The wonderful world of the Cinema Organ, or Theater Organ is a misunderstood world, not only for organists, but also listeners and fans alike.
These instruments, often adorned with glamorous titles such as “The Mighty Wurlitzer” or the “Wonder Morton” take us back to the golden age of cinema. Originally installed to accompany silent films, organs took the place of pianos as cinemas grew larger and a single piano just wasn’t big enough to fill the space with sound.
Organs were known for their ability to fill large spaces, ie churches and concert halls, and their ability to recreate orchestral sounds from their ranks of specially voiced pipes.
The first instruments in this new style were the idea of Robert Hope-Jones, a UK eccentric inventor who moved to America to seek his fortune. Whilst still in the UK, Hope-Jones had built a number of organs using a space and money-saving idea of pipe-building – rather than having one rank of pipes for each stop on an organ, he condensed similar sounding ranks of pipes into one spanning various pitches. Instead of having 3 separate ranks of pipes for a 16′, 8′ and 4′ flute, for example, he “extended” one ranks of flute pipes to cover those pitches. By means of electro-pneumatic connections, these stops could be controlled individually from the console (also now detached from the organ case thanks to electro-pneumatics). His innovations were generally met with anger from fellow organ-builders. Further inventions included improvements to telephone systems and the fog horn, which amusingly became the basis for the theater organ stop “diaphone”…
His “unit orchestras” were eventually picked up by the Rudolph Wurlitzer company, who took over the idea from Hope-Jones, enlarging and refining it, resulting in the famous theater organs we now know. Hope-Jones ended up a forgotten inventor, eventually committing suicide due to alleged legal problems.
In addition to Wurlitzer, many companies joined the cinema organ band wagon. In America, Morten, Möller, Kimball, Barton et al produced some amazing instruments, both small and large and in other parts of the world, companies such as Compton or Christie (UK), or Welte (USA & Germany) and Oskalyd could be found producing these masterpieces.
As cinemas grew in size, so did the organs. Many larger instruments boasted 4 or five manuals and well over 30 ranks of pipes. Similar instruments were also installed in other places of entertainment, including concert halls, stadiums and arenas. One of the largest ever was the Chicago Stadium Barton organ, with well over 50 ranks of pipes and a 6-manual console! Sadly, the organ is no longer there…
Due to technical advancements in cinema, theater organs gradually phased out of fashion. Although a number of organs remain playable in their original installations, most have been removed or were destroyed as cinemas multiplexed or were torn down to make way for malls our inner-city housing.
Thanks to the tireless work of institutions thoughout the world, cinema organs can still be found playing regularly in a variety of venues ranging from churches to civic auditoriums, private homes, museums and even factories!
I actually started out as a theater organist. The first pipe organ I ever played was the 3/8 (3-manual, 8-rank) Compton organ in the Capitol Cinema in Aberdeen, Scotland. The organ is sadly no longer there. Over the years, I have played organs all over the world, including some of the more exciting and famous USA organs still in their original homes, including the Fox Detroit and the legendary Chicago Theater.
In my next article on the theater organ world, I’ll look into the music played on these instruments in more detail, as well as why the cinema organ is shunned by classical organists.