Theatre Pipe Organs

What is a theatre pipe organ?

The Classic Pipe Organ

Classic pipe organs found in churches, public auditoriums and similar venues share many similarities with the theatre pipe organ. Both produce sounds by air blowing into wood or metal pipes that are voiced to a particular type of sound and tuned to a particular note of the musical scale. Both are controlled from a console consisting of one or more keyboards, a pedal board and individual stops tablets or drawknobs that the organist uses to select a particular sound.

The difference between the classic pipe organ and theatre pipe organ is its targeted purpose. The classic pipe organ form, which has been in existence for centuries, is used for performance of church music and classical musical literature written for the organ or adapted from orchestral, operatic, or choral works.

The Theatre Pipe Organ

The theatre organ came into existence in the early 1900’s for the purpose of providing musical accompaniment and sound effects for vaudeville acts and silent films that were the popular forms of entertainment at the time. The tonal sounds of the theatre organ were designed specifically to provide more robust and engaging music to match the action and story line of the silent film. Theatre organs also included tuned percussions such as glockenspiels, xylophones, or chimes and untuned percussive sounds such as drums, train whistles, and car horns to further match the on-screen action.

Theatre organs were installed in movie theatres including the large movie palaces in major cities as well as the small neighborhood theatres. In many cases, the theatre organ replaced the piano or pit orchestras of the movie houses. A number of theatre organ builders built and installed these instruments. Popular brands were Wurlitzer, Kimball, Kilgen, Robert Morton, Barton, Moeller, Page, Compton and Marr & Colton.

The Theatre Organ Loses Popularity

As the silent movies were replaced with their own soundtrack and the with the onset of the 1930’s Depression, changes in entertainment preferences made the theatre pipe organ lose its popularity and usefulness and these instruments become nearly obsolete. Many theatres were demolished along with their theatre organs. Some theatres that remained in use had no need for the theatre organ and many of these were either destroyed or made their way to individuals who installed them in their homes or in local businesses such as pizza parlors.

The American Theatre Organ Society

In the 1950’s a group of theatre organ enthusiasts were determined to preserve the unique art form of the theatre organ and founded an organization for that purpose that today is known as the American Theatre Organ Society (“ATOS”). Today there exists a number of theatre pipe organs in theatres, high schools, auditoriums, and other suitable locations. Local Chapters of ATOS are active today in restoring and maintaining the theatre organ art form and making sure that the magnificent sounds of the theatre organ are made available through public in-person concerts, social media and archival recordings.

WRTOS Wurlitzer Installation Video

What it takes to build one of these amazing instruments.