A “theatre organ” is a pipe organ originally designed specifically for imitation of an orchestra, but in latter years new designs have tended to be around some of the sounds and blends unique to the instrument itself.
Theatre organs took the place of the orchestra when installed in a movie theatre during the heyday of silent films. Most theatre organs were modelled after the style originally devised by Robert Hope-Jones, which he called a “unit orchestra”.
Such instruments were typically built to provide the greatest possible variety of timbres with the fewest possible pipes, and often had pianos and other percussion instruments built in, as well as a variety of sound effects such as a siren.
Theatre organs are usually identified at sight by their distinctive horseshoe-shaped consoles, which are frequently painted white with gold trim in original examples such as the 3/13 Barton from Ann Arbor’s historic Michigan Theatre. The organ was installed in 1927 and is currently played daily before most film screenings. There were over 7000 such organs installed in American theatres from 1915 to 1933, but fewer than 40 original instruments remain in their original theatres. While there are few original instruments in their original theatres, hundreds of theatre pipe organs are installed in public venues throughout the world. Hundreds more exist in private residences throughout the world.
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 was the hallmark of quality.
Many of the innovations which furthered the evolution of theatre organ design simply allowed it to do its job better. 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. Some of these important developments are: electro-pneumatic action, which allows the console to be physically detached from the pipe chambers, connected only by a cable; unification, the process whereby pipe ranks are extended and tuned in sympathy with other ranks, and allowing any rank of pipes to be played from any manual or the pedals; imitative stops, where pipe ranks are more imitative of their symphonic counterparts; development of pipes able to speak successfully on higher wind pressures.
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, however, 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.
Other manufacturers included Page, Marr & Colton, Compton, Möller, Robert-Morton (the “Wonder Morton”), Conacher, Hilsdon, Kimball, Barton, Hillgreen-Lane, Kilgen, E. M. Skinner, Austin, Christie, and Hill Norman & Beard. These last two were both brand names for the same company, which specialized at the time in standardized extension organs with electro-pneumatic action, ideal for the theatre and then promoted as convenient and cost-effective for churches. In general, the Christie brand was used for theatre organs, which came with contemporary-styled consoles, while the firm’s own name Hill Norman & Beard appeared on similar and sometimes identical pipes and actions supplied to customers seen as less frivolous, controlled by a traditional drawknob-stop console. Their standardized pipe, relay and blower packages were called unit organs, and for theatre use were augmented with percussion and other additional effects. The Moller firm specialized in unit organs for church use, many of which remain in service in small churches to this day.
Compton cinema organs, built by the John Compton Organ Company of Acton, were the most prevalent of theatre organs in the UK; 261 were installed in cinemas and theatres in the British Isles. Comptons made many fine church and concert organs as well. Their cinema organs employed state of the art technology and engineering and many are still in existence today. One of the most notable is the large 5 manual example at the Odeon Cinema Leicester Square in central London.
Several organ builders were also known for their specialities. Wurlitzer was well known for its reeds and special effects; Kimball was an innovator in string tones; Barton constructed lush Tibias for their organs; Möller was famous for its foundation ranks. And although not an organ manufacturer, the J. C. Deagan Company built many of the chromatic percussions (xylophone, chrysoglott -Wurlitzer’s name for a celesta, glockenspiel, etc.) that are found in most theatre organs.
During the silent movie era and into the early 1930s, theatre organs were built in large numbers in the US and few in the United Kingdom. They were built in a variety of sizes, filling the gap between a simple piano accompaniment and a full orchestra. Indeed, when theatre owners hired orchestras to accompany silent movies, they frequently included a pipe organ to provide relief to the orchestra, and to play for less-expensive showings.
On the European continent the theatre organ appeared only after WWI in the cinemas. Some instruments came from Wurlitzer but there were European organbuilders like M. Welte & Söhne and Walcker (Organbuilder) in Germany, and there were also Dutch manufacturers like Standaart.
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 1930s, many were scrapped or sold to churches, private homes, museums, ice rinks, rollatoriums, and restaurants. In that era, commonly known as the theatre organ’s second golden age (the 1950s), many of the tonal characteristics of theatre organs became somewhat more exaggerated than they had been in the silent movie era. This second age also saw the formation of the American Theatre Organ Society.
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 Khoury composed the Gunsmoke theme. Reginald Foort was arguably the most popular theatre organist in the UK. And, probably the most legendary theatre organist of modern times, the late George Wright, was credited with saving the medium from certain demise in the 50′s and 60′s, when he created a huge series of studio recordings which sold millions, as he was clever enough to have them included in the new Stereo format used in early systems such as Zenith, Admiral and Magnavox. 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.
As in a traditional pipe organ, a theatre organ uses pressurized air to produce musical tones. Five important things that distinguish a theatre organ from traditional church organs are unification and extension, the exclusive use of electric action, high wind pressures, percussion instruments, and the horseshoe console.
Unification and extension gives 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 drawing separate stops or tabs. A simple example of unification follows:
The Tibia Clausa at 8′ pitch has 61 pipes. The Tibia can be made available at 4′ pitch by adding 12 pipes to the top of the Tibia 8′. Tibia 2′ is similarly accomplished by adding 12 more pipes. The Tibia Clausa 16′ as a pedal voice is accomplished by adding 12 pipes to the bottom of the Tibia 8′. Hence, in a unified organ, four “ranks” (really tabs or draw-stops) can be obtained from a total of 97 pipes. In a classically designed organ, four “straight” ranks would require 244 pipes. Additionally, up to five mutated ranks can be drawn from this 97-pipe rank, resulting in a total of nine ranks from a single unified and extended 8′ Tibia Clausa.
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, or from two manuals via couplers.
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.