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Caledonia Man Has a Home Theater with Wurlitzer Organ

Posted on Tuesday, December 1st, 2015 9:06 AM

Having a home theater in one's basement isn't all that unique. It's a very popular use for basement space, and people have a wide range of equipment, starting from a simple flat panel TV and a couple of speakers to a projection system and a Dolby Atmos sound system.

Fred Hermes of Caledonia, Wisconsin has gone in a bit of a different direction with his home theater. The 89-year-old built his house to fit a large pipe organ from the Michigan Theater in Detroit, Michigan that he purchased in 1955. He's also collected bits and pieces from other historic theaters and has assembled a small movie theater in his home, complete with more than 100 seats from the Uptown Theatre in Racine and a balcony.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a feature article recently about his "basement bijou" which details his reasoning behind this unique "home theater" of his:

Hermes took piano lessons growing up, but it was during a trip to a Racine theater that he found his passion.

"My mother used to take me down to the Rialto Theatre in Racine, and the guy played an organ down there — it was a small Wurlitzer — and when he played those low notes, (I was so excited) I'd kick her all over the place," he said. "I decided then and there, someday I was going to buy that organ, because I liked it so much. Then about four weeks later, I was born. I bought my first organ."

The industrious 8-year-old bought the pump organ from his piano teacher and hauled it home on a wagon with the help of a few friends.

Two decades later, Hermes was at it again, recruiting friends and a couple of semitrailers to help him haul the massive five-keyboard Wurlitzer from the Michigan Theater in Detroit home to Racine. Hermes paid $3,000 for the organ in 1955; he estimates it's worth about $3 million today.

Hermes then built the Caledonia home for his organ, including a basement with 20-foot ceilings.

Once his son and daughter grew up and stopped using the large basement as their indoor playground, Hermes started thinking about what he wanted to do with the space.

"That was in about 1959. They started tearing down all of these beautiful movie palaces all over the country," he said. "I got ahold of building records, and they would tell me when they were tearing a theater down, and they would say, 'Come and get whatever you want out of the theater, that's less stuff for us to haul to the dump!' So I would go and pick up all this stuff here and there."

Hermes said he has artifacts from about 50 theaters: a mustard-yellow curtain from the Crown Theatre in Racine; the motor mechanism that opens and closes it from the Palace Theatre in Dallas; stage lights from Kenosha's Lake Theater; crystal chandeliers from the Piccadilly Theatre in Chicago; more than 100 theater seats from the Uptown Theatre in Racine; Italian Renaissance décor from Racine's Venetian Theatre.

Click the Read link below to view the full article and watch a video of part of his interview.

Hermes does play for the public, but it appears that it's only for large group tours arranged through the Racine County Convention and Visitors Bureau. It would be a distinct pleasure to watch the 1925 silent classic, The Phantom of the Opera, with this mighty organ playing the accompaniment!

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