The Theatre Organ And Its History Of Innovation:
Securing A Bright Future By Embracing Our Pioneering Tradition
By Jelani Eddington
Excerpts from an article in the July/August 2008 issue of Theatre Organ
The year 1859 saw the birth of Robert Hope-Jones, and with him the beginning of what would become a long and rich tradition of innovation in the
world of the pipe organ. Much has been written in these pages about Hope-Jones and his groundbreaking unit orchestra concept. Because he was an innovator
who dared to challenge prevailing norms of organbuilding, Hope-Jones was rebuked, mocked, and derided by the more conservatively-minded traditionalists of
his day. These traditionalists found Hope-Jones’ ideas to be such a departure from the proud centuries of organbuilding that preceded him, that he was
considered an anathema and pariah by many. Indeed, so many scoffed at his revolutionary ideas that we are reminded of the old Gershwin song, They All
Fortunately for us all, Hope-Jones remained undaunted in his quest to revolutionize the pipe organ—and ultimately had the last laugh. As we all
know, Hope-Jones ultimately teamed up with the Wurlitzer company after his emigration to the United States, and Wurlitzer, looking to capitalize on
evolving trends in music at the time, put Hope-Jones’ innovations to brilliant use in its theatre pipe organs.
In the nearly ninety years that have followed, scores of articles have been written and much discussion has ensued regarding whether the theatre
organ should be viewed as a static snapshot of the era in which it was created—frozen like a time capsule of the 1920s—or whether it should be permitted to
evolve with musical tastes and styles of the modern day.
Much has been said in print and elsewhere about the future of the theatre organ. How do we help to promote further interest in the theatre organ?
How do we attract younger organists and audiences? How do we fill more seats at our public concerts? As discussed below, at least part of the answer lies
in making the theatre organ relevant to more people—by playing different types of music that can appeal to a wider cross-section of the general public.
Much of that repertoire, whether it be a popular piano concerto, a John Williams orchestral score from the latest blockbuster movie, or contemporary music
from today’s Top-40, the inescapable truth is that as the repertoire of the theatre organ grows and expands, so must the versatility of the instruments.
Against this backdrop, the originalists steadfastly cling to the notion that our instruments should not evolve, and that the organists who play
them should not try to think outside the proverbial box and find new and relevant uses for the instrument. I fear that this limiting proposition casts a
very wet blanket on the spark of innovation that has defined the theatre organ throughout its history.
In this respect, I often hearken back to an exceptionally insightful article written by Jonas Nordwall in which he describes two musical camps in
the organ world: the “Potentialists” (those who look to the future to explore the potential for new applications of the theatre organ) and the
“Limitationists” (those who are content to accept the limitations and restrictions of the past). (See Potential Versus Limitation, Theatre Organ,
November/December 2006 at p. 45. Like Jonas, I also “cast my musical lot with the Potentialists.”
The “Limitationists” of the 1900s tried to snuff out the innovations that Hope-Jones brought with him to America. Fortunately, Hope-Jones was also
a “Potentialist” and realized that the theatre organ could indeed have a very bright future. History has thankfully resolved the question in Hope-Jones’
THE THEATRE ORGAN AND ITS INNOVATIVE PIONEERS
Looking back over the ninety-year history of the theatre organ, at every crucial point along the timeline, the instruments were propelled forward
and made relevant to the listening public thanks to innovative pioneers of the art—either the organ builders or performers of the day. Virtually without
exception, these innovators departed substantially from the “conventional wisdom” that preceded them—and were harshly criticized for doing so.
Hope-Jones was one of the first of these innovators. Indeed, his electro-pneumatic relay was one of the most significant innovations the organ
world had ever seen. In this respect, the Hope-Jones electro-pneumatic relay was the Uniflex 2000 of the 1900s. Alongside the electro-pneumatic relay
stands a long list of Hope-Jones’ contributions to the pipe organ, including the Diaphone, the Tibia, the Viol d’Orchestre, multiple couplers, unification,
pizzicato touch, second touch, double-touch combination pistons, and suitable bass....
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of the theatre organ as a nostalgic museum piece frozen in time back in the 1920s—a sort of
photographic snapshot of days gone by. Many originalists have argued that if an instrument didn’t leave the factory a certain way, it should under no
circumstances be altered today. However, consistently maintaining that position is a tricky business, for once we change even one screw in the organ, we
start down the slippery slope of how much originality is “enough” and how much change is “too much.” Indeed, even the most ardent supporters of
originality in these pages have themselves modernized organ specifications and installed the very solid-state relays they have publicly scorned.
Of course, the innovation didn’t stop with Hope-Jones. Jesse Crawford pioneered many aspects of the modern theatre organ, particularly the
importance and use of the Tibia Clausa in the performance of popular music. Thanks in large part to Crawford’s innovations, Wurlitzer organs began to
extend the unification of the Tibia to include 2’ and 2 2/3’ pitches, beginning with the so-called Fox Special organs.
These innovations weren’t just coming from the organists either. Even while companies such as Wurlitzer, Kimball, Barton, and Robert-Morton were
building instruments, they were frequently changing, revising – and yes, even improving on their original designs. An “early Wurlitzer” is a very
different instrument than a “late Wurlitzer,” and the same holds true for the other builders as well.
Consider also Wurlitzer’s much-revered Fox Special. For as wonderful as the instruments were, the original organs did not contain a Great Octave
(4’) coupler. Instead, they contained an Accompaniment to Great 4’ coupler (which would be virtually useless). This deficiency was immediately recognized
once the instruments went into service, and each of the four instruments were changed so that the Accompaniment to Great 4’ coupler would become the Great
to Great 4’ coupler.
The innovative path of the theatre organ continued even after the builders ceased production of instruments. Virtually every theatre organist of
the past 40-50 years has been influenced in some manner by George Wright. In fact, George could certainly be considered the “innovator’s innovator,” as
the list of his contributions to the art form could fill several volumes of this Journal. But suffice it to say that many of the elements that make up a
“modern” theatre organ specification (including the presence of virtually every rank at 16’ on the Great and Tibia pitches at 5 1/3’ 3 1/5’ and 1 3/5’) owe
their genesis to George Wright.
And there are others as well – think of John Seng and his uniquely orchestral style. He made scores of alterations to the organ at the Mundelein
Seminary and is also often credited with the innovation of placing a Great Sostenuto kick-switch on the swell shoe.
In short, the innovative contributions of these (and so many other) pioneers of the art have helped to propel the theatre organ forward over the l
ast ninety years. To recognize our tradition and history is to understand the very real fact that our history embraces the idea that the organ should
continue to evolve. At bottom, the theatre organ is not, nor has it ever been, an ancient relic immovably frozen in the past.
THE MODERN THEATRE ORGAN IN PERFORMANCE
As the debate about originality vs. modernism rages, the proverbial rubber hits the road during the modern theatre organ performance. Clark Wilson
is quite correct in his recent observation that “[t]he musical level is the highest it has ever been”, and this advancement in musical
level most surely runs parallel to the advancement in the technology that the modern theatre organ has experienced.
Nor should we be shocked or surprised that the theatre organ has evolved in this way. This process of evolution is perfectly natural and occurs
with every musical instrument. Hundreds of years ago, the flute only had a few holes and could only be played in certain keys. Thanks to the evolution of
that instrument and its modern keying mechanisms, it is now an exceptionally versatile staple of the orchestra capable of playing in any key and in a range
of styles that would otherwise be impossible without these innovations.
Similarly with the theatre organ, the many modern innovations (such as the Uniflex, Z-Tronics, Trousdale, and other solid-state relay systems, a
maximum number of pistons per manual, multiple memory levels, and Great Sostenuto) “are the standards of the day.” These innovations have
allowed the musical level of the modern theatre organ performance to reach new heights. Yet, much has been made about the suggestion that in the absence
of these innovations, organists must alter their programs to make them less complex. Some have referred to this process of compromise as “dumbing down.”
This idea of a compromised performance (or “dumbing down”, or whatever term we prefer) usually results in a healthy dose of gnashing of teeth and
rending of vestments on the part of the originalists. But can it seriously be argued that an organist could play the exact same program on a IV/36 with a
limitless number of pistons and memory levels as could be played on a II/5 with no combination action at all? These are obviously two very different
instruments, and the organist will necessarily have to adapt his or her program accordingly. Will we hear the latest John Williams score in all its
intricacy on the II/5 with no pistons? Not likely—and if we do, we should expect it to sound very different than it would have on the IV/36.
But this difference should come as a surprise to no one. In the orchestral world, we don’t hear a string quartet with four instrumentalists
playing the exact same repertoire as a large symphony orchestra with well over 100 musicians. Certainly the string quartet can and does produce beautiful
music—just like a smaller organ can. Nevertheless, it will not be the same type of music and will necessarily lack the complexity that would be heard
from a larger orchestra (or organ) with more color and more resources available.
Strangely, however, there seems to be an unrealistic expectation that an organist can somehow magically play the same program on the II/5 as he or
she could on the IV/36. Invariably, the originalists drop the bomb that makes organists wince far and wide: “Well, if he were a real musician, he
wouldn’t need all those pistons.” In the very next breath, modern organists are usually accused of “over-playing” or using too many of the organ’s
resources, all the while conceding that the performance level today is as high as it has ever been.
Surely, the question of whether an organist uses “too many” of the resources or “over-plays” his or her arrangements is a subjective call—we all
have our own likes and dislikes that inform how we answer this question. Nevertheless, I can understand why so many of our organist colleagues bristle
upon hearing these charges, particularly when they originate from organ builders who are not organists themselves.
Without fail, the originalists are quick to point out that George Wright and others played beautiful and musically satisfying programs without
lots of pistons. But, again, this argument largely misses the point. The string quartet plays beautiful and musically satisfying repertoire, albeit
vastly different in style and complexity from the large symphony orchestra.
And, I doubt that any professional theatre organist would seriously suggest that it is “impossible” to play an organ lacking multiple pistons,
solid-state relays, and the like. Quite the contrary, all professional organists have played such concerts—and by the dozens. But I have yet to hear of
any professional theatre organist walking out of the performance hall in the middle of a concert because the combination action stopped functioning. I am
reminded of a time in which I had played the first five measures of the Overture from Die Fledermaus when the entire combination action stopped working
altogether. The only thing to do under those situations is to register the rest of the piece by hand (which the author did).
Thus, every professional theatre organist knows how to play musically, even without the modern conveniences of solid-state relays and a plethora
of pistons. However, when those modern conveniences exist, the scope and type of repertoire that can be performed expands tenfold (and with it the number
of members of the general public who will be attracted to the instrument). When these conveniences are absent, the organist must make alterations
(sometimes even radical changes) to his or her program to make the performance suitable to the instrument.
In defense of the originalists’ war on the solid-state era, typically the odd example is brought up in which an artist is claimed to have forgotten
what memory level he was using, or got lost in pushing the “up” or “down” button. But do those few examples stand as an indictment of the entire
solid-state industry? To the author, these occasional failings more appropriately fall into the category of “operator error”, and have more to do with an
organist having a bad day (and we are certainly all capable of that!)
One specific example where the resources of a modern instrument are used to great musical effect is in recreating orchestral music. As
card-carrying theatre organ supporters, we are always quick to talk up the “unit orchestra” concept – the idea that the theatre organ’s purpose is to
recreate the sounds of an orchestra as closely as possible with pipes.
But to remain faithful to the “unit orchestra” idea, it is important not to lose sight of how an orchestra actually makes music. Consider the
string players of the orchestra. A single violinist can play everything with his or her instrument from pianissimo (very soft) to fortissimo (very loud),
all the while changing the harmonics and the tone of that instrument (pizzicato (plucked), arco (bowed), downbow, upbow, vibrato, sul ponticello (playing
near the bridge) sul G (playing on the G string), etc.). All of these techniques change the sound and harmonics of the violin.
An organ pipe, on the other hand, is not so versatile. It plays one note, one way, at one volume level. To imitate those various orchestral
sounds and techniques, the organist must use multiple ranks and find multiple ways of achieving the different combinations of sounds (i.e., by setting a
healthy number of pistons). Of course, the above example is just from a single violinist. Add to this violinist the other 40-50 string players as well
as the other 30 or so instrumentalists in the orchestra, and the requirements needed to recreate orchestral music faithfully have been increased many
All of us who have listened to an orchestra perform have heard those beautiful crescendo and decrescendo passages in which the orchestra starts
out very quietly and gradually builds to an intensity that could likely be heard in the next county (and vice versa). Whereas each of the instrumentalists
can simply play his or her instrument with more intensity (e.g., by bowing harder, or blowing with more pressure into the instrument), because of the
physical limitations of organ pipes, an organist will necessarily have to set many pistons to achieve a similarly smooth, well-terraced
crescendo/decrescendo. On a large instrument, it would not be out of the question to set as many as 25 generals just to do a smoothly-graduated string
Is it unmusical to set so many pistons to achieve this effect? Surely, if it is musical for a symphony orchestra to play this way, then it must
be equally musical for a unit orchestra to do so. To suggest, as some have, that an organist should set no more than 10 pistons is tantamount to telling
a conductor that his orchestra should be permitted no more than 10 different sounds during a performance.
Within the past three years, the author has recorded three separate piano concertos in their entirety: Leroy Anderson’s Concerto in C, Grieg’s
Concerto in A-Minor, and most recently the Rachmaninoff Concerto #2 in C-Minor. Recording each of these works was a substantial undertaking. Suffice it
to say that hundreds of pistons over numerous memory levels were set for each of these works. As described above, a large number of pistons were required
in order to achieve the correct balance and terracing of orchestral sound.
Aside from the number of pistons required, there were special sounds that were needed in order to make the orchestral recreation on the organ sound
authentic. For example, in most orchestral scores, the contrabasses frequently pluck their strings, rather than bow them, creating a pizzicato bass
effect. Yet, very few theatre organs are specified with a pizzicato rank in the pedal. Some larger instruments include an 8’ Pedal Tibia Pizzicato
(an innovation credited to George Wright), but even that rank by itself only goes so far. How would an organist differentiate between a pizzicato bass
that is marked fortissimo in the score, and one marked pianissimo? In organs equipped with certain solid-state relays the answer is simple: change the
definition file to create one (or more) at the appropriate volume level. In both the Grieg and Rachmaninoff projects, the author created several
different pedal pizzicatos (three different ones in the Grieg and six in the Rachmaninoff) using various combinations of strings, flutes, and tibias.
Additionally, sometimes the organist encounters unusual pitches in orchestral scores. Composers from Sergei Rachmaninoff to John Williams have
written a melody line in one instrument with another instrument echoing the same melody line a fifth, tenth, or twelfth above it. Yet, no one would
seriously advocate for the inclusion of a Clarinet 2 2/3’ on the Solo or Great manual. But, if the score calls for it, shouldn’t the true proponent of
the “unit orchestra” try to recreate that sound? And if a solid-state relay can allow the organist to achieve this necessary sound, shouldn’t he or she
be encouraged to do so instead of being scoffed at by the originalists?
It was recently observed that “a little of that dumbing down (is it really down?) could sometimes be a good thing if we are truly interested in
the music.” But can we really say it is “unmusical” to recreate these sounds the same way the composer intended?
Isn’t the whole point of the unit orchestra to do just that – recreate sounds the way the orchestra would? Again, I would never presume to suggest that
scorings called for by Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Anderson, Williams, and countless other musical masters are in any way unmusical.
The world of contemporary music also offers many examples of why we should embrace innovation and versatility in the instruments.
The term “contemporary” is obviously a relative one and depends on the perspective of the organist and/or listener. To George Wright in the 1930s
and 1940s, the so-called “Great American Songbook” of Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers & Hart were the Top-40 of his day. As discussed above, in order to be
able to recreate that music in a sensible way on the theatre organ, George made many changes and alterations to the organs he played (most significantly
on his own recording studio organs). In fact, the famed Hollywood Philharmonic Organ boasted a then-state-of-the-art Trousdale relay and record/playback
system. A great number of the innovations that George introduced were a marked departure from anything Wurlitzer would have originally intended. Yet,
without a doubt, we are all the better off for his innovations.
Fast-forward a few years to the dawn of the pizza parlor era, which had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. Much of the so-called “dirty thirty”
repertoire of that time came directly out of the Top-40 charts of the day (e.g., the themes from Star Wars, Superman, Jaws, The Pink Panther). Needless to
say, the modern pizza parlor organ shared little in common with any original Wurlitzer design. From automatic rhythm machines, to multiple sets of
unenclosed percussions and traps and elaborate lighting systems, these instruments served (and still continue to serve) the vitally important purpose of
exposing new listeners by the thousands to the art of the theatre organ.
Despite many pizza parlor organs’ lack of “originality” in the traditional sense, where would we be today without restaurants such as the
Paramount Music Palace, Organ Stop Pizza, The Organ Grinder, The Roaring 20’s, Organ Piper Music Palace, and so many other similar establishments that
thrived throughout the country?
It is no exaggeration to say that the era of the pizza parlor revived interest in the theatre organ throughout the country for decades. At the
very least, it launched the careers of dozens of young organists (including the author) and helped to foster new generations of theatre organ enthusiasts
Should we then be so quick to recoil in horror at the thought of an automatic rhythm machine in a pizza parlor (or elsewhere for that matter)?
Absolutely not, even though Wurlitzer certainly never built one. Those who have visited Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona will know that Lew Williams and
Charlie Balogh have entertained hundreds of thousands of patrons (perhaps even more) over the years—the majority of whom are young families (under 30) with
their children. Lew’s and Charlie’s use of the rhythm machine (and other similar effects) allows them to play contemporary Top-40 music in a musically
sensible way, and thereby make the instrument relevant and accessible to the restaurant’s younger patrons.
The author’s greatest fear is that in clinging to the inflexible pillars of originality and traditionalism, we will inevitably snuff out the sparks
of innovation that will allow the theatre organ to thrive in the future. In this vein, I commend young organist Nathan Avakian for his thoughtful article,
The Theatre Organ: Preserving Tradition While Promoting Change. (See Theatre Organ May/June 2008). One of the concerns he identified is that too often we
have approached the theatre organ “the same way it has been treated for over half a century by playing music in typical styles from eras the general
public can no longer relate to.”
And this is another area where the originalist position collides headlong into very real and palpable need of our industry to grow and expand. As Nathan
writes, we are all trying to entice younger organists and enthusiasts to have an appreciation for the theatre organ. Yet, if we throw out every
innovation that didn’t leave the Wurlitzer factory in 1926, we are telling our younger enthusiasts that they cannot sit at “our table” with “their music.”
In describing the electronic rhythm unit installed at the highly successful Portland Organ Grinder, Jonas Nordwall pointedly observed:
the Organ Grinder organists were the swing bands, rock bands, salsa bands, and even the orchestra. To the general public, we were the real
one-man band, not a nostalgia item. Oh, we also played music that the general public knew. Both the business and musical leadership of the Organ Grinder
were not satisfied to create a museum instrument; rather, they created an instrument that communicated with the masses while inspiring the musicians to
attain higher performance levels.
In short, if younger organists and listeners cannot relate to the theatre organ because it won’t recreate the kind of music in which they are
interested, rest assured, those listeners will turn away from the theatre organ in favor of the nearest electronic keyboard that will. And if our future
supporters wholesale turn away from the theatre organ, will it really matter how that organ left the Wurlitzer factory in 1926?
In this light, it has been refreshing to hear the Trio Con Brio (now consisting of Jonas Nordwall, Donna Parker, and Martin Ellis) tackle more
contemporary pieces such as the theme from the hit TV show, The Simpsons as well as the blockbuster movie Harry Potter. Yet to be able to play those
pieces (which are no less complex than any other orchestral piece of music), the Trio necessarily must rely on numerous pistons as well as many
non-traditional elements (including digital traps and sampled voices). The effect, for however non-traditional it might be, is exceptionally musical and
helps to bring our art form to new audiences.
THE PATH TO OUR FUTURE
Certainly, there is room for debate over these matters, and hopefully this discussion can continue—perhaps in the format of a round-table exchange
at the next convention. But while we are discussing the matter, let us always keep in mind that our most important goal, not only as an organization but
also as an industry, is to continue to bring the art of the theatre organ to more and more people around the world.
We must always honor our history and traditions. At the same time, we must recognize that our history is a history of change and innovation. And,
throughout the history of our instrument, when that innovation has been allowed to develop and take flight, our instrument has thrived, and our industry
has benefitted immeasurably. Yet, as we progress and innovate, we must always be vigilant to maintain only the highest of technical standards and preserve
our commitment to unimpeachable workmanship.
Let us then continue down that innovative path laid out for us by Robert Hope-Jones, Jesse Crawford, George Wright, and so many others. It is only
in this way that we ensure that our instrument not only survives, but thrives for generations to come.