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Theatre Organs in Australia

The start of it all


It was in August, 1896, that Australian vaudeville audiences first witnessed the new technological wonder which was to revolutionise "show business" and dominate the nation's entertainment for the next sixty years. From being part and parcel of vaudeville shows, picture shows in their own right soon became established, the first being Falk & Co.'s, located at 237, Pitt St., Sydney [Ian Griggs, The Story of the Arcadia Cinema, Chatswood, Sydney, 1972]. This was quickly followed by many others, in temporary and permanent accommodation, across the nation.

From these humble origins arose progressively elaborate picture shows - it does not seem appropriate to refer to them yet as theatres - in which the silent dramas on the more or less silver screen would be accompanied by the clatter of the primitive projection equipment, with, in some cases a jangling piano, the latter more to mask some of the noise of the former than to enhance the dramatic effect. The atmosphere of these early shows has been captivatingly recreated in Joan Long's 1977 film "The Picture Show Man".


In time, the better-class establishments introduced small orchestras. From around the first decade of the twentieth century, organs also began to be used. Where and when this first happened is not certain.

A number of buildings used for picture shows in the early days both contained organs. The Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne, contained a single-manual Casson organ which was installed in around 1899. The Queen's Hall, Perth, housed a second-hand two-manual Bishop organ, installed there in 1908. The Queen's Hall was owned by the Methodist Church and was used for Sunday church services. On weekdays, though, it was the venue for Vic's Pictures.  The Lyceum Hall in Sydney housed a substantial Fincham organ. It is quite likely that any of these instruments could have been used to provide film accompaniments, either solo or with an orchestra, the first such use of an organ in Australia.













"The Story of the Kelly Gang" (1906)


The first recorded use of an organ at a film performance was at the opening of the Crystal Palace Theatre, Sydney, on 24 June, 1912. The Crystal Palace represented the last word at that time in elegance and refinement. Its many attractions included "a Vox Humana pipe organ to accompany films and an orchestra". [Ross Thorne, Picture Palace Architecture in Australia, Melbourne, 1976] This pioneer instrument, a two-manual Estey organ, perished in a fire in 1921.


A number of the more prosperous theatres which opened in the 1910s and early 1920s contained small pipe organs. These were used in many cases in conjunction with orchestras, both to augment them and to provide film accompaniments for the less important daily sessions when the orchestra was resting. Most of these instruments were fitted with mechanisms so that they could play automatically from paper rolls. This type of instrument, which comprised a piano, from two to eight ranks of pipes, perhaps some harmonium-type reed stops, and a wide variety of drums and silent picture sound effects, was known as a "photoplayer".



However, apart from the city theatres, which often employed quite sizeable orchestras, most picture shows were accompanied by music from player pianos, or "pianolas", as they were generally, and in most cases incorrectly, described. ( "Pianola" was the trade mark of the Aeolian Company in America, and thus technically only denotes instruments produced by that company).

These ranged in quality from the 600 Steck Duo-Art reproducing piano installed in the Strand Theatre, Rockhampton, Qld., [Everyone's, 22 March, 1922] to tinny, sub-standard instruments.

Operation of these instruments often formed one of the duties of the theatres' usherettes, who were not generally noted for their musical appreciation, although there were exceptions:

"There is nothing worse than a badly-played pianola; and at the same time, nothing gives as much satisfaction to an audience as a well-played piano. Many a good picture is spoiled by bad music; and this is our experience almost every week, as the representatives of this paper witness the various releases during the "off" hours of the day... For the sake of a little extra in salary, a competent instrumentalist would manipulate the pianola in a thorough manner - at the same time switching to appropriate music when occasion called for it, by discarding the roll in favour of personal manipulation."

"Most of the girls who manipulate a pianola in one or other of the city theatres use their ears for any other purpose but melody. Thus it happens that when a worthwhile exponent of this much-maligned instrument comes along, a little pat on the back is not out of order. This honour is therefore bestowed on the little lady who handles the mechanical instrumental programme at the Piccadilly Theatre, Sydney. She certainly makes the music worth listening to." [Everyone's, 9 August, 1922] 

Even where pianists and orchestras played, all was not beyond criticism:

Even some of the early organ installations were not unqualified successes. The instrument at the Grand Theatre, Adelaide, which had received glowing testimonials when installed, was replaced by an orchestra in August, 1922, when Horace Weber left, and no adequate replacement organist could be found. [Everyone's, 16 August, 1922]

Organist Manny Aarons used to recount that at one theatre where the organ was played by rolls during the organist's rest periods, a disgruntled patron once threw a banana into the player unit.

This, however, was nothing in comparison with the drama which took place in a Sydney theatre in December, 1922:


This report is of interest in that it gives us the name of one of the "pianola manipulators", the rest, it seems, having faded into anonymous memory.

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