The Wurlitzer Story

A Wurlitzer Summary by W. Griess, Jr.
February, 2015

Introduction by Terry Hathaway

The circumstances leading up to the creation of this page began when a lady by the name of Edna Stites emailed me (as Webmaster of the Mechanical Music Press web site) with a correction for The Wurlitzer Family Graves story page. Edna wanted me to know that she was not dead, but still alive and well! Of course I was not happy to have made such a mistake, but, nevertheless, I was thrilled to have someone in the Wurlitzer family contact me and provide the correct information. But just who is Edna Stites? Janet (Wurlitzer) Stites was the second daughter of Rudolph Henry Wurlitzer, who was the second son of Rudolph and Leonie Wurlitzer, founder of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. The son of Janet Wurlitzer Stites and her husband, Luke Sells Stites, was Peter Wurlitzer Stites, who died Oct. 16, 2013. Edna Ingles Stites was Peter Stites wife, and happily she is alive and well as of August, 2014.

During our exchange of email messages, Edna Stites shared her communications with William Griess, Jr., whose mother was Natalie Wurlitzer, Rudolph Henry and Marie Wurlitzer's fourth child. And so I came to know Bill, who is quite knowledgeable about the Wurlitzer family and has done research about it in recent years. At first Mr. Griess was providing me with some useful corrections and additional bits of information for The Wurlitzer Family Graves page, but it finally occurred to me that it made better sense for the Wurlitzer family to tell its own story, rather than me trying to integrate more bits of information into something already written, but with a different creative intent in mind. I shared my idea, whereupon Bill sent me a copy of the "W Summary," which is a document that had been passed around amongst the Wurlitzer family, summarizing their history. It is this document that forms the basis of the Wurlitzer story that follows.

A Wurlitzer Summary by W. Griess, Jr.

The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company--Everything Musical.

The Wurlitzer family, Cincinnati, Ohio, circa 1908.
(Photograph courtesy of W. Griess, Jr.)

The (Franz) Rudolph Wurlitzer family, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1908. Rudolph and Leonie Wurlitzer celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this year on September 19, 1908, and this family picture may be in honor of that celebration. The location of the photograph is uncertain, but it may be at the home of Howard Wurlitzer.

Seated at center picture is (Franz) Rudolph Wurlitzer, with his wife, Leonie, surrounded by his three sons and two daughters and their families. Standing at rear (from left to right) is Karl Eilers (husband of Rudolph and Leonie Wurlitzer's youngest daughter, Leonie Jeannette), Howard E. Wurlitzer, Farny R. Wurlitzer, and Rudolph H. Wurlitzer. For more details please click on the above photograph and/or click here.

(Franz) Rudolph Wurlitzer, born in 1831, left his parents' family in Schöneck, Saxony in Germany, embarked on the Adolphine sailing from Bremen and arrived in New York on June 17, 1853, at age 22. His future wife, Leonie Farny, whom he first met in Cincinnati, was from Alsace, in France, and came to this country with her parents and three brothers also in 1853, on October 25. Her brother Henry, born in 1847, became known for his paintings of American Indians.

Wurlitzer and Brother Logo.

In Cincinnati, Rudolph Wurlitzer began importing musical instruments in 1856, which his former neighbors in Germany produced when they were not farming.  He soon met success in wholesale and retail sales, and during the Civil War manufactured drums and supplied trumpets. His two younger brothers came over and joined him in the business: Anton, who was wounded in the Civil War, became a partner in Rudolph Wurlitzer & Brother; and Constantin was a clerk.  Rudolph's brother-in-law, Adolph Strobel, also joined the company, which was later incorporated in 1890 as The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company (eventually renamed The Wurlitzer Company).

Rudolph married Leonie Farny in 1868. Their six children were:

1. Sylvia Wurlitzer Weinberg 1869 - 1952
2. Howard Eugene 1871 - 1928
3. Rudolph Henry 1873 - 1948
4. Leonie Jeanette Wurlitzer Eilers 1875 - 1947
5. Percy 1877 - 1878
6. Farny Reginald 1883 - 1972

Sylvia, accompanied by her brother, Rudolph H., and great-aunt Josephine, went to Berlin in 1892, where she studied piano. She later gave piano lessons. She met a Russian, S. George Weinberg, in Europe and eventually married him, and lived in St. Petersburg, where he was a manufacturers’ representative. He subsequently did civil engineering consulting. Their first child, Eugene, was born in Cincinnati, but Cyril and Alice were born in Russia. They had a summer home in Finland. After leaving about-to-be revolutionary Russia in 1916 and moving to New Jersey, they changed their last name to Farny (her mother's maiden name) in 1919, which complicates family trees.

Sylvia’s three brothers (Howard, Rudolph H., and Farny) helped out in the business with tasks they could do as school children. Then after high school they collectively devoted little time to academic studies and embarked on their individual careers within the company.

Howard Eugene, the eldest son, left Woodward High School at age 17 to work full time in the company. The catalogs were one of his early responsibilities. He became one of Ohio’s most successful businessmen. The financial side, and overall direction of the business, were largely his areas of contribution for many years. He worked closely with the company’s suppliers of automatic and coin-operated musical instruments, and motivated them to be innovative. He married Helene Billing, the daughter of Henriette Schneider and German immigrant Gustav A. Billing, a mining entrepreneur and executive. Helene Billing Wurlitzer, a patron of the arts, such as the Cincinnati College of Music, later continued her philanthropy in Taos, New Mexico. A book about her, The Lady of the Casa by John Skolle, 1959, the Rydal Press, also describes some of her ancestors and Wurlitzer family members. The children of Howard and Helene were Raimund, Luise, and Valeska.

Rudolph Henry, the second son, having graduated from Woodward High School, which was across the street from his home, studied violin, history of music, and violin making across the Atlantic in Berlin. Back home, he gave a lot of his attention in the family company to purchasing and selling violins and other stringed instruments. He initiated the company’s dealership with Victor Talking Machines record players, which business he supervised along with piano sales. Over the years, he assembled a collection of stringed instruments with examples from different countries; and he developed a reputation as a leading authority on violins. Eventually the Wanamaker Collection was purchased resulting in the finest collection of Stradivari, Amati, and other old violins. Rudolph H. married Marie Richard, whose mother, Marianne Ferneding, and father, G. H. Clement Richard, who studied here to became a physician, were both immigrants from Germany. Rudolph’s and Marie’s five children were Marianne, Janet, Rembert, Natalie, and Annette.

Leonie Jeanette, the younger of the two sisters, also played piano. She married Karl Eilers, a mining engineer and executive, whose father was at one time a partner of Howard’s father-in-law. The Eilers’ children, born in Colorado, were Marguerite, Karl, and Francis. The family moved to New York City in 1904. Leonie and her husband supported charity work, which included the Lenox Hill Hospital. Out of his experience at American Smelting & Refining (with a hospitalization plan), Mr. Eilers founded United Hospital Fund from which grew Blue Cross & Shield.

Farny Reginald, the youngest of the Wurlitzer children, after four years of high school at the Cincinnati Technical School, began a year of study in 1901 at a commercial school in Hamburg, Germany, with some hands-on work experience. He then spent time with European suppliers for Wurlitzer. Farny presented himself to the Paillard Company at St. Croix, Switzerland, and lived with the Paillards, becoming a close friend of their son. In Lyons, France, at Pelisson Guinot Blanchon he spent his mornings for about six months studying the business of their brass musical instrument plant, and his afternoons taking lessons from a French teacher. With four large Pianella orchestrions ordered from J.D. Philipps & Söhne, of Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, Farny worked in their manufacturing operations, and was to inspect each instrument when ready for shipment. By 1904 he was back in this country and working with his brothers and their father, as well as managing the automatic musical instrument department. He traveled a lot, calling on Wurlitzer dealers. In 1910 he married Grace Keene, who had been Howard’s secretary. Also, in 1910, the newlyweds moved to North Tonawanda, New York, so that Farny could manage the recently acquired de Kleist factory there. The Farny Wurlitzers had no children, but kept in touch with nieces and nephews.

Over the years, Rudolph senior, as well as his sons, made business trips to Europe to maintain contacts with suppliers, purchase inventory, and visit Sylvia in Russia. The company had an extensive catalogue of products. By 1899 Adolph Strobel and Anton Wurlitzer had retired, and Rudolph senior was president, Howard vice president, and Rudolph H. secretary and treasurer.

As a dealer for Regina Music Boxes, starting in 1893, the Wurlitzer company had persuaded Regina in 1896 to make coin operated models. Wurlitzer became their largest United States distributor. In 1899, because of a request by Howard Wurlitzer, Eugene de Kleist’s barrel organ company (in North Tonawanda, New York) produced the “Tonophone,” which was a coin operated piano that used a wooden pinned cylinder almost the width of the piano. The "Tonophone" was labeled and marketed by Wurlitzer and it quickly became a commercial success; and Howard became a vice-president of the de Kleist Musical Instrument Company. Wurlitzer sales of other automatic musical instruments from this source followed—a line of pinned-cylinder operated band organs (and later paper roll operated band organs); and beginning in 1903 a line of elaborate piano orchestrions with many ranks of pipes and percussion components for simulating various orchestral instruments were imported from J.D. Philipps & Söhne, of Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, and offered for sale as "The PianOrchestra."

In January of 1909 Wurlitzer assumed operation of the de Kleist Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company and its North Tonawanda factory as The Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company. Within a year or so, a large variety of Wurlitzer-built coin operated automatic pianos using paper music roll began flowing out of the North Tonawanda factory, some no more than a basic piano with mandolin attachment, some with added flute and/or violin pipes, and some with various percussion instruments. In 1912 Wurlitzer began building piano-based instruments for motion picture use, which made use of pipes, drums, and sound effects housed in side cabinets. Generically termed “photoplayers,” these special use instruments could fit below the movie screen and were sold to small Nickelodeon (5-cent) movie theaters, often replacing a small group of musicians with a single musician. The piano could be played by hand or automatically by means of a paper roll, while various attachments, depending on price, were available to the operator for orchestral sounds and special effects appropriate for the action unfolding up on the silver screen.

Wdurlitzer Headquarters Building, Cincinnati, Ohio.
(Photograph from The Music Trades, December 1, 1906,
courtesy of W. Griess, Jr.)

This is the main Cincinnati, Ohio, headquarters building for the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company from 1891 up through 1941, when the headquarters moved to Chicago, Illinois. The building, however, remained a major Wurlitzer retail store location for many years thereafter.

In 1910, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company purchased pipe organ patents and business assets from Robert Hope-Jones, an English electrical engineer, inventor, and musician, who had made amazing improvements to electrical action pipe organs, but had experienced business failures with his company in Elmira, New York. Wurlitzer employed him and his crew. The result, after a period of learning from mistakes, was the very successful line of theatre organs installed in many movie theaters, and also the production of church and residence organs.

Rudolph senior died in 1914. In 1919, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co. bought the piano and player-piano business of the Melville Clark Piano Company, whose factory was in DeKalb, Illinois, near Chicago. Wurlitzer pianos were produced at DeKalb for many years. Wurlitzer had retail stores in many cities. Talking movies in the late 1920's caused a sharp decline in Unit Orchestra (theatre organ) sales. Howard, who had led the company for many years, had been in ill health for a number of years, and retired in 1928. He and his youngest sister sold their ownership interests back to the company, which retired those common and preferred stock interests. He had been President from about 1912 to 1927, and then Chairman of the Board. Vice-President Rudolph H. became President in about 1927, and was Chairman from 1932 until retiring in 1942. Farny became President in 1932, Chairman of the Executive Committee in 1941, Chairman of the Board in 1942, and Chairman Emeritus in 1966.

Third generation Wurlitzers, Eugene and Cyril Farny (sons of Sylvia and George), Raimund Wurlitzer (Howard’s and Helene’s son), and Rembert Wurlitzer (Rudolph Henry’s and Marie’s son) were also directors and officers active in the business for a number of years.  Cyril managed the DeKalb plant for several years.

Rudolph H.’s and Marie’s son, Rembert Wurlitzer, had attended Princeton University and studied, as well as actually made, violins in Europe before joining the Wurlitzer company. In 1949 he established his own successful business, Rembert Wurlitzer, Inc., dealers in and restorers, repairers, makers, appraisers, and certifiers of stringed instruments, located in the Wurlitzer Building in New York City. Among the master craftsmen and appraisers in his company were S.F. Sacconi and Dario D’Attili. After Rem’s death in 1963, his wife and daughter continued the business into the early 1970’s.

Rudolph H.’s and Marie’s son-in-law, James M. Hutton, Jr., managing partner of W. E. Hutton & Co. stockbrokers, was a Rudolph Wurlitzer Company director for many years, and was followed in this by James M. Hutton, III.

Back in the early 1930's, with the world's great depression, the sharp decline in theatre organ sales due to talking movies, the tapering off of piano sales because of radios, and the buy-back of Howard's and Leonie's ownership interests, the shortage of working capital had to be dealt with. Largely at Farny Wurlitzer's urging, the company purchased patents for record changers, and began producing jukeboxes at North Tonawanda, with Homer Capehart as sales manager. Also, the management of one of the six banks to which the company owed money, the First National of Chicago, arranged for R. C. Rolfing to come in and help turn things around as Vice President and General Manager in 1934.  Mr. Rolfing became President in 1941.

Company headquarters were moved from 121 E. 4th Street in Cincinnati to Chicago in 1941. After the World War II war-production at the factories, electronic organs (evolving from the 1945 purchase of Everett’s Orgatron division) and electronic pianos were manufactured; and factories were added at Corinth and Holly Springs, Mississippi, and Hullhorst, Germany.  For a short time in the 1970's, Wurlitzer operated a piano factory in Ogden, Utah. Japanese imports cut into American piano and electronic organ sales. Wurlitzer closed its retail stores, and stopped manufacturing jukeboxes, except in Germany. The DeKalb plant was closed and operations consolidated in the Corinth, Mississippi plant. In 1985 the Nelson Group of Companies purchased the Deutsche-Wurlitzer jukebox and vending machine division. In 1987, The Baldwin Piano & Organ Co. of Cincinnati, which had a 20 percent share of the piano market (while Wurlitzer had 10 percent), purchased Wurlitzer's piano and electronic keyboard business, patents, trademarks, trade names and corporate names. In 2001, Gibson Musical Instrument Co. of Nashville, known for guitars, acquired Baldwin, and in 2006 also purchased, from Nelson, Deutsche-Wurlitzer.

Direct line ancestors and their wives from a few centuries past:

Heinrich Wurlitzer 1596-1656 Dorothea Jahn
Johannes Wurlitzer II 1628-1679 Catharina Rudert
Michael Wurlitzer 1661-1727 Dorothea Huttner
Hans Andreas Wurlitzer I 1701-17-- Eva Strobel
Hans Andreas Wurlitzer II 1732-1799 Anna Regina Poetzschner
Johannes Andreas Wurlitzer 1771-18-- Marie Sophie Martin
Christian Gottfried Wurlitzer 1807-1871 Christiane Hochmuth
Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer 1831-1914 Leonie Farny

Story information provided courtesy of W. Griess, Jr.; with some mechanical music history addenda by Terry Hathaway.


Lloyd Grahams’ The Story of the Rudolph Wurlitzer Family and Business, unpublished, 1955;

Germans to America, Lists of Passengers Arriving at US Ports, Scholarly Resources, Inc., Wilmington, 1989;

John Skolle’s The Lady of the Casa, The Rydal Press, Santa Fe, 1959;

Advertisements reproduced in Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ Vol. 3 by Preston J. Kaufmann, Showcase Publications, Pasadena, 1995;

Letter written by Dr. Richard to his father;

Put Another Nickel In by Q. David Bowers, the Vestal Press, 1966;

Williams City Directories for company job titles;

Cincinnati Enquirer 12-23-1987 and 11-2-2001;

Gibson Musical Instruments web site;

Ancestors 1596-1914 are from a 1939 typewritten list probably from Farny Wurlitzer, also found in Kaufmann’s book;

Farny family tree (including Wurlitzers) probably drawn up at the behest of Farny Wurlitzer or siblings in about 1931;

Letter from Farny R. Wurlitzer to Art Reblitz Febuary 26, 1962.


Wurlitzer family photograph (1908) by an unknown photographer.

House of Wurlitzer photograph from The Music Trades magazine, The Music Trades Corp., Englewood, NJ, December 1, 1906.

Additional Reading:

Palkovic, Mark. Wurlitzer of Cincinnati, The Name That Means Music to Millions, Charleston, NC: The History Press, 2015.