For those of us who enjoy the Theatre Organ we occasionally find we have to explain
just what it is and why we like it so much. In the early 20th Century the Theatre Organ was the foremost instrument
in America, and the chocolate soda was the most popular drink. Today many have forgotten the Theatre Organ and what
it could do, while we all drink Coca-Cola. So what happened to it? It took Talking Movies, a Great Depression,
and a World War to finally take down the beloved instrument. The Theatre Organ was then copied by all the electronic
organ companies, and sold for home use at music stores and malls in great quantities. However they all fell short of
John Lauter describes in detail the uniqueness of the instrument
and why it is vital even today. So when someone asks, tell them. Maybe they'll like it too.
The Theatre Organ is an evolutionary cousin (from the other side of the tracks) of the church pipe
organ. Where the church or concert organ was designed and built to play liturgical music, or the music of classical composers
such as Bach, Handel or the French romantic composers, the theatre organ was designed to play orchestral transcriptions of
19th century light classics and opera--which became the staple of many a silent film score. They could also play the popular
music of the day without sounding “churchy”. These instruments were developed in the early ‘teens as an
orchestral-surrogate, one-man band sort of thing to provide musical accompaniment to films, before they found their voice.
The typical theatre organ has sets of pipes (“ranks” in organ speak) that directly
seek to emulate orchestral sounds such as the trumpet, clarinet, flute, oboe, etc., and some that are closer in sound and
origin to their legitimate cousin such as the string ranks, which don’t really sound like a violin, but are “stringy”
in nature. The most prominent tone is a heavily vibrato flute sound called the “Tibia Clausa” a sound co-opted
by electronic organ manufacturers and synonymous with the sound heard in the old soap operas when someone was having a really
bad day. To this basis all manner of real percussions could be added, Xylophones, marimbas, glockenspiels, chimes, piano,
as well as drums, tambourine, castanets, tom-toms, cymbals and gongs--all the real instrument, each note being struck with
a mallet attached to a small remotely inflated bellows. All this was rounded out for the silent film “soundtrack”
by the inclusion of real auto horns, sirens, bird whistles, locomotive whistles, and any other number of noisemakers. These
assured this Rodney Dangerfield of the music world that the academic fraternity would never respect it.
This is basically your first (orchestral surrogate) synthesizer, albeit one that weighs in at TONS
and occupies many rooms in a commercial building. That was what they had to work with back then. There was no electronic (or
electrical) amplification yet, and the best piano was powerless to fill a 2,000-seat theatre (but ample for a rural 200 seat
theatre, as was actually the case) so the theatre pipe organ filled the needs of the silent film industry by allowing one
man (= one musician’s salary) to play the accompaniment.
Oh, the larger houses downtown had orchestras that accompanied the pictures, but they also
had organs (bigger ones!) that would augment the orchestra and relieve the orchestra, especially for the earlier shows. All
of this came to an abrupt end when “talkies” came in, late in 1928-mid 1929. The organs and orchestras became
unemployed, or reduced to accompany the vaudeville acts that preceded the movies. The time payments were ceased in some cases
(that’s how the theatres bought them) and the manufacturer had to repossess their work.
These wonderful musical instruments sat unused in the nations movie houses throughout the latter
1930's until the late 50’s-early 60’s, when small groups of enthusiasts began to approach theatre managers about
voluntarily working on these slumbering beasts, to enjoy their music once again. The urban renewal trend saw many of these
host theatres demolished, and some organ hobbyists bought these pipe organs and installed them into their homes. Few
of the 4000 or so theatre organs exist today, in their original environment. It is special treat to today to sit in a darkened
theatre and hear this rich, spectacular music.
Special Thanks to John Lauter for this article. John is an Organist from the Detroit area where he performs
regularly at the beautiful Fox Theatre on the 4/36 WurliTzer Fox Special. John is also adept at scoring and accompanying
silent films. He has recently been involved in the assembling and the installing of a theatre pipe organ in the Baldwin Theatre
in Royal Oak, Michigan. In addition, John also performs at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor and the Redford Theatre in Detroit.