Dream Team: The Wurlitzer Shop History
Remembering the greatest violin experts that America has ever produced
Wurlitzer. That name conjures a variety of musical memories. Some who are old enough may recall the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, heard in movie houses and theaters across the country during the early 20th century. Others may remember Wurlitzer jukeboxes, which played hit records in restaurants and bars during the '40s, '50s and '60s. But any string player over the age of 50 who hears the name Wurlitzer will probably think of the greatest violin expert that America has produced—Rembert Wurlitzer—and the historic rare-violin business that he established and operated on 42nd Street in New York City from 1948 until his death in 1963.
During those 15 short years, Wurlitzer assembled a team of dedicated makers who were as passionate about stringed instruments as he was. The workshop, headed by the maestro Simone Sacconi, trained many of today's leading makers, restorers, and experts, including René Morel, Hans Nebel, Luiz Bellini, Charles Beare, Bill Salchow, and others. It's estimated that during that time, nearly half of the 600 known Stradivari violins were restored there. Wurlitzer's shop was a crossroads and meeting place for the greatest musicians of the day: Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Kreisler, Menuhin, Milstein, Rostropovich—they all came there as clients of the greatest team of stringed-instrument experts, restorers, and connoisseurs that America had to offer.
The Wurlitzer musical dynasty began in the early 1700s in Saxony. The earliest members engaged in the trade were Hans Andreas, Nicholas, and Hans Adam Wurlitzer, who were listed in the guild of violin and lute makers in the towns of Schoeneck and Schillbach in a region that now rests within modern Germany. In the 19th century, Rudolph Wurlitzer emigrated to the United States, and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1856, he opened the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., which initially began importing musical-instrument parts from Europe. During the Civil War, Wurlitzer imported horns and other band instruments. The company eventually grew to become the country's largest musical instrument retailer with 32 offices across the country.
A cornerstone of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co. was the rare stringed-instrument department. Rudolph had set out to acquire the finest stringed instruments and bows for this collection. Beginning in 1890, annual trips were made to Europe, where Wurlitzer acquired such great masterpieces as the "Betts" Stradivari and the "Leduc" Guarneri del Gesu. In 1923 Wurlitzer purchased much of the famed R.D. Waddell collection in Glasgow, and in 1929 the company bought the entire collection of Philadelphia merchant Rodman Wanamaker. Many of the great Cremonese works that are now housed at the US Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution were originally imported and sold by Rudolph Wurlitzer. Some of these instruments include the "Tuscan-Medici" and "Cassavetti" Stradivari violas and the "Servais" and "Castelbarco" Strad cellos, as well as the Betts violin of 1704.
Rembert Wurlitzer, born in 1904, was groomed to carry the family business successfully into the later 20th century. From an early age, Rembert, like his early German predecessors, had a fondness and aptitude for violin making. He initially apprenticed with Cincinnati's James Reynold Carlisle, an American-born and -trained maker, whose work was promoted by the Wurlitzer firm. Wurlitzer later went on to study with Amedee Dieudonne in Mirecourt, France. In 1924, as a 20-year-old student in Dieudonne's shop, he made a violin—labeled #4—that is practically indistinguishable from the work of his French master.
By 1948, Rembert decided to open his own firm, separate from the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., which would focus only on rare stringed instruments and bows. This gave Rembert the autonomy to focus on his real passion and freed him from all of the complexities of the larger family business. His firm, Rembert Wurlitzer Inc., was soon able to gather fine craftsmen and experts who shared his scholarly knowledge and love of stringed instruments.
In 1951 the renowned violin dealer Emil Herrmann decided to close his New York shop, setting the stage for Wurlitzer to further build his own fame when Herrmann's head restorer, the legendary Simone Sacconi, came over to lead the Wurlitzer workshop. Sacconi was revered among musicians and colleagues for his attention to detail and the devotion that he brought to the craft.
According to violin-restoration master Hans Nebel, who worked at Wurlitzer's for 18 years, "Sacconi had an eye, an understanding for things that was second to none."
Sacconi's right-hand man from the Herrmann shop, Dario D'Atilli, also became part of the Wurlitzer brain trust.
Wurlitzer's talented staff flourished under his calm, unassuming leadership. Charles Beare, the eminent British violin expert, said of Wurlitzer's laid-back management approach: "To him it was simple: there were and should be no secrets. Knowledge was something that should be shared and it was then up to its possessors to make use of it in the best way possible. From his point of view, those whom he respected and wanted to keep on his team should always be paid rather more than what they think they might be paid working on their own or working for other firms."
Under Sacconi's direction, the Wurlitzer workshop was able to attract the most skillful and dedicated restorers from around the world. Those who worked under Sacconi had a profound respect for the man's work as well as his character. Luthier René Morel, who arrived at Wurlitzer's already in possession of near-legendary skills, recently recounted the gravity of the moment he first met Sacconi: "When I saw the man in the white smock, I looked into his face and knew that I was with someone who was a great artist. It struck me right in the chest . . . I knew right there and then that he was the maestro."
To New York violin maker Luiz Bellini, Sacconi was a great restorer who loved to share his knowledge. "I was in heaven there," he recalls. "Sacconi was probably the greatest person to learn from because of his love to teach. I still think about it today. What I learned under his supervision still helps me in my work today."
The late master luthier Vahakn Nigogosian or "Nigo," as he was known, felt the atmosphere of the workshop under Wurlitzer and Sacconi was a nonstop learning process, where everyone was encouraged to study and learn from the great masterpieces. Nigo once described how Sacconi would always give compliments when good work was done, while giving criticism in only the most constructive way. Sacconi would implore members of the shop "to close every door" when restoring an instrument, meaning that great restorers must anticipate every possible problem before going ahead with the work.
Morel says that Sacconi "would get the best out of any individual that worked under him. He had such an ability to explain things without ever raising his voice. He opened my eyes and changed my skill into artistry."
But Bellini points out that the atmosphere wasn't always serious at the Wurlitzer shop. "We were able to work every other Saturday for time-and-a-half pay," he says. "On Saturdays, Sacconi felt much more relaxed. One Saturday after I'd been working there for about a year, Sacconi came up to me and handed me a viola saying, 'Look here, Luigi. Look at this beautiful Stradivari.'"
Bellini marveled over the beauty of the instrument. Later that day, Sacconi confessed that it was a copy that he had made of the "MacDonald" Stradivari.
According to Beare, Wurlitzer and Sacconi and others created a synergy or "team atmosphere that is seldom seen outside of the sports arena." Each member of the team possessed qualities that were essential to the success of the business.
Wurlitzer possessed the qualities of a true violin expert: a photographic memory, an encyclopedic knowledge of stringed instruments and their makers, as well as an unmatched passion for his work.
Sacconi was equally passionate about his work and always tried to further perfect his restoration and conservation techniques while respecting the work of the maker. Together, Wurlitzer and Sacconi left a great legacy to the violin world. They were able to create worldwide improvements in the art of repair and restoration, and also raised the level of knowledge and expertise within the industry.
"We were like a real family," Bellini recalls. "If you needed something, all you had to do was ask."
Tragically, in 1963, Rembert Wurlitzer passed away at the height of his professional success. He was 59. His wife, Lee, carried on the business for another ten years. Although the business continued, things weren't the same without the dignified patriarch of the family. Sacconi's health also declined and he made the commute into New York less often from his home on Long Island. He died in 1973 at the age of 78.
The firm closed its doors in 1974, ending the greatest stringed-instrument dynasty in America.
Still, the Wurlitzer legacy lives on.
Many Wurlitzer employees have shaped successful careers of their own and have trained the second and third generations of American violin makers and restorers. The Wurlitzer philosophy of sharing knowledge within the craft is also continued by many leading shops. So, too, have the spirit of consummate craftsmanship and respect for musicians and the great masterpieces on which they perform.
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