Theatre organ

Console of the 3/13 Barton Theatre Pipe Organ at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theatre

A theatre organ (also known as a theater organ, or [especially in the U.K.] a cinema organ) is a distinct type of pipe organ originally developed to provide music and sound effects to accompany silent films during the first 3 decades of the 20th century.

Spectacular console of the original installation 3 manual, 14 rank Rhinestone Barton theatre organ, installed in Theatre Cedar Rapids (the former RKO Iowa Theatre), Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Theatre organs are usually identified by the distinctive horseshoe-shaped arrangement of stop tabs (tongue-shaped switches) above and around the instrument's keyboards on their consoles. Given their prominent placement in houses of popular entertainment, theatre organ consoles were typically decorated in gaudy ways, with brightly colored stop tabs, and painted bright red and black, or solid gold, or ivory with gold trim, with built-in console lighting. In organs installed in the UK, a common feature was large translucent surrounds extending from both sides of the console, with internal colored lighting. A spectacular original example is the so-called Rhinestone Barton, installed in 1928 in the former RKO Iowa Theatre (now home to Theatre Cedar Rapids in Cedar Rapids, Iowa). The console of this 3 manual 14 rank Wangerin-built Barton is completely covered in black felt fabric embedded with glass glitter in swirling patterns, with all edges trimmed with bands of rhinestones. Another original example is the 3/13 Barton from Ann Arbor's historic Michigan Theatre. The organ was installed in 1927 and is currently played five nights during a week before most film screenings.[1] As the concept of the theatre organ was embraced, theatre organs began to be installed in other types of venues, such as civic auditoriums, sports arenas, private residences, and even churches. One of the largest theatre organs ever built (and certainly boasting the largest console ever built for a theatre organ) was the 6 manual 52 rank Barton installed in the massive Chicago Stadium.

There were over 7,000 such organs installed in America and elsewhere from 1915 to 1933, but fewer than 40 instruments remain in their original venues.[2] Though there are few original instruments in their original homes, hundreds of theatre pipe organs (typically rescued from defunct theaters or from venues no longer using and maintaining their organs) are installed in public venues throughout the world today,[3] while many more exist in private residences.

Design elements

The console of the Crawford Special-Publix One Mighty Wurlitzer, at the Alabama Theatre. Only 25 of this model were built, and it illustrates the high level of beauty and artistic work some consoles exhibit.

Many organ builders supplied instruments to theatres. The Rudolph Wurlitzer company, to whom Robert Hope-Jones licensed his name and patents, was the most prolific and well-known manufacturer (2,234 were built), and the phrase Mighty Wurlitzer became an almost generic term for the theatre organ.

Many of the design elements of the theatre organ simply allowed it to do its job better than anything else could. Although not all of these ideas originated with Robert Hope-Jones, he was the first to successfully employ and combine many of these innovations within a single organ aesthetic. As described on the website of the American Theatre Organ Society, these design elements include:[4]

Electro-pneumatic action

This uses low-voltage electricity to transmit the action of the organ keys to the pipes. Earlier church instruments used a mechanical linkage of rods and wires to connect the keys to the pipes. With the new system, the console (also known as a key-desk) could be placed at virtually any distance from the organ's pipes and could be somewhat portable, as just an electrical cable and flexible wind line connected the console with other parts of the instrument. This also allowed the console to achieve its ubiquitous place—on an elevator platform in front of the stage, low in the orchestra pit for accompanying the film, and rising majestically to stage height for organ solos.

Unification

Previously, each rank of pipes could be played on only one manual (keyboard) at one pitch level. (A rank is one graduated set of similar pipes that produces a distinct sound or tonal color.) In other words, there was one pipe for each key on the keyboard. With the advent of unification, ranks were extended by adding more pipes and made playable at different pitch levels, and on different manuals. Thus, fewer ranks (but with more pipes) could be used in a wide variety of combinations and pitches, and on different manuals simultaneously.

Horseshoe console

To turn the pipe ranks on and off, the traditional organ console used drawknobs placed on panels on both sides of the manuals. Using electricity, Robert Hope-Jones substituted tongue-shaped tabs arranged on a curved panel around and above the manuals. These stop tabs could be quickly and easily flipped up or down to select or deactivate any ranks of pipes.

Traps, toy counter, and effects

Real musical instruments, not previously associated with the pipe organ, were installed in the pipe chambers to be pneumatically operated at will by the organist. Such instruments as piano, drums, cymbals, xylophone, marimba, orchestra bells, chimes, castanets, wood blocks, and even tuned sleigh bells could be played from the organ keyboards. Sound effects such as train and boat whistles, car horns, sirens, bird whistles, and an imitation of ocean surf could be used to great effect at appropriate times during a silent film.

Increased wind pressure, pipe placement, and volume control

Higher wind pressures increased the speaking volume of theatre organ pipes, and they were placed in chambers, usually high in the auditorium. The fronts of these chambers were covered with a set of swell shades which opened and closed like venetian blinds. When closed, the sound of the organ was reduced to a whisper. With a foot pedal, the organist could gradually open the shutters to produce louder and louder sounds from the same pipes. Although this type of swell chamber was not new, theatre organ developments permitted a much broader dynamic range than ever before.

Tremulants

Tremulants are devices that create a vibrato effect by mechanically shaking the wind source or by other means. Although the organ tremulant had existed for centuries, it was dramatically refined and changed in the theatre organ, and was used in entirely new ways. Traditional organs used tremulants only occasionally on solo stops. The theatre organ tremulants—smoother and broader than ever before—now became the standard, defining characteristic of theatre organ sound.

New tonal colors

Robert Hope-Jones and others designed many new kinds of pipes in an effort to create colorful sounds for the theatre organ. Many of these new stops attempted to imitate the sounds of real orchestral instruments, while others simply contributed unique new colors to the tonal palette. Important new stops invented or refined by Hope-Jones included the Tibia Clausa, Tibia Plena, and the Diaphone.

These are but some of the basic differences between traditional concert organs and theatre organs, highlighting the elements which make the theatre pipe organ a unique instrument.[5]

After some major disagreements with the Wurlitzer management, Robert Hope-Jones took his own life in 1914—but not before profoundly influencing the development of the theatre organ. The Wurlitzer company continued to flourish, becoming the largest manufacturer of theatre pipe organs in the world. Indeed, while there were many other builders of these instruments, the name "Wurlitzer" became generically synonymous with the theatre organ.

Other Languages
dansk: Kinoorgel
Deutsch: Kinoorgel
Esperanto: Kinorgeno
français: Orgue de cinéma
Nederlands: Theaterorgel
norsk: Kinoorgel
svenska: Biograforgel