Theater organs (cinema organs) provided mood music and sound effects during the presentation of silent films. They also appealed more than 30 years into the sound era by thrilling theater audiences during intermissions. Manufacturers such as Wurlitzer, Morton, and Kilgen sold many theater organs around America and Europe between 1920 and 1940.
Theater organs were complex instruments with multiple manuals, ranks, stops, foot pedals, and sound effects. (The Chicago Stadium once had an organ with 6 manuals and 52 ranks.) They required expert musicians to play them. Photoplayers of the same period only needed someone adept at timing, switching, activating, and lever-pulling. So, photoplayers, such as the American Fotoplayer, were more likely to appear in medium-sized theaters, while theater organs occupied large movie palaces.
Four Varieties of Powered Instruments
The first part of the 1900s actually featured 4 different kinds of powered keyboard instruments: the calliope, the church organ, the theater organ, and the photoplayer.
The calliope played mostly in horse-drawn circus parades and under the big top. They were steam-powered and had a one-dimensional brassy sound. Calliopes were simple instruments and not always on pitch.
While church organs did not do sound effects, they were the most complex of these four classes of powered instruments. Church organs played sacred music with many different subtle voices that were not as prevalent in theater organs.
Theater organs were louder and more bombastic than church organs. They also could make sound effects.
Photoplayers were more like a player piano or one-man band, with switches and pull-cords to make their sound effects.
Theater organs adopted a horseshoe console in order for the player to reach all the stops and knobs available to make the sounds. The console nearly surrounded the artist, much like an astronaut in a modern-day space capsule. Each theater organ was unique. The command center could cause sound to spring up from all parts of the room.
The Kilgen Wonder Organ
The Kilgen Wonder Organ in Canton, Ohio, is a theatre organ from George Kilgen & Sons, Inc. of St. Louis, Missouri in 1926. It graces the Canton Palace Theatre, where it remains to this day. The organ is a four-manual, 14-rank instrument with 3,425 pipes. It is one of the largest and most elaborate theatre organs in the world.
The Kilgen Wonder Organ came at a time when theatre organs were at the height of their popularity. They accompanied silent films and provided entertainment during intermissions. The Kilgen Wonder Organ had a pneumatic action, which allowed for faster and more responsive playing. It also had a number of special effects, such as drums, bells, and whistles.
The Kilgen Wonder Organ was played by some of the most famous organists of the era, including Banks Kennedy, Jesse Crawford, and Virgil Fox. It was also used to record a number of popular songs, including “Valencia” and “Moonlight Serenade.”
- Year Started: 1920
- Year Ended: 1940
- Origin Of Name: Descriptive
- Location Sales: Worldwide
- Brand Name Predecessor: N/A
- Brand Name Successor: N/A
- Owner Original: Generic
- Owner While In Use: Generic
- Owner Successor: N/A
- Year Resurrected: N/A
- What’s Popular Today: Computer Sound Synthesizers
- Naics Code: 339992
- Location Headquarters: Generic