How Theatre Organs Came About and How Our Wurlitzer Works …

Brief History of the Organ


Before we could have theatre organs the organ itself needed to be invented.  The earliest known organ was the hydraulis, invented by Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century BC.  Wind was regulated by water pressure.  Later bellows started to appear.  The idea that flutes or pipes could be joined together was developed and pipe organs likely date back to the 1400s, before pianos, in fact, which only date back to the 1700s.  Organs became associated with churches and worship, although this has not always been the case.  In small buildings, such as homes, they started to have reed organs such as the harmonium or melodeon - as the name suggests, they had vibrating reeds or, indeed, thin strips of metal.  The first successful electronic organ was developed in France in 1928 by Edouard Coupleux and Armand Givelet, before American Lauren Hammond came along and the electronic organ was borne.


What is a Theatre Organ


A theatre (or cinema organ) is a type of pipe organ.  A pipe organ can be defined as an organ with one or several sets of pipes and can have a number of different manuals (keyboards).  With pipe organs, air is blown through pipes to produce the sounds, controlled by keyboards.  There are four basic parts: keyboards, foot pedals, stops and pipes.


It is important to make the distinction between a church and a theatre pipe organ.  Starting at the console, the church organ typically has draw knobs, mostly white, which are arranged on angled side panels; with a theatre organ there are coloured stop tabs, typically arranged in a horseshoe shape, which actually take up less space.  Theatre organ tabs are normally white for Tibias, red for Reeds, mottled yellow for Celeste and black for Couplers.  Sound effects - used for silent films - are something unique to the theatre organ.  Something called 'second touch' is available on theatre organs where pressing harder causes a second stop to play.  On the theatre organ, having the Crescendo pedal brings in a number of preset stops, separate to the organist's desired setup - the pedal can be slightly offset to avoid the organist pressing this by mistake.  Console lifts came to th UK in 1926 and from 1932 console lighting started to be added with glass lit surrounds.  The number of manuals (keyboards) and ranks (rows) of pipes can vary.  The backbone of the theatre organ sound is the Tibias (Tibia Clausa) rather than diapason on a church organ and on a theatre organ there are the 'tremulants' - rectangular wooden boxes with circular holes - which are a prominent feature, which give that vibrato 'wavy' sound.  With a theatre organ the pipes do not need to be where the console is as with a church organ, which can mean a certain delay in the sound reaching the organist, and although there can be some unification with a church organ with Couplers, church pipe organs normally have a pipe for every note and a rank for every stop.  Theatre organs tend to have fewer pipes with them being shared and pipes tend to be larger in circumference as they are under more air pressure and they are louder, although volume can be controlled via the pedals opening and closing the swell shutters or shades as they are called.


How the Theatre Organ Came About


Theatre organs were really originally developed to accompany silent films or movies.  Before theatre organs there were orchestras and pianos.  The first Wurlitzer organs were brought over from America in 1925.  The advent of so-called 'talkies' (films with sound), in 1929, changed things and meant a decline in theatre organs in America and in the thirties, when the depression hit America, theatre organs came over to the UK in greater numbers.  Theatre organs have been installed in theatres, cinemas, dance and concert halls, night clubs and entertainments venues, civic buildings, sports and recreational arenas, ice rinks, rollatoriums, in restaurants and even in private homes - not an easy instrument to accommodate with all the pipes.


Manufacturers of Theatre Organs


There have been numerous manufacturers of theatre organs.  Robert Hope-Jones, considered the inventor of the theatre organ, built them in England before taking his ideas to America and Wurlitzer.  Compton made theatre organs in England and then there was Christie (Hill, Norman & Beard) and Reginald Foort's Möller.  Other makes included: Robert Morton, Kimball, Marr and Colton, Barton, Kilgen, Hillgreen-Lane, Estey, Austin, Link, Page, Balcolm and Vaughan, Reuter, Midmer-Losh, Geneva, Welte-Mignon and Wicks.


How Our Wurlitzer Works


There are two power cables attached to the back of the console - one for the lit surround.  There are also switches up in the organ chambers including the one which switches the blower on.  Before concerts we check the organist settings; there are 2 hinged wooden panels (or combination switchboards) attached to the back of the console containing a series of spring wire switches.  Wires are moved to the left which ensure tab stops are flipped down or turned on when the corresponding thumb piston is depressed by the organist.  Thumb pistons are the small round buttons underneath the manuals (keyboards). 


Multi-coloured stop tabs are arranged in a horseshoe shape around the console, typically from ‘loud’ to ‘soft’ and in Wurlitzer order.  Colours are typically ‘white’ for flutes and percussion and described collectively as flue pipes i.e. not reed, ‘red’ for reed and brass instruments, ‘mottled yellow’ for string-type instruments and ‘black’ for Couplers as alluded to above.  Stop tabs are either on or off, there are no different volume positions.  Blending of sounds is just a case of adding more tab stops and as our Wurlitzer is fully unified all manuals have full functionality.  There are a whole host of percussion and real instruments as well as silent film effects up in the organ chambers, grouped together on what is known as the Toy Counter.  Instruments are mimicked by pipes and some sounds are unique to the theatre organ such as the Tibias, invented by Robert Hope-Jones, inventor of the theatre organ.  The Tibias are the backbone of the theatre organ sound as opposed to diapason on the church organ as mentioned previously. 


When a tab stop is down this sends a signal to the ‘relay’, which connects everything together, and the relay looks like an old telephone switchboard – not surprising as Hope-Jones, inventor, had a background of being a telephone engineer.  The appropriate pipe valve, also known as a pallet, is opened when the electromagnet that is attached to the particular pipe is energized and the armature (which looks like a small watch battery and is held in place by 2 metal clips known as dags) is lifted off its exhaust hole.  This allows air into the pipe, there is a vibration caused and the pipe will sound.  If a pipe continues to sound, when a note is no longer depressed, this is known as a cipher and requires intervention in the organ chamber.  The volume is controlled by pedals on the console which open and close the swell shutters or shutters – these look like venetian or vertical blinds and open from the centre out. 


The ranks (rows) of pipes, made from metal and wood and of varying length, are set in a rectangular wooden box with holes in the top, known as a ‘wind-chest’, also known as a 'sound-board' and typically the longer the footage of pipe the lower the note, with stopped pipes sounding an octave lower.  To equalize the pressure of wind over the whole wind chest, the pipes are arranged in a certain way.  The ‘regulators’ feed air to the pipes but this is in a controlled manner, as the name suggests, as the regulators hold air to keep an even pressure.  Regulators are wooden boxes with spring-loaded lids which sit on leather bellows.  Feeding the air to the regulators is the blower.  There are also ‘tremulant’ boxes which vary the wind supply to give that vibrato or ‘wavy’ sound, as previously mentioned, which a church organ does not have. 


So, a combination of air and electrics, with electromagnets, is required for everything to work!