The American Fotoplayer had a history of replacing an entire orchestra in accompanying silent films. The American Photo Player Company made them between 1912 and 1925 and was a specific brand of the larger class called photoplayers.
The American Photo Player Co. produced the American Fotoplayer throughout its existence. Harold A. Van Valkenburg and his younger brother, Burt founded the company in 1912. The Van Valkenburgs were electrical engineers who had previously worked on developing player pianos. They saw the potential for a new type of player piano that could be used to set the mood for the audience at silent movies. The American Photo Player Company operated from Berkeley, California.
The Fotoplayer was a large and complex instrument, typically weighing over 1,000 pounds. It had a piano, a pipe organ, and a variety of sound effects devices, which incorporated pulleys, motors, perforated rolls, and pumps.
The Fotoplayer sounds included:
Music: The Fotoplayer had a piano and a pipe organ, which used some combination of electric motors, air pumps, and piano rolls.
Sound effects: The Fotoplayer also had a variety of sound effects devices, including whistles, bells, thunder, gunshots, and animal noises.
The specific sounds available on a Fotoplayer depended on the model of the instrument. Some Fotoplayers had a limited number of sounds, while others had a much wider variety. The most advanced Fotoplayers could even include specific sounds that were requested by the theater owner.
Saved Money vs. an Orchestra
Theatre owners usually saved money using the Fotoplayer vs. an orchestra. They did not need to hire an accomplished musician. The single operator, so long as he was reasonably agile, could activate piano and organ sound much like using a player piano. He could pull various cords and get ringing telephones, bird sounds, train whistles, and rolling thunder.
One of the most famous Fotoplayers is the Style 50, which only made sense for big venues. It cost over $10,000 in 1925. This is equivalent to over $150,000 today.
The Style 50 Fotoplayer would play in the most famous silent films of the 1920s, including “The Birth of a Nation,” portions of “The Jazz Singer,” and “Metropolis.”
Overtaken by New Technology
The American Photo Player Co. ceased production of the Fotoplayer in 1926. The advent of sound movies made the Fotoplayer obsolete. Sound movies required a completely different type of sound system, and the Fotoplayer could not adapt to provide sound for sound movies.
The American Photo Player Co. did not continue after sound movies appeared. They joined the Wurlitzer Corporation in 1926.
Wurlitzer continued to produce organs that played during intermissions at movie theaters after 1926. In fact, they were one of the leading manufacturers of theater organs at the time. Wurlitzer continued to produce theater organs until the early 1940s. The organs required a live organist, who would provide music and sound effects during intermissions and other special events.
This writer remembers the Palace Theater in Dallas while growing up in the 1950s. It had a an elaborate organ that rose out of the floor in front of the screen during intermissions with an accomplished musician playing it. I am sure that it was a holdover from the old vaudeville and silent film eras. At any rate, it was most impressive.
- Year Started: 1912
- Year Ended: 1926
- Origin Of Name: Descriptive
- Location Sales: United States
- Brand Name Predecessor: N/A
- Brand Name Successor: N/A
- Owner Original: American Photo Player Co.
- Owner While In Use: American Photo Player Co.
- Owner Successor: Wurlitzer
- Year Resurrected: N/A
- What’s Popular Today: Digital Film Scores
- Naics Code: 339992
- Location Headquarters: Berkeley, California USA