The story of the theatre organ is, in a real sense, the story of the movie palace which housed it, and its existence may be solely attributed to the fact that the movies of the time were silent. In larger theatres, movies were originally presented as part of larger shows, which also included live on-stage acts such as singing and dancing. Music was required for these performances, and theatres employed staff musicians - sometimes entire orchestras - to provide live music for the stage acts. In smaller, less affluent settings, a piano would serve as the sole musical accompaniment to this live entertainment. With musicians and instruments at hand, the silent movies were quickly provided the luxury of a musical accompaniment.
The impresarios who brought these nightly extravaganzas to an eager public were searching for something new and different, and an idea was born. What could better contribute to the image of the theatre as a "cathedral of the motion picture" than the sound of a mighty pipe organ? An added incentive, surely not lost on these shrewd and competitive businessmen, was the savings afforded by having to pay only one musician, who while playing a pipe organ could produce sounds approaching those of an orchestra of dozens of players.
The first pipe organs to appear in theatres were little more than transplanted church organs. While they looked and sounded impressive, they were really ill-suited to the performance of the popular music of the day, a necessity in the realm of the theatre. However, the instrument quickly evolved into an entirely different instrument, one which was far better suited to its intended purpose.
Many of the innovations which lead to the perfection of the theatre organ were the work of one man, a brilliant English inventor named Robert Hope-Jones. Hope-Jones developed many of his innovative ideas regarding organ design in his native England; however it was not until his arrival in America and his very fruitful collaboration with the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of North Tonawanda, New York, that many of his ideas were realized.
The product of that collaboration was called the "Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra," and although it quickly became just the "Mighty Wurlitzer" in the eye of the public, its official name better reflected its nature.
With the incorporation of Robert Hope-Jones' ideas, the instrument had truly become a one-man substitute for a full orchestra, and Wurlitzer went on to become the most successful builder of theater style pipe organs, easily dominating the market.
The demand for theater pipe organs only lasted a few years as can be seen in this graph covering Wurlitzer's production from 1911 to 1939.
When production peaked in 1926, Wurlitzer shipped over 300 pipe organs, an average of one instrument each work day, setting a record that has never been equaled, before or since, by any organ builder, anywhere. Sadly, very few of these magnificent instruments survive today.
The next chapter will explore the reasons for this precipitous fall in pipe organ production, and the history of the Wurlitzer in the Hardman Studio will become the focus for review.
The Hardmans wish to thank David Kelzenberg for researching and writing this Story of the Theater Organ