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Early Organs up to 1926

 

 

The vast majority of the organs installed in Australian theatre in the very early days were of the photoplayer type, almost exclusively imported from America. These instruments were manufactured by builders such as Wurlitzer, Robert Morton (The American Fotoplayer Company), Cremona, Seeburg and possibly others. An exception was the Gulbransen Duo-Concerto Pipe Organ Orchestra Player Piano Combined, a grandiose name for a small pit organ imported by E F Wilks & Co. of Sydney, which was advertised in 1921-22. Only two of these are known to have been installed.  One was at Moss' Pictures, Ballina, in northern New South Wales [Everyone's, 22 February, 1922], the other at the Wonderview Theatre, Victor Harbour, South Australia, in January, 1924. [The Victor Harbour Times, 11 January, 1924, p. 1] Dodd & Sons advertised photoplayers (but none is recorded as having been built by them), and enlarged the Wurlitzer photoplayer at the Grand Theatre, Adelaide [Dodd Brochure, 1918]. There were no further Australian breakthroughs into the market. [Click here for more details about photoplayers]

In the field of larger (unit) organs, Wurlitzer reigned supreme, unchallenged until 1928. The first true theatre-style unit organ reached Australia in 1917. It was the first Wurlitzer unit organ to be exported outside the continent of North America, and was a two-manual, seven rank, instrument (Opus 129) which was installed as a demonstration organ in the ballroom of the home of Wurlitzer's Australian agent, Mr W A Crowle, "Toftmonks", Elizabeth Bay, NSW.

Later that year, a two-manual, four rank, Style 1 Wurlitzer "Unit Orchestra" was installed in the Melba Theatre, Melbourne. This had a piano console, as did the slightly larger Wurlitzer installed the following year in the Strand Theatre, Hobart, of which the local newspaper reported: "its thunderous tones make an impression in the playing up of the action of the screen impossible to an instrument of smaller specifications" [Hobart Mercury, 16 November, 1918]. The Style 135, two-manual, four rank, Wurlitzer, at the Majestic Theatre, Melbourne, was next, in 1919.

Auditorium, Majestic, Melbourne          display pipes

A detail enlargement showing the piano console, angled at the left of the pit

 

Grander things were, however, afoot, and the installation at the De Luxe Theatre, Melbourne, of "a cleverly constructed Orchestrelle... an Hope-Jones instrument, said to equal the best yet installed in Australia" [Everyone's, 9 August, 1922] was announced to the trade in August, 1922.

De Luxe Theatre, Melbourne 1922-1927

Two months earlier, Wm Hoggen, Paramount's Australian General Manager, had revealed that the Capitol Theatre, Melbourne, was under construction, "its internal appointments have been designed on a scale of lavishness hitherto unattempted in Australia" [Ibid., 7 June, 1922].

Union Theatres had, the previous year, announced plans to build "Million Dollar Theatres, capacity 3000-4000, cost £200,000 each" [Ten Years of Progress in the Motion Picture Industry of Australia, Union Theatres, Sydney, 1921] in the mainland capital cities. It was some years before Union commenced the construction of such large theatres. In the interim, Union opened luxury theatres in Sydney and Brisbane, both of which contained Wurlitzer organs. The New Lyric Wintergarden Theatre, Sydney, opened on 4 April, 1924, with a small four-rank instrument, rather grandly claimed to be "the most marvellous musical instrument ever constructed... its full tones are never heard; it is only the echo of the chords which majestically well out to the audience" [Everyone's, 9 April, 1924].

The Wintergarden Theatre, Brisbane, opened on 1st August, 1924, and was equipped with a two-manual, seven rank Wurlitzer organ costing "in the region of £10,000" [Everyone's, 23 April, 1924], later amended to "considerably over £6000" [Everyone's, 11 June, 1924]. This was billed as "the biggest theatre organ in Australia, costing £10,000 and representing an orchestra of 100" [Brisbane Courier, 31 July, 1924 (Wintergarden advertisement)]. Of these claims, the first was true, but only just, as the instrument was only marginally larger than that at the De Luxe Theatre, Melbourne, and then only by virtue of having a separate echo chamber for the Vox Humana, Chimes and Chrysoglott, plus a few extra couplers. The second claim, in view of the figure already quoted to the trade (£6000), is highly questionable (indeed most costs of theatre organs in publicity material were based not on actual costs but on managements' assessments of the gullibility of the general public). The third claim is quite absurd.

The Brisbane organ was played by Byron Hopper, an American organist. He was the first of a line of American theatre organists to come to Australia. The Wurlitzer Company used to press for new installations to be inaugurated by players fully experienced with their instruments, and would arrange for a suitable organist to be sent from America along with the organ, usually with a contract to play it for a year. Some returned to America on expiry of their contracts, others remained here for some years. This arrangement did not apply to the smallest organs, but presumably would have done at the De Luxe Theatre, Melbourne, had not the appointed organist, Horace Weber, already gained experience playing the Wurlitzer pit organ at the Grand Theatre, Adelaide.

During their stay in Australia, the American organists would train Australian organists, who often acted as their deputies, to take over from them when they left. They left a lasting influence in that Australian theatre organists have tended to follow the American, rather than the British, style of playing.

The Brisbane organ also possessed an automatic roll-playing unit, which was used to accompany the 11.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. film performances. Byron Hopper played solo for the 1.00 p.m. and 7.00 p.m. shows, and together with the orchestra for the "de luxe" performances at 2.30 p.m. and 8.00 p.m., which also included vaudeville "novelties" [Brisbane Courier, 31 July, 1924 (Wintergarden advertisement)].

 

Lon Chaney in the "Phantom of the Opera"

 

On 7 November, 1924, the Capitol Theatre, Melbourne, one of the world's truly original examples of cinema architecture, opened, with Horace Weber at the console of Australia's first truly mighty Wurlitzer, a magnificent 3-manual, 15-rank, Style 260, complete with thunderous 32-ft Diaphones.

Then, on 22 November, the Prince Edward Theatre, Sydney, was opened (with a preview for the trade the previous night) under the sobriquet "The Theatre Beautiful". In it was installed a two-manual, ten rank, Wurlitzer, which was played by the quixotic American organist Eddie Horton, both solo and in concert with Will Pryor's orchestra.

In 1925, Hoyt's entered the "super cinema" arena with the Regent Theatre, South Yarra, Vic., which was to be the prototype for its chain of luxurious "Regent" theatres. This did not possess an organ, but was claimed to be the finest suburban theatre in Australia [Ross Thorne, Picture Palace Architecture in Australia, Melbourne, 1976].

As yet, "Mighty Wurlitzers" were not to be heard outside the city centres, but this changed when Eddie Horton opened a two-manual, ten-rank organ in Herbert Crispe's Arcadia Theatre, Chatswood, Sydney, on 8 February, 1926. Although this was a suburban theatre, it attracted considerable "carriage trade": "Our average parking of cars on a Saturday night is 80, and 20 or 30 during the week" [Everyone's, 24 February, 1926]. The younger patrons were not neglected, either:

The industry was now really beginning to take note of the possibilities afforded by the theatre organ:

ORGAN INSTALLATIONS IN PICTURE THEATRES

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