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Downers Grove North's Wurlitzer Pipe Organ

The Organ


The Clarence Johnson Auditorium at Downers Grove North High School has a very rich history with a variety of different changes and renovations that have gone on in the auditorium throughout the years. One of the very things that still surprises students, staff, and community members while they sit in the auditorium is that there is a pipe organ surrounding them. DGN is one of the very few high schools to have an operational pipe organ. 

Why DGN?

The Clarence Johnson Auditorium was built in 1955 at what was then Downers Grove High School. This 1,200-seat theatre with a balcony was built acoustically for concerts to be held in the auditorium. As silent movies started going out of style in the 1950s many silent movie theatres throughout America that owned organs for their movies began going out of business. In 1968 The Chicago Area Theatre Organ Enthusiasts (CATOE) had been offered a Wurlitzer organ to take and restore. CATOE then approached the school and offered to install a Wurlitzer Organ into their auditorium as it was the perfect place for its new home to be.  The installation of the organ was at no cost to the school and work began on disassembling the organ from where it was located in Ohio.

​Disassembly from Previous Theatre

The Wurlitzer brand pipe organ surprisingly predates the 1928 construction of North High itself. It was manufactured in 1927 and originally was housed in a theatre in Lima, Ohio, about 250 miles southeast of Downers Grove. Once the final show played at the theatre in Lima, crews began working to disassemble the organ and label every single one of the over 2,000 pieces. The cable that controlled all relays for the organ was ripped out from the proscenium arch at the theatre and organized nicely so that the tiny cables inside would not break. In addition, the relay board known as the electrical control center of the organ was so heavy that it had to be lowered from the organ chamber with special rigging. Once the organ was disassembled two trucks with trailers were used to transport all the parts weighing a total of 5 tons to Downers Grove North High School. The trucks took two trips. 

Installation at North

Many modifications were made to The Clarence Johnson Auditorium and Downers Grove North High School. Two big rectangle holes were made in the side walls of the theatre to fit the organ shutter and 150ft of new wind lines were also installed in the theatre. As the parts made their way to the auditorium, the over 1,000 tubes were placed exactly back into their correct position in the organ. Some pipes and pieces of the organ were as small as a pencil while others were more than 16 feet long and weighed 75lbs. The 900lb console was also brought into the theatre and was placed on a platform that rolls on the left side of the house.  


When the organ was pulled from the theatre in Ohio, many different parts needed to be cleaned and restored. Members of CATOE painstakingly restored every aspect of the organ as they were installing it. 40 years of plaster and coal dust were cleaned from tiny wires and the relays. The console was also repainted and restored on both the inside mechanics and the outside. 

It’s Debut 

As work began to finish up the over 50 people that helped make the project happen were excited to hear the organ play. On June 12th, 1970, about 15 months after the organ was offered initially to DGN, it debuted at its first concert in the auditorium. At the time of completion, DGN was one of the first high schools to have its very own pipe organ in the nation. 

The Organ Today

Today the Downers Grove North organ plays just as well as it did years ago. CATOE manages the continued upkeep of the pipe organ in the school and throughout the Chicagoland Area. When the pandemic began some parts of the organ were in the process of restoration which was put to a halt at that time. However, throughout 2022 and much of 2023 the organ is going to be cleaned and restored back to its former glory in the 70s. The playing of the organ is also going to come back for a variety of DGN Band, Choir, and Orchestra concerts this year provided by an amazing organist from CATOE. There has also been an idea of CATOE hosting an organ concert in the theatre in the spring once everything is completely restored and functioning. 


The Organ History and Installation were documented in the PBS documentary "When so Few Actually Play". Shown in two parts below!

Additional Videos of the Organ playing this past September, 2022

Thank you to CATOE for sharing their photo archive with us which you can see all over this page!


This page was designed and written by Robby Boucher, who has a substantial love for the DGN Wurlitzer Organ. 

A special thank you to Connor Daemicke for starting the research process of the DGN Organ.

The history of the organ is very hard to keep track of. Information is spread out through a variety of websites and people. If any of this information needs revision or if you have any archives to share with us about DGN Theatre or the Clarence Johnson Auditorium then we would love to hear it. Just send us an email!

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