A theatre organ (also known as a theater organ, or [especially in the U.K.] a cinema organ) is a distinct type of pipe organ originally developed to provide music and sound effects to accompany silent films during the first 3 decades of the 20th century.
Theatre organs are usually identified by the distinctive horseshoe-shaped arrangement of stop tabs (tongue-shaped switches) above and around the instrument's keyboards on their consoles. Given their prominent placement in houses of popular entertainment, theatre organ consoles were typically decorated in gaudy ways, with brightly colored stop tabs, and painted bright red and black, or solid gold, or ivory with gold trim, with built-in console lighting. In organs installed in the UK, a common feature was large translucent surrounds extending from both sides of the console, with internal colored lighting. A spectacular original example is the so-called Rhinestone Barton, installed in 1928 in the former RKO Iowa Theatre (now home to Theatre Cedar Rapids in Cedar Rapids, Iowa). The console of this 3 manual 14 rank Wangerin-built Barton is completely covered in black felt fabric embedded with glass glitter in swirling patterns, with all edges trimmed with bands of rhinestones. Another original example is the 3/13 Barton from Ann Arbor's historic Michigan Theatre. The organ was installed in 1927 and is currently played five nights during a week before most film screenings. As the concept of the theatre organ was embraced, theatre organs began to be installed in other types of venues, such as civic auditoriums, sports arenas, private residences, and even churches. One of the largest theatre organs ever built (and certainly boasting the largest console ever built for a theatre organ) was the 6 manual 52 rank Barton installed in the massive Chicago Stadium.
There were over 7,000 such organs installed in America and elsewhere from 1915 to 1933, but fewer than 40 instruments remain in their original venues. Though there are few original instruments in their original homes, hundreds of theatre pipe organs (typically rescued from defunct theaters or from venues no longer using and maintaining their organs) are installed in public venues throughout the world today, while many more exist in private residences.
Many organ builders supplied instruments to theatres. The Rudolph Wurlitzer company, to whom Robert Hope-Jones licensed his name and patents, was the most prolific and well-known manufacturer (2,234 were built), and the phrase Mighty Wurlitzer became an almost generic term for the theatre organ.
Many of the design elements of the theatre organ simply allowed it to do its job better than anything else could. Although not all of these ideas originated with Robert Hope-Jones, he was the first to successfully employ and combine many of these innovations within a single organ aesthetic. As described on the website of the American Theatre Organ Society, these design elements include:
This uses low-voltage electricity to transmit the action of the organ keys to the pipes. Earlier church instruments used a mechanical linkage of rods and wires to connect the keys to the pipes. With the new system, the console (also known as a key-desk) could be placed at virtually any distance from the organ's pipes and could be somewhat portable, as just an electrical cable and flexible wind line connected the console with other parts of the instrument. This also allowed the console to achieve its ubiquitous place--on an elevator platform in front of the stage, low in the orchestra pit for accompanying the film, and rising majestically to stage height for organ solos.
Previously, each rank of pipes could be played on only one manual (keyboard) at one pitch level. (A rank is one graduated set of similar pipes that produces a distinct sound or tonal color.) In other words, there was one pipe for each key on the keyboard. With the advent of unification, ranks were extended by adding more pipes and made playable at different pitch levels, and on different manuals. Thus, fewer ranks (but with more pipes) could be used in a wide variety of combinations and pitches, and on different manuals simultaneously.
To turn the pipe ranks on and off, the traditional organ console used drawknobs placed on panels on both sides of the manuals. Using electricity, Robert Hope-Jones substituted tongue-shaped tabs arranged on a curved panel around and above the manuals. These stop tabs could be quickly and easily flipped up or down to select or deactivate any ranks of pipes.
Real musical instruments, not previously associated with the pipe organ, were installed in the pipe chambers to be pneumatically operated at will by the organist. Such instruments as piano, drums, cymbals, xylophone, marimba, orchestra bells, chimes, castanets, wood blocks, and even tuned sleigh bells could be played from the organ keyboards. Sound effects such as train and boat whistles, car horns, sirens, bird whistles, and an imitation of ocean surf could be used to great effect at appropriate times during a silent film.
Higher wind pressures increased the speaking volume of theatre organ pipes, and they were placed in chambers, usually high in the auditorium. The fronts of these chambers were covered with a set of swell shades which opened and closed like venetian blinds. When closed, the sound of the organ was reduced to a whisper. With a foot pedal, the organist could gradually open the shutters to produce louder and louder sounds from the same pipes. Although this type of swell chamber was not new, theatre organ developments permitted a much broader dynamic range than ever before.
Tremulants are devices that create a vibrato effect by mechanically shaking the wind source or by other means. Although the organ tremulant had existed for centuries, it was dramatically refined and changed in the theatre organ, and was used in entirely new ways. Traditional organs used tremulants only occasionally on solo stops. The theatre organ tremulants--smoother and broader than ever before--now became the standard, defining characteristic of theatre organ sound.
Robert Hope-Jones and others designed many new kinds of pipes in an effort to create colorful sounds for the theatre organ. Many of these new stops attempted to imitate the sounds of real orchestral instruments, while others simply contributed unique new colors to the tonal palette. Important new stops invented or refined by Hope-Jones included the Tibia Clausa, Tibia Plena, and the Diaphone.
These are but some of the basic differences between traditional concert organs and theatre organs, highlighting the elements which make the theatre pipe organ a unique instrument.
After some major disagreements with the Wurlitzer management, Robert Hope-Jones took his own life in 1914--but not before profoundly influencing the development of the theatre organ. The Wurlitzer company continued to flourish, becoming the largest manufacturer of theatre pipe organs in the world. Indeed, while there were many other builders of these instruments, the name "Wurlitzer" became generically synonymous with the theatre organ.
Originally, films were accompanied by pit orchestras in larger houses, and pit pianists in small venues. The first organs installed in theatres were nothing more than transplanted church organs, some of which even featured displays of dummy pipes. But these organs were ill-suited to the necessary tasks of the theatre setting, namely accompanying the film and the performance of popular tunes of the day. The earliest examples of the true theatre organ concept were modified pianos equipped with a few ranks of pipes and various sound effects, housed in one cabinet, and typically located in the pit area. These instruments were known as photoplayers and some were equipped with automatic player mechanisms using punched paper rolls, much like the popular player piano. Transplanted Englishman Robert Hope-Jones had a better idea, and his concept, which he called a "unit orchestra", was developed and promoted, initially by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of North Tonawanda, New York. The idea quickly caught on, and a new type of instrument, the Wurlitzer Hope Jones Unit-Orchestra or simply the theatre organ, was born. This model was immediately embraced by theatre owners and soon hundreds of instruments were being ordered from Wurlitzer and other manufacturers who quickly copied the important elements of the design for their own theatre organs.
Other manufacturers included, in the United States, The Bartola Musical Instrument Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin (maker of the Barton organ), The Page Organ Company of Lima, Ohio, The Marr & Colton Company of Warsaw, New York, and The Robert-Morton Company of Van Nuys, California (a large model was known as the Wonder Morton). In addition, makers of traditional pipe organs for churches promptly jumped on the bandwagon and began producing and selling theatre organs, such as The Kimball Company of Chicago, Illinois, The Wicks Organ Company of Highland, Illinois, M.P. Moller of Hagerstown, Maryland, and Austin Organs of Hartford, Connecticut. In the United Kingdom, important builders of theatre organs included The John Compton Organ Company and William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd., commonly referred to as Hill, Norman and Beard, who manufactured theatre organs under the Christie brand.
On the European continent the theatre organ appeared only after World War I in the cinemas. Some instruments came from Wurlitzer, but there were European organ builders like M. Welte & Söhne and Walcker in Germany, and Standaart in the Netherlands.
After the development of sound movies, theatre organs remained installed in many theatres to provide live music between features. However, after the 'golden years' of the 1920s and 1930s, many were scrapped or sold to churches, private homes, museums, ice rinks, rollatoriums, and restaurants. In the 1950s, sometimes known as the theatre organ's second golden age, the development of high-fidelity recording and the LP phonograph record created new interest in the theatre organ. This period also saw the formation of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS), originally the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts (ATOE).
Many composers got their start by playing the theatre organ. Oliver Wallace, arguably America's first real theatre organist, was soon employed by Walt Disney, and composed, among other things, the score to Dumbo. Jesse Crawford, the first organist ever to sell over a million recordings, was known in households across America as the "Poet of the Organ". He was also responsible for developing many of the techniques and registrations used in the performance of popular music on the instrument. Rex Koury composed the Gunsmoke theme heard on television and radio for many years. Reginald Dixon MBE was the most popular organist of all time, being a household name all over the UK, The British Empire (which at the time consisted of over 25% of the worlds population)and Europe. During his 40 years at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, he performed at the Wurlitzer there some 80,000 times to audiences of 6500+ at a time. He is widely recognised as recording and selling more records than any other organist. Among the most "heard" organists in the United States was Dick Leibert, who held for many years the enviable position of Head Organist at New York's Radio City Music Hall, presiding over the largest original theatre organ ever build by the Wurlitzer firm (4 manuals, 58 ranks). Another legendary theatre organist of modern times was the late George Wright, who created a huge series of studio recordings on theatre organs which sold millions. The late Richard Purvis, who was for many years the organist and master of choristers at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, was also an enthusiastic promoter of theatre organ, and wrote many arrangements for it. And famed Mormon Tabernacle organist Alexander Schreiner was also an active theatre organist.
These were the major builders of theatre organs, listed in order of production. The numbers listed here are for theatre organs only, and do not include any classical organs that may have been produced. Many builders of church organs also made theatre organs in very small numbers, such as Casavant, which only made seven theatre organs, but thousands of church organs.
|Robert Morton||about 900||1920s-1931|
|Marr and Colton||500-600||1915-1932|
|Robert Hope-Jones||246||1887-1911, sold to Wurlitzer.|
|Balcom and Vaughan||about 75|
|Hill, Norman & Beard (Christie)||>52 ||1926-1938|
As in a traditional pipe organ, a theatre organ uses pressurized air to produce musical tones. Unification and extension give the theatre organ its unique flexibility. A rank is extended by adding pipes above and below the original pitch, allowing the organist to play that rank at various pitches by selecting separate stop tabs.
By way of example, consider an organ where the Tibia Clausa rank at 8' (standard) pitch has 61 pipes. A traditional organ would require a further 61 pipes for the Tibia 4' (an octave higher); the unified theatre organ achieves the same effect by playing on the same pipes but transposing up an octave, thus requiring only an additional 12 pipes to play the top octave. Tibia 2' (yet another octave higher) is similarly accomplished by adding 12 more pipes. The Tibia Clausa 16' is accomplished by transposing down an octave, and adding 12 pipes to the bottom of the Tibia rank. Hence, in a unified organ, four stops (each a separate stop tab) can be obtained from a total of 97 pipes. In a classically designed organ, four 61-note Tibia ranks, requiring 244 pipes, would be needed for the same four stops. Additionally, several mutation stops can be drawn from this 97-pipe rank, resulting in eight or nine stops from a single unified and extended 8' Tibia Clausa rank.
These ranks are voiced in relation to other pipe ranks in the organ, allowing a handful of ranks in a typical theatre organ to imitate a wide range of instruments. Unification also makes it possible to play any rank of pipes from any manual and the pedals independently, unlike a traditional church organ, where a rank of pipes is playable only from one manual or the pedals, unless couplers are employed.
The electro-pneumatic action was invented by Robert Hope-Jones, and is considered by many to be the single most significant development in pipe organs. Up to the turn of the 20th century, all pipe organs were operated by a tracker, tubular pneumatic, or pneumatic Barker-lever action, where the keys and pedals were physically connected to the pipe valves via wooden trackers, except in the case of tubular pneumatic, where all actions were operated by air pressure. Hope-Jones' electro-pneumatic action eliminated this by using wind pressure, controlled by electric solenoids, to operate the pipe valves, and solenoids and pistons to control and operate the various stop tabs, controls, keys and pedals on the console. This action allowed the console to be physically detached from the organ. All signals from the console were transmitted by an electric cable to an electro-pneumatic relay, and from there to the pipes and effects in the organ chambers.
Hope-Jones believed that higher wind pressures would allow pipes to more accurately imitate orchestral instruments by causing the pipes to produce harmonic overtones which, when mixed with other pipe ranks, produced tones more imitative of actual instruments. The high wind pressures also led to the development of instruments that are unique in theatre organs (such as the diaphone and tibia clausa), and allowed any rank in the organ to function as a solo instrument. These higher pressures were possible due to the development of high-velocity, motor-driven blowers and wind regulators.
Another hallmark of theatre organs is the addition of chromatic (tuned) percussions. In keeping with his idea of a "unit orchestra," Hope-Jones added pneumatically- and electrically operated instruments such as xylophones, wood harps, chimes, sleigh bells, chrysoglotts and glockenspiels to reproduce the orchestral versions of these instruments.
Later, Wurlitzer added other effects, such as drums, cymbals, wood blocks and other non-chromatic percussions and effects to allow the theatre organ to accompany silent movies.
A traditional organ console was not adequate to control a theatre organ, as the large number of draw knobs required made the console so huge an organist could not possibly reach all of them while playing. Thus, the horseshoe console was born. Based on a curved French console design and using stop tabs instead of drawknobs, the horseshoe console now allowed the organist to reach any stop or control while playing any piece of music, eliminating the need to move around awkwardly on the bench. The smaller stop tabs also permitted the addition of many more stops on the console than could be added on a traditional console.
After the advent of unification and the electro-pneumatic action, builders of church organs started to see the advantages of these systems. As a result, several organ builders began adopting these concepts for use in their church organs. Among these were Austin, Möller, Aeolian-Skinner and Kimball, who used electro-pneumatic action in many of their organs. Today, approximately one fourth of all new or rebuilt church pipe organs use an electro-pneumatic action either exclusively, or as an augmentation to existing tracker actions. In the same vein, some amount of unification was utilized in some church organs, and even today many church pipe organs utilize some degree of unification in areas where it is not critical to the classical sound sought in such instruments, or in instruments where space for pipes is limited. With stops such as the 32' bourdon in the pedal division, or a 16' reed in a manual division, the basic theatre organ concept of extension is commonly--but discreetly--used by even the most noted organ builders.
There are many theatre organs still in operation but only a handful are in their original installation.
Most notable of these are the world's largest original installation theatre organs (in order of number of ranks).
So called "new" organs have been recently built, mainly from parts of other theatre organs, with some construction of new pipework, windchests and consoles. Among the largest of these are the 5-manual (keyboard), 80-rank (sets of pipes) organ at the Sanfilippo Residence in Barrington, Illinois; the 4-manual, 78-rank organ at the Organ Stop Pizza Restaurant in Mesa, Arizona; the 5-Manual 108-rank organ at the Adrian Phillips Residence in Phoenix, Arizona: and the 4-manual, 77-rank organ of the Nethercutt Collection at San Sylmar in Sylmar, California. ]
Other theatre organs that have been silent for years are being refurbished and installed in new venues.
Some of these refurbished organs have had their original electro-pneumatic relays replaced with electronic and/or computerized relays and modern, electronic consoles.
Built by companies such as Walker Theatre Organs , Allen and Rodgers, incorporating sampling, a MIDI interface, and newly designed speaker systems, are being produced in the attempt to recreate authentic-sounding pipe tones, thus providing an affordable alternative to an actual pipe organ.
Recently, a virtual theatre organ called the MidiTzer was developed by Jim Henry, available as a free download for Microsoft-based PCs or Linux machines under Wine (software), and uses MIDI keyboards. The MidiTzer makes the theatre organ sound and experience convenient for home setup and portable for use at silent film shows where a theatre pipe organ is not available. Predating MidiTzer is the Linux platform GENPO  virtual organ project. GENPO is used on professional digital audio workstations such as the Marschall Acoustics Instruments MkII and MkIII workstations which were used for the Peter Carroll-Held album recently released by Move Records . GENPO uses buttons rather than tongue-tab icons to represent the stop switches, this allows more stops to be shown in an equivalent amount of video display screen 'real-estate'. MidiTzer, on the other hand, aims to recreate a visual layout similar to a Wurlitzer theatre organ. GENPO uses SoundFont format files for its organ sounds. A great many organ sample sets are available in this format, often for free download.
Another approach used to simulate Theatre Organs used by the Linux Audio Community is the open source Aeolus program. It uses additive synthesis to recreate pipe organ sounds. Appropriate settings of parameters can result in Theatre Organ sounds, although the user interface remains rather classical. Aeolus and GENPO may be used simultaneously on Linux platforms with sufficient computing power. The combination of the two synthesis methods (Additive synthesis in Aeolus, and Sample playback with modulators/filters in GENPO) is very convincing. +
First issued in 2002 Hauptwerk Virtual Organ was developed to cater for virtual organs in general and has been found to be popular by amateurs and professional alike, with an interest in Theatre Organs. It uses sample sets which contain all of the digitised samples required for a Theatre Organ, along with an Organ Definition File (ODF) which specifies how an entire organ is defined. Sample sets are supplied by many suppliers, with a few devoted exclusively to Theatre Organs and most suppliers allow the use of their samples by ODFs that have been written by users to suit their own particular requirement, often using the Custom Organ Design Module (CODM) supplied with the Hauptwerk package. Physical console controls may be connected to Hauptwerk via MIDI MIDI and for those with limited space, touch screen control is often available. The Free Edition allows you to 'try before you buy' and there is even a free to use sample set, containing a fully featured 3 manual, 10 rank Theatre Organ, supplied by Paramount Organ Works . Other Theatre Organ sample set suppliers are Milan Digital Audio  and Key Media Productions 
The future of the theatre organ is always fluid, but several organizations are active in preserving and promoting these grand, old instruments. Among these are the American Theatre Organ Society and numerous independent theatre organ clubs who exist to refurbish and reinstall theatre organs to their former glory. Similar work is being done in the UK by the Cinema Organ Society and the Theatre Organ Club; in Australia the various divisions of TOSA have saved many theatre organs once in cinemas and theatres. Many of these rebuilt instruments have been installed in restaurants and auditoriums, as well as in a few theatres and churches, allowing the public to gain access to them.
Independent chapters of ATOS, individuals and venue operators have produced and continue to produce various events and shows to promote the theatre organ. In recent years, increased interest in silent films and the use of the theatre organ in conjunction with orchestras, concert bands, and other instrumentalists has helped to broaden the appeal of the theatre organ to newer audiences.
Within the past several years, ATOS has become very active in promoting young theatre organists and enthusiasts, primarily through its work in hosting the ATOS Summer Youth Camp. The ATOS Summer Camp is a week-long educational event aimed at instructing budding, young theatre organists in the art form. Beginning in 2007, the ATOS Summer Camp has hosted dozens of new, young theatre organists. With the help of its core educational staff of Jonas Nordwall, Donna Parker and Jelani Eddington, the Summer Camp program has developed an extensive and successful curriculum for teaching the art of the theatre organ.
By the late 1920s, there were over 7,000 organists employed in theatres across the United States. Today, there are none of those original silent film organists still alive. Today's theatre organists present the art form to the public in a variety of ways, through concert appearances, silent film accompaniment, and commercial recordings. Organists such as Walt Strony, Jelani Eddington, Peter Carroll-Held, Jonas Nordwall, Donna Parker, David Peckham, Martin Ellis, Ken Double, Chris Elliott, Dave Wickerham, Lew Williams, and Bob Ralston maintain active concert schedules and continue to promote the instrument and its preservation through their worldwide travels and musical talents. Other organists such as Clark Wilson, Andrew Rogers of Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre, Bob Mitchell, and Rob Richards, frequently accompany silent films and/or are resident staff organists for a commercial theatre.
There are many other full- or part-time theatre organists in other parts of the world. Phil Kelsall, resident organist of the Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer in the world-famous Blackpool Tower, is the most well known in the UK and plays mainly in a unique style called the Blackpool Style, which was originally developed by Reginald Dixon, a previous resident organist. Robert Wolfe tml], Donald Mackenzie, John Mann, Simon Gledhill], Richard Hills] Nigel Ogden, Matthew Bason], Byron Jones and Michael Wooldridge] are just a few of the many British organists who play regularly to audiences throughout the world. In Australia there are also many wonderful musicians who play the theatre organ, with Margaret Hall, Wendy Hambly, Peter Held, David Johnston, Neil Jensen, Bill Schumacher, Tony Fenelon, Simon Ellis, John Giacchi, Paul Fitzgerald, John Atwell, Robert Wetherall and Chris McPhee being among the most prolific. In France Jean-Philippe Le Trévou, Titular Organist at Sainte-Claire Church in Paris and one of the rare theatre organists in France, continues the tradition by accompanying silent films at the Kinopanorama in Paris, at the Vidéothèque de Paris for the Ciné-Mémoire Festival, as well as at the Cinema Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, during the Music Fair.
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