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The Wurlitzer Company and Fine Stringed Instruments

Wurlitzer Company and Fine Stringed Instruments

A scion of the organ-and-instrument dynasty was in fact also a restorer and dealer in Stradivarius violins. His work is also associated with a Strad movie and play.

For the uninitiated, the name “Wurlitzer” means 1950s-retro juke boxes. A smaller audience might know of the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” a pipe organ used in large venues such as early 20th century theaters and a handful of baseball parks. But in fact, the Wurlitzer name is associated with many more types of musical instruments, including pianos, electric keyboards, circus organs, and high-quality music boxes.

But there’s more to the Wurlitzer music story. According to family histories, several Wurlitzers were involved in making musical instruments going back to the late 16th century. One such Wurlitzer, John George (born in 1726) was violin maker. Around the same time, Hans Adam Wurlitzer, who was a member of the lute makers’ guild in Saxony (Germany) was known to be a master violin maker.

The company itself was founded in the United States in 1856 (by some accounts it was in 1853) by Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer, amassing a fortune and building a multi-generational dynasty on peoples’ love for music in various forms. Somewhat confusing the history is that the Wurlitzers for a time were also retailers of musical instruments of all kinds. This included all types of orchestral instruments, including fine stringed instruments. Many were sold with Wurlitzer branding even though they were made by other companies.

All that said, there was a member of the family who established a strong relationship between the names Wurlitzer and Stradivari. Rembert Wurlitzer (1904-1963) had an intense interest in fine violins such that in 1949 he established the Rembert Wurlitzer Co. The firm existed to buy, sell, restore and authenticate the violins of Stradivari and other European master luthiers (Guarneri, Montagnana, et al.). Over the course of roughly 14 years, the firm handled an estimated half of the known 600 Stradivariuses still extant at the time.

A movie, The Red Violin, and Wurlitzer family history, allege that what is now known as the Mendelssohn Stradivarius Violin, was discovered by Rembert when sitting at a café in Berlin. A play published in 2020, “Stradivarius Wurlitzer,” written by Frederick Pabst Wurlitzer M.D., makes a similar claim. As the story goes, a gypsy musician strolled by playing the instrument, and the sound caught Rembert’s attention. On a quick examination, he declared it as Strad. Other accounts of this particular violin – which had survived World War II (several had not) – debunk the story.

That shouldn’t dampen respect for what Rembert Wurlitzer did for these most rare and valuable instruments. He hired and fostered the development of world class violin restorers and luthiers. The general consensus is that instruments with documented provenance through the Rembert Wurlitzer Company shop meet a gold standard that commands respect to this day. Great violinists who purchased instruments from the firm included Fritz Kreisler, David Oistrakh, and Isaac Stern.

So while the Wurlitzer name is more associated with juke boxes, historic theaters, and perhaps baseball games, in some rarified circles it is a name that led to the saving some of the best and most important violins ever made.