The story of the theater 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 theaters, 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 theaters
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.
Wurlitzer in Orpheum Theater, Los Angeles
Wurlitzer in Byrd Theater, Richmond, Virginia
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.
Wurlitzer Factory in North Tonawanda, NY (1930s)
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
Page in Embassy Theater, Ft. Wayne, IN
Wurlitzer in Alabama Theater, Birmingham, AL
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 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.
Robert-Morton in Ohio Theater, Columbus Ohio
Christie in Grenada Theater, Walthamstow, UK
Hardmans wish to thank David Kelzenberg for researching and writing
this Story of the Theater Organ