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Wurlitzer Shop History

Remembering the greatest violin experts that America has ever produced



All photos courtesy of Luiz Bellini.

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 juke boxes, 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.



ATTENTION TO DETAIL: Simone Sacconi, right, coaches Luiz Bellini.


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.

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