The concept of the theater organ was essentially the brainchild of an Englishman by the name of Robert Hope-Jones. Hope-Jones came to America in the early 1900's and founded the Hope-Jones Organ Company in Elmira, N.Y. He had developed an instrument that was somewhat different than the typical church organ. The theater organ was literally meant to be a "one-man orchestra", much more versatile in operation. Eventually, Hope-Jones sold his firm to the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, which became the leading manufacturer of these theater organs.
In the early 20th century, the motion pictures, or movies, were becoming more and more a part of mainstream American entertainment. In the beginning, movies had no soundtrack, but the novelty of just running the pictures was enough to satisfy moviegoers. In time however, it became evident that some type of musical background was needed to accompany the films. In some theaters, a person banging away on an upright piano was satisfactory; in other theaters, player pianos and coin-operated pianos would have been used. In the 1910's and 20's, instruments known as "photoplayers", which were glorified player pianos that had one or two side chests filled with pipes, percussions, and other sound effects, were also used in theaters. However, in the 1910's the larger "movie palaces" were making their inception, and something even larger was needed for silent movie accompaniment. The theater pipe organ was the most likely candidate for this purpose. Thousands were built in the 'teens and especially in the 1920's up until the early 1930's.
While Wurlitzer was the largest manufacturer of these organs, several other companies, such as Marr and Colton, Robert Morton, Wickes, Moller, Link, Barton, and others also engaged in building these unusual instruments for the movie industry.
There are several differences between the theater pipe organ and its church organ counterpart. Theater organs operate on a higher wind pressure. There are certain types of voices or tone colors that the theater organ can produce that are different from the typical church organ. Therefore, theater organs sound much louder and more boisterous. A typical theater organ console looks different from a church organ console inasmuch as the stop tabs(which are used to turn on or off ranks of pipes as well as to perform other functions) are arranged in a semicircular fashion around the keyboards. This is why these consoles are often referred to as horseshoe consoles. Also, as mentioned earlier, theater organs are much more versatile in their operation since their purpose was silent film accompaniment. Most, if not all, have real percussions( drums, cymbals, tambourines, xylophones, orchestra bells, etc.) installed inside their chambers, as well as silent picture effects such as bird whistles, train whistles, fire gongs, sirens, wind effects, etc.
The inception of talking pictures, or "talkies", in 1927 basically signaled the beginning of the end for the theater organ industry. These instruments were made up until the early 1930's in the United States. They were still used to a certain extent for sing-a-longs and other reasons, but their popularity would soon wane. They were popular in Europe, specifically England, up until World War II. For a time, some were removed from the theaters for use to accompany radio shows. Others just sat silent in their chambers for several more years.
Then came the 1950's, and with it, the development of suburbs, the new mutiplex theaters, and "urban renewal". Many fine old movie palaces were demolished, and, unfortunately, many organs were destroyed in the process. At the same time, however, there was a renewed interest in the theater organ, and the American Theater Organ Enthusiasts, later to become the American Theater Organ Society, was founded. Some of the surviving organs were removed from their theaters and installed in homes, while others were gradually restored to their former glory. Today, several hundred theater organs still exist, in theaters, private homes, museums, performing arts centers, and a variety of other places.
For more information about theater organs, check out the American Theater Organ Society's website: www.atos.org, or The Theatre Organs website: www.Theatreorgans.com.