World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Theatre organ

Article Id: WHEBN0001150863
Reproduction Date:

Title: Theatre organ  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Collection: American Musical Instruments, Organs (Music), Pipe Organ, Silent Film, Silent Film Music
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Theatre organ

Console of the 3/13 Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre

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.

Spectacular console of the original installation 3 manual, 14 rank Rhinestone Barton theatre organ, installed in Theatre Cedar Rapids (the former RKO Iowa Theatre), Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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 MIDI and for those with limuted 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 [12]. Other Theatre Organ sample set suppliers are Milan Digital Audio [13] and Key Media Productions [14]

The future

The theatre organ and its progenitors

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 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.

Organists then and now

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 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. Frankfurt, Germany, during the Music Fair.


  1. ^ Steven Ball. The Barton Organ of the Michigan Theatre.[15] Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society (September/October 1998).
  2. ^ Steven Ball. The Story of The Hollywood Barton.[16] Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society (November/December), citing The Hollywood Theatre, Detroit, MI Detroit News March 17, 1963.
  3. ^ American Theatre Organ Society, [17] Theatre Organ Locator
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Retrieved 27 October 2015
  10. ^ Retrieved 27 October 2015
  11. ^ Retrieved 27 October 2015
  12. ^
  13. ^ The earliest unit orchestras utilized a separate wind supply to the console to operate combination pistons, which at that time were pneumatically operated. Later designs electrified the combination action, eliminating the need for the console wind supply.
  14. ^ Various builders of church organs, notably Möller, Austin, Aeolian-Skinner and Kimball, added a limited number of chromatic percussions to their church instruments.
  15. ^ Original installation refers to a theatre pipe organ that is still located in its originally-installed venue (never removed and installed elsewhere) and still contains its original specification (organ retains its original pipes and chamber layout and console, no additions or deletions except for update of relays). The addition and/or deletion of only one rank of pipes negates this status.
  16. ^ YouTube behind-the-scenes tour of the organ, posted by the New York Theatre Organ Society volunteers on 20 Mar 2013. [18]
  17. ^ New York Theatre Organ Society website, list of organs
  18. ^
  19. ^ Marschall Acoustics Instruments DAW Mk III
  20. ^ Sketches of a better time – Peter Carroll-Held, 2011 Move Records

See also

External links

  • The Beer Wurlitzer - Oldest Wurlitzer theatre organ in the UK
  • American Theatre Organ Society
  • Cinema Organ Society (UK)
  • The Theatre Organ Home Page
  • Theatre Organs UK
  • The Wurlitzer Opus List
  • The Compton List by Ivor Buckingham (1945–2008)
  • Scottish Theatre Organ Preservation Society
  • Saenger Theatre Organ/Pensacola restoration project
  • Theatre Organ Society of Australia
First issued in 2002

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. +

recently released by Move Records [11]. 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. [20] MkII and MkIII workstations which were used for the Peter Carroll-Held album[19] 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

Virtual theatre organ

Built by companies such as Walker Theatre Organs [7], Allen[8] and Rodgers[9], 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.

Digital theatre organ

  • Manufacturers such as Uniflex Relay Systems [4], Essential Technology OPUS-TWO [5], Peterson, Organ Supply Industries, and Artisan Instruments [6] provide hardware, reproduction parts, and electronics for theatre organs.

Some of these refurbished organs have had their original electro-pneumatic relays replaced with electronic and/or computerized relays and modern, electronic consoles.

Other theatre organs that have been silent for years are being refurbished and installed in new venues.

  • The largest theatre pipe organ in a publicly owned building is the Wilmington, Delaware, consisting of identical 3-manual consoles which play 66 ranks of pipes.
  • The Civic Hall in Wolverhampton (UK) houses what was originally a 53-rank Compton concert/orchestral organ which has, in recent years, been enhanced by four theatre organ ranks, including the main voice of the theatre organ, a Tibia Clausa. [3]
  • The Singing Hills Wurlitzer, Albourne, proudly boasts two consoles. The smaller 2-manual console controls five of the available ranks and the larger 3-manual console controls all of the available 23 ranks. Originally specified by Michael Maine and built by David Houlgate, re-specified by Michael Wooldridge and refurbished with extra ranks added by Alan Baker and Michael Wooldridge. Regularly used for concerts throughout the year, in the non-golfing season.
  • The East Sussex National Wurlitzer, Uckfield, sports a Wurlitzer replica 'Modernistic' console built by Ken Crome and has 4 manuals controlling the 32 available pipe ranks and traps. Available for functions and regularly used for fortnightly Sunday tea dances.

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) Nethercutt Collection at San Sylmar in Sylmar, California. ]

New vs. original technology

  • Alessandro Giacobazzi, Modena, 2/7 Wurlitzer, 1927
  • Dream Factory, Degersheim, 3/14 Wurlitzer
  • Collège Claparède, Geneva, 3/8 Wurlitzer
  • Theatre Barnabè, Servion, M. Welte & Söhne

Continental Europe

  • The Beer Wurlitzer, Walsall
  • Southampton Guildhall Compton, Southampton, Hampshire - 4 manuals (Theatre Console) plus 4 manuals (Classical Console), 51 ranks (Compton, 1936)
  • Dome Concert Hall, Brighton - 4 manual, 40 ranks (Hill, Norman & Beard - refurbished - 2007)
  • Pavilion Theatre Compton, Bournemouth, Dorset - 4 manuals, 24 ranks (Compton, 1929)
  • Odeon, Leicester Square, London - 5 manuals, 17 ranks, (Compton, 1937)
  • Gaumont State Theatre, Kilburn, London - 4 manuals, 16 ranks (Wurlitzer 1937)
  • EMD (Granada), Walthamstow, Christie Theatre Organ (in original situ) last in the UK
  • Hammersmith Apollo, London - 4 manuals, 15 ranks (Compton, 1932)
  • Granada, Tooting, London - 4 manuals, 14 ranks (Wurlitzer 1931)
  • The Broadway Theatre, Catford, London - 3 manuals, 14 ranks (Compton 1932)
  • Blackpool Tower Ballroom - 3 manuals, 14 ranks (Wurlitzer, 1935)
  • Blackpool Opera House - 3 manuals, 13 ranks (Wurlitzer, 1939) - the last new Wurlitzer in the UK [1]
  • Stockport Plaza, Stockport
  • [2] Wolverhampton Civic Hall-4 Manuals, 57 ranks. (Compton 1938)
  • Shrewsbury, The Buttermarket Theatre - 3 manuals, 8 ranks (Wurlitzer)
  • Golds Gym (Former Granada Harrow), London - 3 manuals, 8 ranks (Wuritzer 1937)
  • New Gallery, Regent Street, London - 2 manuals, 8 ranks (Wurlitzer 1925)
  • Odeon Cinema, Weston-super-Mare - 3 manuals, 6 ranks (Compton 1935)
  • The Cameo Polytechnic (University of Westminster), London - 3 manuals, 5 ranks (Compton 1937)
  • Compton Lodge, Sapcote, Leicestershire LE9 4DW - 4 manuals, 20 ranks (Compton/Wurlitzer hybrid 1979)(
  • Folly Farm Leisure Park,near Tenby, Pembrokeshire, West Wales - 4 manuals, 14 ranks (Wurlitzer)(ex Gaumont Manchester)(
  • Paul Kirner's Music Palace, Ynyshir, Porth, Rhondda Valley, South Wales CF39 0EW - 4 manuals, 15 ranks (Christie)(
  • Paul Kirner's Music Palace, Ynyshir, Porth, Rhondda Valley, South Wales CF39 0EW - 4 manuals, 21 ranks (Compton hybrid - based on Dominion Tottenham Court Road London)(
See also Wurlitzers in the United Kingdom

United Kingdom


  • Casa Loma, Toronto - 4 manuals, 21 ranks (Wurlitzer Opus 558, July 1922) (Warren console)
  • O'Brien Theatre, Renfrew, Ontario - 3 manuals, 20 ranks (Warren and Robert-Morton pipe-work, former ex-Capitol, Winnipeg ca. 1920)
  • Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver - 3 manuals, 13 ranks (Wurlitzer, 1927)
  • Ancaster Secondary School, Ancaster Ontario. 3 manual 17 ranks Warren (From Palace and Capital Theatres Hamilton Ontario)


Avalon Casino's Page Organ console with portraits of Gaylord Carter and Bob Salisbury.

United States

North America

Most notable of these are the world's largest original installation theatre organs (in order of number of ranks).[15]

There are many theatre organs still in operation but only a handful are in their original installation.

Current status

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.

Percussion on a Wurlitzer at the Meyer Theatre in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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.

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.[14]

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.

Marimba in the Solo Chamber at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre (3/13 Barton)

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.

[13] action, where the keys and pedals were physically connected to the pipe valves via wooden pneumatic Barker-lever, or tubular pneumatic, tracker 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

The "Toy Counter" in the Solo Chamber at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre (3/13 Barton)
By way of example, consider an organ where the

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.

View inside pipe chamber at Meyer Theatre, Green Bay, Wisconsin.


Manufacturer[7] Production[8] Timeframe
Wurlitzer over 2,234 1911-1942
Robert Morton about 900 1920s-1931
Möller about 700
Kimball about 700
Marr and Colton 500-600 1915-1932
Barton 250-350 1918-1931
Kilgen 200-300
Robert Hope-Jones 246 1887-1911, sold to Wurlitzer.
Hillgreen-Lane about 175
Estey about 170
Austin about 130
Link about 130 1914-1932
Page over 100 1922-1930
Balcom and Vaughan about 75
Reuter about 57
Hill, Norman & Beard (Christie) >52 [9][10][11][12] 1926-1938
Midmer-Losh about 50
The offices of the North Tonawanda Barrel Organ Factory.

but thousands of church organs. [6] 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

Manufacturers and production totals

Many composers got their start by playing the theatre organ. 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.

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 American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS), originally the American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts (ATOE).

On the European continent the theatre organ appeared only after World War I in the cinemas. Some instruments came from Walcker in Germany, and Standaart in the Netherlands.

Other manufacturers included, in the United States, William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd., commonly referred to as Hill, Norman and Beard, who manufactured theatre organs under the Christie brand.

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.


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.

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.[5]

New tonal colors
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.

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.

Increased wind pressure, pipe placement, and volume control
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.

Traps, toy counter, and effects
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, woodblock, 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.

Horseshoe console
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.

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.

Electro-pneumatic action
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.

[4] 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

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.

The console of the Crawford Special-Publix One Mighty Wurlitzer, at the Alabama Theatre. Only 25 of this model were built, and it illustrates the high level of beauty and artistic work some consoles exhibit.



  • Background 1
  • History 2
    • Manufacturers and production totals 2.1
  • Technical 3
  • Current status 4
    • North America 4.1
      • United States 4.1.1
      • Canada 4.1.2
    • Europe 4.2
      • United Kingdom 4.2.1
      • Continental Europe 4.2.2
        • Germany
        • Netherlands
        • Switzerland
        • France
        • Italy
  • New vs. original technology 5
    • Digital theatre organ 5.1
    • Virtual theatre organ 5.2
  • The future 6
    • The theatre organ and its progenitors 6.1
    • Organists then and now 6.2
  • Footnotes 7
  • See also 8
  • External links 9

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.[2] 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,[3] while many more exist in private residences.

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. [1]

This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.