The story of the theatre organ is a fascinating one. In the earliest days of silent movies, no one thought a thing about musical accompaniment. It was exciting enough to watch the flickering images on the screen. Silent films gradually increased in quality, and more sophisticated audiences were attracted to movie theatres. As evidence of “culture,” live piano music perhaps augmented by an occasional violinist, came into widespread use. As the store-front theatres were gradually replaced by more luxurious film houses, the piano and violin were augmented by additional instruments until orchestras of various sizes came to be featured. Orchestra conductors followed the example of theatre pianists, piecing together musical scores from snippets of classical music, the semi classics, and the ballads of the day.
Quite early in the evolution of film presentation came the development of a whole new medium of musical accompaniment—the introduction of the pipe organ into film theatres. No one knows for sure when or where this first occurred. Perhaps it was Thomas L. Talley of Los Angeles who in 1905 built a new theatre for film presentation. Wanting both a quality house but to keep the admission price to 10 cents, he chose a pipe organ over an expensive orchestra. His success led many other theatre operators to do the same.
In many ways, the organ was more flexible than an orchestra for silent picture accompaniment. An orchestra would have to rehearse as a group. A single organist, with a specifically designed instrument, could do many things the orchestra could not. He could play music from memory, making smooth transitions from one piece to another. He could time his playing, and the use of special effects to fit the actual movement taking place on the screen. Above all, he could improvise musical accompaniments using fragments of ballads, and classical and semiclassical themes, incorporating the organ’s special sound effects.
In a very real sense, the organ changed the movies and the movies changed the organ. As theatres changed from storefronts to movie palaces, organs evolved from “classical or church organs” to “theatre organs” equipped with special sound effects such as doorbells, steamboat whistles, and railroad bells, sirens, bird calls, auto horns, wood blocks, drums, and cymbals.
The use of these theatre organs provided a much more realistic accompaniment to the action on the silent screen.
The theatre organ came to have wider use in theatres than simply for the accompaniment of silent pictures. Organ music could be played to “empty the house” while those who had just seen the feature film left and a new group of patrons entered. Gradually, the organ came to be featured for brief 10 to 15-minute solo periods in the larger, more luxurious theatres. Entire full-length organ concerts were given in the theatres, a favorite time being Sunday noon when most theatres opened.
The silent movie era eventually came to an end. The birth of “talkies,” plus the catastrophic stock market crash, spelled the begging of the demise of the theatre organ in the United States. With a few notable exceptions, organs fell silent around the country by the mid-1930s.
In the 1950s, theatre organs experienced a surprising and unexpected comeback. The advent of high fidelity made it the perfect instrument for demonstrating what wide-range sound equipment could do. Silent film series with pipe organ accompaniment became popular. Theatre organ concerts here and there across the country drew enthusiastic crowds. Pizza parlors equipped with theatre pipe organs became all the rage. People of every age bracket seemed interested, not just those who recalled the silent picture era. Young, well-trained, serious musicians began to take a second look at the theatre organ as a unique musical instrument.