What IS a Theatre Organ?
  To understand what a Theatre Organ is,
it is helpful to know about the different kinds of organs:
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Most people are familiar with
Electric Organs.
Hammond B-3   Leslie 122 speaker
This is a Hammond B3 and its companion speaker, a Leslie Tone Cabinet.
The Hammond Electric Organ is the organ sound you often hear in rock n' roll, jazz, and gospel music.  The Hammond Electric organ was developed by Mr. Laurens Hammond, who had invented a special kind of electric motor for the clocks he manufactured.  He was looking for ways to make more money with his new motor. He found it could be used as a part of a device for making organ-like sounds. Though he invented one of the most popular musical inventions of all time, Mr. Hammond was tone deaf and was quite proud that he was NOT a musician!  
The original Hammond organs were ELECTRIC organs.  They were so called because the tones were produced by notched metal discs which were turned by that special motor through a magnetic field. The notches produced an electrical vibration which was amplified by radio type vacuum tubes and played through radio type speakers.
Apparently, Mr. Hammond, who was said to have been tone deaf, had no idea what good organ sound was, and professional musicians found that the speaker cabinets made by Hammond for his electric organs were somewhat lacking.  The organ speaker preferred by musicians was invented especially to go with the Hammond Organ by Mr. Don Leslie, who was a musician and a Theatre Organ lover.  

The Leslie Tone Cabinet has spinning speakers in the top and bottom.  Don Leslie called this spinning effect  "The pipe voice of the electric organ."  The Leslie speaker made the Hammond organ sound similar to the Tibia Clausa pipes in a Theatre Organ. Many experts believe that the success of the Hammond Organ is mostly because of Mr. Leslie's invention!

This is Don Leslie holding a
small replica of his famous invention.
Don Leslie,
13 April 1911 -
3 September 2004
Im not going to be
here forever, but I left a little trail.
The Hammond B3 and Leslie combination became standard for the "gig" playing, professional musician for at least a couple of important reasons:
   1. It was movable.  Heavy - yes.  Awkward to move - yes.  
But still it was do-able and they were durable.
True story:  When I worked for the Nice House of Music, here in Jacksonville, we received an emergency call from a traveling tent revival group concerning repairs to a B3.   The instrument, loaded on the back of their truck, became unbalanced while climbing one of the many bridges here in Jacksonville,  and toppled onto the roadway.  According to their account, the organ bounced a few times, then was hit by 2 vehicles.  When we arrived at the revival site we saw a badly skinned up and battered Hammond B3 with a front leg almost broken off.  The back panel was removed. The fall board over the keys was still locked in place, and the pedal contact assembly looked to be OK.  Fortunately for them, someone in the dim past had "locked-down" the tone generator.  They never had unlocked it, and had no idea that the tone generator could be "locked down."  A Hammond organ will play fine that way, if a bit noisily. (The tone generators of tone wheel Hammonds are suspended on springs to minimize motor and gear noise, "locking it down" keeps it from quivering like jello while you move it.)  The musicians anxiously asked us to look at it and see what, if anything, could be done to get it in working order for the service that night.  We propped it upright, unlocked the generator, opened the fall board, plugged in the power cord, and the Leslie speaker.  We keyed the start switch -- it started right up and stayed on!   In spite of it's ordeal it played quite OK!
You will still see vintage 30 and 40 year old
Hammond B2's and B3's, C2 and C3's,
with, or without, Leslie speakers
in use in churches, and
on rock n' roll and jazz concert stages.

 2. It had a sound that became a standard. The Hammond had an unmistakable sound that quickly became the sound most identified as "organ sound."  Further, because each unit had identical drawbars, musicians were able to share registrations (sound set-ups) and playing techniques that made the instrument extremely popular.   Therefore many, many were sold to professionals and amateurs.  Tone wheel Hammond organs were consistent in other features  from model to model, too.  
Most every tone wheel organ Hammond made had the same basic features on it!  It wasn't until the 1970's, under pressure from competition with other home organs made by Lowrey, Kimball, Baldwin; as well as Japanese manufacturers, that Hammond "liberated" itself from the old tone wheel technology and became completely electronic.  Just as the other organ manufacturers had already done, the Hammond designers began to use LSICs, (large scale integrated chips) which allowed the incorporation of sounds other than those derived from drawbar combinations.  They even began to use built in Leslie Speakers.  However, by then other electronic organs had "been there, done that" and had done it much better for quite a while, and many were moving to digital technology.  

The Hammond reputation was made with the Tone Wheel technology, Drawbar registration, and most importantly, the use of Leslie Speakers.
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Another Great Combination
The Hammond B3 and Leslie is especially fine sounding in a Jazz Organ Trio. (Trio means "3")  This most often consists of a Hammond B3 (almost always with a Leslie speaker), a Jazz Guitar, and Drums.  
The Hammond player provides the pedal bass line (the low tones,) the chordal accompaniment with the left hand on the lower keyboard, and a fair share of the melody on the upper keyboard.  Also, the drawbars allow the organist to bring a good bit of variety to the over-all sound.  
The guitar, in the hands of a good Jazz Guitarist, provides interesting rhythm chord accompaniment.  And, because the organ is as much accompanimental as melodic, the Guitar is free to play exciting solo melodies.  Probably no two instruments; the organ and guitar, could be more un-alike!  However, that is exactly what makes them compliment each other so well!
The drums are very important, too.  An imaginative drummer can hold the whole thing together with drum styles ranging from straight ahead jazz, to Latin, to sultry slow swing brush-stick rhythms.

Jazz Organ Trio made the Hammond organ the standard for straight-ahead Jazz, a combination still going strong, especially in Europe

No rock band of the 60's and 70's was complete without a B3 and Leslie.

Among evangelical churches, the B3 with Leslie, and Piano duo,
became the accepted norm as it was made popular
by the music heard at Billy Graham crusades.

BUT - The vintage Hammond Organ sound,
as popular as it was and continues to be,
is still a very narrow part of the range of what popular
organ music can be compared to a Theatre Organ!  

After all, even the Hammond, and every other electronic
home organ ever made, owes it's existence to the Theatre Organ.
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 Classical and Theatre electronic organs were developed about the same time as the
Hammond electric organ. Instead of electro-mechanical devices,
electronic organs used vacuum tube oscillators to produce organ-like tones.  
Those old-time vacuum tubes produced a lot of heat when they were operating.  So much heat, in fact, that even today some pipe organ snobs use the derogatory term "toaster" to put down any kind of analog electronic or digital non-pipe organ. However, the circuit boards and  large scale integrated circuit chips and micro-processors used in analog and digital organs today do not produce much heat at all compared to vacuum tubes . . . and they make some very nice sounds, too!
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Classical Organs

Most people are familiar with classical organs.
    Pipes Gong
  This is a Classical Drawknob organ console.  
It's sounds are made by windblown pipes.    
The Classical Organ is the sound you hear in big cathedrals.  Music written in the 1700's by the great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach sounds awesome played on this kind of organ.  Most traditional churches and many concert halls have this kind of organ.

Our own Jacoby Symphony Hall in the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts
right here in Jacksonville, Florida has a very large Casavant organ:
Click on the organ picture above to find out more about the JSO's Casavant.
Click HERE for a stop list for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra's Casavant.
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Home Organs

Many people have organs like these in their homes:
  These home organs are known as spinet organs because they
  have shortened, off center keyboards, and only 13 foot pedals.   
Home organs often have cheap cabinetry and electronics; featuring one finger "easy play"
rhythmic chords to give the player the illusion of actually playing a musical instrument.  
At first, electronic home organ makers did try to make them sound as much like traditional organs as possible,
but today home organs are made to sound more like a synthesizer or a dance band  -- anything but an organ!
The CONN Organ Company

During the 1960's, the first electronic home organ manufacturer that made a serious attempt to imitate the Theatre Pipe Organ was the CONN Organ Company.   C.G. Conn, Ltd., of Elkhart, Indiana, was founded in 1875, becoming first a respected producer of band instruments. They produced and marketed their first electronic organ in 1947, with their first commercial success in organ sales in 1951.  This time frame corresponds with the beginning of the Theatre Pipe Organ Revival. Again, by the 1960's, the Leslie Speaker was an important part of the success of the CONN Organ's sound, and the CONN company wholeheartedly embraced it as the best way to impart a pipe-like voice to electronic Tibia Clausas and Vox Humanas.  
CONN successfully imitated authentic sounding string and reed tones as well, and the combination of beautiful flutes, keen strings, and colorful reeds gave CONN Organs a thrilling Theatre Organ sound.
The Allen Organ Company

However, starting in the 1930's, the very first electronic organ builder to attempt to imitate any kind of pipe organ was the Allen Organ Company.   Mr. Jerome Markowitz, founder of the Allen Organ Company, an inventor in his own right, took analog electronic organ technology to the state-of-the-art.  In the 1960's he had the fore-sight to recognize the potential of the marriage of computers and organ sound, and as a result, the Allen Company pioneered the use of the digital organ, producing the very first consumer digital product of any kind in the early 1970's.  Today, with their new Quantum Renaissance organ line, the Allen Organ Company has captured the essence of the Classical and the Theatre Organ with their unique digital technology.  Click on the yellow bordered organ picture on the side bar to see how they are built.

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But what is different about Theatre Organs
compared to Classical Organs?

First of all, the console, the big case with the keyboards and pedals, looks very different.  The console may be fantastically decorated to match the "Movie Palace" theatres for which they were built.  The stop controls on the Theatre Organ console are laid out in a "horse-shoe" style.
 Next, the stop controls, which turn pipe sounds on and off, are shaped like tongue depressors.

These tablets, or "tongue tabs" as they are often called, are color coded:
White  for traditional organ sounds like Diapason, Flutes, and Tibia Clausa.
Yellow  for string sounds; Violins, Violas, Cellos, and so on.
Red  for woodwind sounds such as Clarinet and Oboe, and for brasses such as Trumpet and Tuba.
Black  for tabs that are special controls such as couplers, which make sounds playable from one keyboard to another.

  Theatre Organ pipes are blown with more wind pressure than Classical Organs, and thus the sounds are more like real orchestral instruments.
Theatre Organs have deeper and faster tremulants than Classical Organs.  Tremulants give a pulsating vibration to the organ ranks which blends the sounds in a way similar to how human voices in a choir blend, each singing voice having it's own "Vibrato."
Theatre organs also have more percussion sounds than classical organs.  In addition to chimes and harps often found on classical organs, Theatre organs have percussions such as:
     Piano (a real piano, connected to the organ!)
     Glockenspiel (bright toned bells)
     Chrysoglott (sweet toned bells)
     Xylophone and Marimba  (bright and mellow toned wooden bars)
Theatre Organs also have traps.  
Traps are drums and cymbals.  The term "traps" is short for "contraption."  In the old-time days of live variety act Vaudeville shows, there were bands which played from the pit in front of the stage. The drummers in these bands were called upon to make the sound effects for the action on the stage.  Knowing that theatre managers did not want to pay for extra musicians to play each sound effect, some enterprising drummer got the idea of mounting all the drums, cymbals and effects on a rack-like arrangement.  The managers of the theatres, who often had to have the things moved for cleaning, called these set-ups "contraptions,"  which naturally became shortened to "traps."
Theatre organs have Special Effects called "TOYS".
In Theatre Organs the special effects are played by push buttons located in drawers under the left and right sides of the front of the console.  The surface (wind chest) in the pipe rooms (called "chambers") where the special effects sound makers are installed is called the "Toy Counter!"  Can you guess why?  These sounds may  include fun stuff like train and boat whistles, horse hooves, airplane motors, surf and wind machines, gunshots, sirens, police whistles, and any other sound effect a comedy or action movie might require!  
They add lots of fun to silent movie accompaniment, and that's why they're called "Toys."
  Most of all, the difference between Theatre Organs and all the other organs is The Glorious Sound!  When all of these Orchestral pipe ranks, percussions, traps, and sound effects are played by a
skillful player, it is truly an amazing, Glorious Sound!
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A Theatre Organ Name to Remember

Mr. Robert Hope-Jones, originally an Englishman, is responsible for many inventions which made the Theatre Organ possible.  Many of the his inventions are standard equipment on classical organs today, as well.  His association with the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, though brief and stormy, made history and gave rise to a whole new art form.  However, the Theatre organ was destined to be obsolete for it's intended purpose in a short period of time. They were developed with the idea that sound for movies would soon be possible.  In 1927 "The Jazz Singer" the first all talking movie, signaled the end of the dependence of movies on the Theatre Organ.  Because of this, and with the subsequent onset of the Great Depression, within a few  years no more were built.  By the end of the 1940's the Theatre Organ was a thing of the past.  However, starting in the 1950's and during the 1960's especially, Theatre Organs enjoyed a revival as a concert instrument, which continues even today as more people become aware of that certain special sound and its charm.
Theatre Organs are so called because they were designed
to create the dramatic music and comedic sound effects
for the old-time "silent" movies.
A Theatre Organ is truly a one person orchestra!  In fact, the proper name of the instrument is "Unit Orchestra!" Most of the pipe sounds are intended to imitate orchestral instruments.  In fact, a Theatre Organ is considered complete with just six groups of pipe sounds, called ranks, and several traps, percussions and sound effects.

An example of a small, but complete, Theatre Organ might have:
       Six ranks of pipes:
1 rank of Open Diapason pipes  
 A bold classical pipe organ type sound.
Diapason Pipes are usually "fat" (larger around) compared to other pipes, and are made mostly of lead.  They range from as small as a pencil to wide enough for 2 or 3 men to stand inside.
1 rank of Tibia Clausa pipes  
 A unique mellow and throbbing organ sound.
Tibia Clausa pipes are made of wood and look like tall boxes with a stopper in the top.
1 rank of String pipes  
 A keen sound which imitates Violins.
String pipes are tall and thin and are made of tin.  Strings are also often in pairs, two ranks that are slightly out of tune -- purposely -- to create a pleasant and warm effect called a "celeste" which means "heavenly" or "sweet."
1 rank of Flute pipes   
 Flute pipes sound just like the flutes in an orchestra.
Flute pipes may also be made of wood,
but without a stopper in the top. Sometimes they are made of spotted metal, an alloy of lead and tin which forms spots when it cools.
1 rank of Vox Humana pipes
 A reedy and colorful human voice imitation.
Vox Humana ranks are reeds.  Reeds have a cylinder at the bottom with a reed vibrator in it.  The cone shape at the top is the resonator which colors the sound.  The Vox Humana is rarely used alone, but gives a special "flavor" when used in combinations with Tibia, Strings, and Diapason.
1 rank of Tuba Horn pipes

Boldly brassy, and versatile, it can sound like a Tuba, played very low, or a Trombone in the mid range, or a Trumpet in the higher range.
Tuba Horn pipes are also reeds with a vibrator in the cylindrical bottom and a resonator on top, which is shaped like the bell of a horn.
Along with Percussions
  Which would, perhaps, include:
        1 set of Glockenspiel bells,
        1 set of Xylophone bars,
        1 set of Chrysoglott bells,
        maybe even a Piano!
These are Glockenspiel bars.
And certainly there would be Traps  

  Which could include, at least:
        Bass Drum
        Snare Drum
        Wood Block
And some Sound Effects on the "Toy Counter"
Such as Sleigh Bells, a Siren, a Police Whistle, a Choo-Choo Train Whistle, and sometimes even Thunder, Lightening effect, and a Chinese Gong!   
(Or any other effect one could imagine!)
. ..
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The days of Silent Movies have been over since the late 1920's
but the Theatre Pipe Organ has survived because it is the ultimate music making machine.  
On no other musical
instrument can one person
make such a
Glorious Sound!
And that's only the beginning . . .
"Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet!"
 This was Al Jolson's first spoken line in the first talkie, "The Jazz Singer"

So true! "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"  
But you can, thanks to Ian McIver who has put together a site
where you will hear what all the excitement is about.

Click the pic below to hear "The Glorious Sound" of  the
Theatre Organ on Ian McIver's  "Virtual Radiogram" site!
Ian McIver
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