At the UW, he studied metalsmithing under professors Fred Fenster and Eleanor Moty. He earned his bachelor’s in art education and then taught high school art for 10 years before joining Carmex in 1992.

To professional organists such as film composer Mark Herman, the Carma Labs instrument is a gem. They sit at the console and lean into the keys, feet flying on the pedalboard, filling the warehouse with booming music. They make it purr, too, with soft arrangements lifted by transcendent strings — “the anteroom to heaven,” Woelbing says with a sigh.

Younger listeners are discovering the instrument. Local Gen-Xers and Millennials in the American Theatre Organ Society help Woelbing put on free concerts. One drew an unexpected 1,400 people during a community open house. “My goal is to make it friendly, make it fun,” Woelbing says.

And like the company that houses it, the organ will pass to the next generation. Woelbing has bequeathed it to his nephew, who has promised to keep the music playing.

Published in the Winter 2022 issue

Tags: Alumni, music

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