Central Southern New York State might be called the birthplace of modern organ building. For centuries pipe organs were used only for church and concert work. It took the inventive ideas of Robert Hope-Jones, owner of an organ building company in Elmira, NY, to free the organ from its bondage as a solemn church instrument and start it on its way to becoming the modern unit orchestral theater organ.
Through his ideas of electrification, pipe unit construction, flexible stop tabs instead of draw knobs, and a convenient arrangenment of stops in a horseshoe shape above the keyboards. Hope-Jones made it possible to reproduce the many beautiful and bright tones of the full symphony orchestra as well as the more somber tones of the church organ. His most important contribution was definitely his system of pipe unification. Until then each manual could play only a limited number of basic pipes or "ranks." By utilizing an intricate system of relays and switches, he made it possible to play every rank from every manual at many different pitches. In other words, a unit organ of six ranks could achieve greater variation than a straight organ with more than 30 ranks.
Hope-Jones compared the unit orchestral organist with a painter who has six basic colors to work with. "By mixing these six colors he can get a limitless number of various shades, because he can mix them at will. With a `straight' organ of six ranks, one is very limited in musical results, whereas with a unit orchestral of six ranks, one has a really remarkable number of possible combinations."
Because of these improvements. the unit orchestral organ gained great popularity during the era of the Twenties when the great motion picture houses were being built. In those days of the silent movies, an organ was a must for any self-respecting theater. At the same time, there was an increased demand for organs in private homes since they were now more colorful in tone and capable of playing not only classical, but also popular music.
When the Wurlitzer Company bought out Hope-Jones and moved the business to Tonawanda, N.Y. in 1910, the Southern Tier by no means lost its organ-building trade. A number of small companies, some with Hope-Jones trained men, had sprung up in New York State, including several in Binghamton. These companies, devoted to church organ building, recognized the increased potential of the new techniques and soon modernized their practices and voicing techniques to take advantage of the new flexibility.
The Frank Beeman Organ Company of Binghamton was probably the oldest in this area. Although not parlicularly successful in the theater organ field, the company was one of the outstanding builders of church organs, to which it applied some of the new techniques developed through Hope-Jones' pioneering.
Back in Huntington, Indiana, during the early 1900's, Shaft Brothers Piano Company, a small company, headed by George T. Link, was manufacturing and selling pianos to the Automatic Musical Company of 183-185 Water Street, Binghamton. This company went into receivership in 1910, and Mr. Link's son, Edwin A. Link, was designated by the creditors to go to Binghamton to operate the company. The Links with their two sons, George T. Link and Edwin A. Link, Jr., moved from Huntington to Binghamton that same year. Mr. Link, Sr., operated the company very successfully for several years and later purchased it from the creditors. He changed the name to the Link Piano Company. During this period, the business consisted chiefly in the manufacture of various models of automatic pianos or coin pianos (presently known as Nickelodeons because they were coin-operated), extremely popular in the ice cream parlors and bars of the day.
The Star Theater, oldest motion picture house in Binghamton, was the first to use the Link automatic piano to accompany showings of its silent films. Only one roll, with a variety of selections, could be used in this piano. Therefore, only soft classical music was played. since it was impossible to change the music to match the mood of the film. This proved so successful that the Link company brought out the M.P., or motion picture model, which consisted of a piano attached to a music roll cabinet. In the cabinet were four perforated rolls, each roll containing from 8 to 15 selections. Each formed an endless belt, thus eliminating rewinding, and each was made up of a special class of music, such as sob music, love, martial airs, solemn dirges, popular songs, dances - the list was endless. These could be changed from one type to another at the push of a button to provide proper accompaniment for the scene unfolding on the screen.
About this time, the unit theater organ began to appear in the larger motion picture theaters in place of piano accompaniment. And, in 1914, the Link company built its first automatic theater pipe organ. This consisted of a piano with the keyboard attached to two cabinets containing four ranks of organ pipes and a four-roll automatic player. The piano could be played manually, or the whole combination could be controlled by buttons from the film operator's booth.
As larger and more elaborate movie palaces were built and more versatile organs were demanded, the Link theater organ grew in size and complexity. George Theron Link, Ed's older brother, became general manager of the Link company when his father retired as president. In 1925, the Link company was fortunate in acquiring as art adviser on its staff, the most famous theater organist of the day, C. Sharpe Minor, feature organist at Grauman's Million Dollar Theater, the first super-movie house in Los Angeles. Under Mr. Minor's direction, a new line of unit theater organs was designed and built, which incorporated many new stops and a new approach to toning. His concerts throughout the country on the new Link C. Sharpe Minor Unit organs brought new fame to the Link company.
C. Sharpe Minor also achieved renown by organizing his own road show around a portable Link Unit organ. Housed in six large cases, it could be moved from one city to another and set up very quickly. A three manual organ with 8 ranks of pipes, it was elaborately staged with velvet curtains and a console heavily set with sparkling, diamondlike jewels. Accompanying the show were dancers, singers and various vaudeville acts. The following photo is of C. Sharpe Minor, Edwin A. Link, Sr., and Lucile Mead at the installation of the two-manual residence-type organ at the Mead home in Laguna Beach, CA.
When the Capitol Theater opened in Binghamton on September 23, 1927, it contained the latest and best of the Link C. Sharpe Minor orchestral theater organs, a three manual instrument with 11 ranks of pipes, designed and built especially for the 2,600 seat auditorium.
Five thousand people attended the two shows on opening night, to see the new "playhouse worthy of a city of half a million population," according to John J. Irving, corporation counsel, who represented the mayor. Herbert Vogis, a well-known Cleveland organist, received acclaim for his "work at the console of the huge pipe organ," according to the Binghamton Press account of the next day.