Grand Theater

Valley City, ND

Builder: Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., Op. 1145, 1925.
Manuals: 2
Ranks: 5
Action: Electro-pneumatic

Notes: Wurlitzer "Style BX Special" with factory date: 08/31/1925. Organ subsequently moved to a church in Lisbon, ND and later moved to Reiny Delzer residence, Bismarck, ND. Organ Historical Society database as of 2015.

The Grand and Piller Theaters were owned by Pillar family. John Piller came with his family to Valley City February 28, 1919 from Grafton. At this time Mr. Piller was one of the earliest and most successful men in the young North Dakota movie theater business. He purchased both the Rex (became Piller) and Grand Theaters and ran them as a family business until 1948. From the beginning Mr. Piller insisted upon showing nothing but the best film and vaudeville entertainment he could get.  He made significant changes to both theaters by updating them to modern standards and keeping them in the forefront as new technology came along. When the opportunity to purchase the Huddle Stone Cigar Store corner arose in 1923, Mr. Piller jumped, with persuasion from Mrs. Piller, at the chance to build his own theater palace, The Piller Theatre. He began an ambitious venture to build a theater the likes of which were normally found only in cities five to ten times the size of Valley City to play the latest pictures and house even the largest of traveling Vaudeville troupes twice a month. Designed by a Minneapolis architect named Nason, the interior design was the opulent theater palace style of the times by Harold Larson also of Minneapolis. The Piller had the most modern film projection equipment ever installed in the state to that time. Another big feature of the Piller was the installation of a $15,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ. In the high loft of the theater was a complete set of stage scenery to accommodate most theatrical productions. Beneath the theater was a complete set of dressing room suites as well as a dance floor large enough to accommodate 400 dancers. After months of preparation, The Piller was to open November 11, 1925 to throngs of people. Schools were let out early for the matinee and a front door was even torn from its hinges in the excitement to see the new theater. Though built as a Palace for silent movies and vaudeville attractions, come 1927, things changed in an instant with the talking picture, “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson. Piller, being in the forefront of technology, insisted that his theater have sound equipment installed. By April 12, 1929 the Piller was among the first 2000 theaters in the world to have talkies and second in the state only to the Fargo Theater. This made the Wurlitzer mighty obsolete and it was removed sometime in the 1940’s.

The Wurlitzer found its way to Lisbon’s (ND) Trinity Lutheran Church who kept it until they moved in the 1970’s and sold it to a collector in Fargo/Moorhead who later died about 1990 and his collection was disbursed. 11. I have been told that Mr. Piller was the head of the North Dakota Theater Owner’s Association, and that he successfully took United Artists Studio to court and won over his being forced to show a film he found to be objectionable. While not certain as to which film he found so distasteful, the 1929 article announcing Talkies mentions that of all the movies offered, “The Crowd” was not played because Mr. Piller did not think it would appeal to his audiences. Mr. Piller sold his palace theater to Larry Bonaventura in 1948 who further modernized the interior design to accommodate an exotic tropical look with pink walls and white flamingos and orchids. Mr. Bonaventura sold The Piller in 1950 and it closed April 17, 1969 victim to television and poor downtown parking. 13. Mr. Piller died in 1961. 14. The Building was purchased by Mr. Roy Sheppard and remodeled by Gary Sorenson for retail use. At this time the theater equipment, scenery, seats were all disposed of. The floor was leveled and a floor was built across the open space from the balcony level. Pink flamingos and elegant architectural detailing remain on the walls in hidden far off corners. 15. Mr. George Dutton recently purchased the building that housed his photography studio and Valley Gallery. Due to structural decomposition, the decorative orbs that adorned the top of the Piller, had to be removed in September of 1998..