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What is a Photoplayer?

 

In the first decade of the twentieth century the music at a small cinema, the Palace Theatre, Tamworth, Staffordshire, in England's Potteries district, was provided by a trio and a solo pianist. In early 1908, the proprietor had a disagreement with his trio, and decided to replace it by some kind of organ. He contacted the John Compton Organ Company, then located at Nottingham, and ordered an instrument for immediate delivery. Compton provided a Harper electric player-piano, which was electrically connected to six ranks of organ pipes and drums. Thus was born the world's first photoplayer. Jimmy Taylor, of Compton, played it great success. [A.W. Owen, "The Evolution of the Theatre Organ", Theatre Organ Review, Vol. V, No. 17, March, 1951, Leeds, England, p.p. 8-9].

Strangely, only two or three photoplayer-type instruments were ever used in England, but in America they rapidly became very popular with owners of small theatres.

More photoplayers were built than any other form of theatre organ, and it has been estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 of these instruments were constructed between 1910 and 1928. [David Q. Bowers, "Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments", Vestal Press, Vestal, New York, 1972, p. 352]

The photoplayer was suitable only for use in providing accompaniments to silent films, so its demise was complete and immediate once sound films became established. In the history of musical instruments there can have been few instruments which experienced such a dramatic upsurge and decline, for of the possible total of 10,000 photoplayers in use in the 1920s probably less than a hundred exist today. Some 99% of the photoplayers built were thrown out and destroyed in the 1930s and 1940s.

 

 

Photoplayers were installed in the orchestra pits of theatres. Unlike unit theatre organs, all the pipework and effects were in the pit. There were no organ chambers as such. The "classic" photoplayer comprised an electric player-piano with a double roll-player mechanism, and on each side of the piano was a large case housing pipes and effects. Blower units were often separate. Smaller organs had only a case on one side of the piano, and the very smallest had their few pipes actually housed within the piano itself. Photoplayers could contain from one to eight ranks of pipes.

Most of Australia's photoplayers had only one manual, of full piano compass (85 or 88 notes), of which 61 notes could play the organ stops. Some of the larger instruments had two manuals, the lower being of full piano compass, the upper having 61 notes. A few, such as the Seeburg instrument at the Victory, Kogarah, NSW, had pedalboards as well. The Wurlitzer photoplayer at the Grand Theatre, Adelaide, was fitted with a pedalboard when it was enlarged by Dodd of Adelaide in 1918. [Dodd & Co., Adelaide, brochure, 1918]

The instruments may have had a short life, but it was a busy one, as in many cases they would be in operation all day, every day. In some theatres they were played solo only for the less important shows, but they would be used also at the more prestigious shows to augment the orchestra.

The two main suppliers of photoplayers to Australian theatres were the American Photoplayer Company, a subsidiary of the Robert Morton organ company, builders of the "Fotoplayer" (imported by the Pianola Company), and Wurlitzer, whose photoplayers were known as "Duplex Orchestras". Other American builders whose photoplayers were installed in Australia were Seeburg and the Marquette Piano Company (whose instruments were branded "Cremona"). E.F. Wilks & Co. Ltd. of Sydney imported the Gulbransen "Duo-Concerto Pipe Organ Orchestra Player-Piano Combined".

When photoplayers were used to augment orchestras they were played manually, but when used solo, the roll mechanisms were mostly used, and theatre usherettes were delegated to "manipulate" them. No doubt they enjoyed themselves sounding the effects to enhance the action on the screen. In some cases in America, photoplayers could be controlled from the projection box, or "bio box", as it was known in Australia, but it is not known whether any such installations were made in Australia.

Photoplayers were designed to be erected and serviced by persons without specialised organ-building knowledge, and detailed instruction books were provided with most instruments. Fortunately, copies of many of these still exist, and have been reprinted by the Vestal Press, in Vestal, New York, both as curiosities and to assist those who have rescued the few surviving instruments. The manuals and catalogues provide a wealth of information about these fascinating instruments.

Photoplayers differ in several respects from unit theatre organs. Their chest action was usually pneumatic, rather than electro-pneumatic. Percussions and effects were often mechanically operated. On Fotoplayers, many effects were operated by leather cords with wooden handles on the ends, which hung across the front of the instruments, and the effects were directly connected to these cords. For example, the train whistle effect was merely a domestic bellows of the kind once found by most firesides with a triple-note pipe at the end. Pulling the cord compressed the bellows, sending a puff of air into the pipe. The cords directly pulled the hammers of the drums and cymbals. For drum rolls, a clockwork device was often installed, which required winding from time to time. [Bill Binding, Adelaide, conversation with author, September, 1975]

Although the general compass of the organ stops was five octaves (61 notes), not all the stops were full compass. An example is the Wurlitzer Duplex Orchestra, in which the brass trumpet ranks were usually only of three octave (37 notes) compass. Stops were often "divided", like those on many single-manual pipe and reed organs, into "bass" and "treble" sections, particularly on single-manual instruments, thus making it possible to play a solo and an accompaniment using different tones on a single manual. for example, the bass section of a flute could be drawn with the treble section of a string, thus enabling a violin solo to be played on the upper half of the keyboard against a flute accompaniment on the lower half, or vice-versa. The larger models of Fotoplayers included not only pipes but free-reed, harmonium-type, stops as well.

The combination of piano, organ pipes, tuned percussions and perhaps free reeds as well must have been well nigh impossible to keep in tune in the non-air-conditioned theatres of those early days. Wurlitzer Duplex Orchestras were even supplied with instructions on how to tune the pipes to the piano, should a professional organ tuner not be available; perhaps it was not too much to hope that the piano was in tune to start with! [Wurlitzer, Handbook for Models G and O "Duplex Orchestras", undated]

The large photoplayers were complex instruments indeed, as can be seen from the illustration, which is taken from a Fotoplayer catalogue of 1917. This describes the "Style 50" instrument, as installed in the De Luxe Theatre, Melbourne, and the Lyric Theatre, Sydney, and which in America in 1920 cost US $10,750. [David Q. Bowers, op. cit., p. 376]

It will be seen that the instrument comprises eight ranks of pipes: Open Diapason, Flute d'Amour, Viole d'Orchestre (all three ranks full compass) and Vox Mystica, Flute, Gemshorn, Cornet and Melodia (treble only). The organ compass was 65 notes. There were also six free-reed stops (three treble, three bass), Orchestral Bells, Xylophone (31 notes) and Cathedral Chimes (5 notes), plus an impressive array of non-tonal percussions and silent film effects, including "improved" Horses' Hoofs (one can only wonder what the "improvement" was!).

The rolls used differed between the various brands of photoplayer. Fotoplayers had standard 88-note player-piano tracker-bars, which operated only the notes. Stop control was left to the operator. Wurlitzer, Seeburg and Cremona photoplayers could each also play their own brand of "orchestrated" rolls, which were the same as those used in orchestrions and other mechanical organs made by those companies, and which controlled the stops as well. The tracker-bar for Cremona Type S orchestrated rolls had 134 perforations. [David Q., op. cit., p. 503]

 

 

 

 

Photoplayers could accommodate much longer rolls than the average player-piano. Duplex Orchestras could play rolls containing as many as ten tunes. The provision of twin roll-playing units meant that as one roll finished, the other would start automatically, so the instrument could be left to play for an hour or so unattended if necessary, without repeating a tune. If desired, contrasting rolls could be placed on the two units, so that the operator could change from one to another to provide musical contrasts in line with the developing dramas on the screen.

 

 

Some photoplayers with twin units had one unit for standard rolls and the other for orchestrated rolls. This gave the advantage of stop control via the orchestrated rolls combined with the far wider (and more up-to-date, not to say cheaper) range of music available on piano rolls which could be purchased conveniently at the local music store.

Special rolls, specifically designed for silent film accompaniments, were available. The Filmmusic Co. of Los Angeles produced many "Picturolls", including several cut by Eddie Horton, who later became a very popular organist in Australia and New Zealand.

 

  

Photoplayers in Australia

 

Many photoplayers were installed in Australian theatres, but unfortunately in most cases were not regarded as being of sufficient importance to merit mention in press reports. At the end of this section is a list of all photoplayers of which the author has uncovered any record, in some cases with little concrete evidence. Some of the instruments listed may not have been photoplayers, and there were certainly many more of which no record survives.

Of all those listed, only one survives intact. Many of the others were dismantled and their pipes were incorporated in church or residence organs. The organ which ended its days at the Seaview Theatre, Glenelg, S.A., was purchased by Alf Broadbent of Macclesfield, S.A., who extensively rebuilt it and added large numbers of home-made pipes, so that it ended up as a two-manual organ. It later moved to New South Wales, where it was reassembled at the Mastertouch Piano Roll Company's factory at Petersham, Sydney.

The organ installed in the Mechanics' Institute, Goolwa, S.A., had an interesting history. It was installed there in about 1918, and was a Style 20 Fotoplayer, with two ranks of pipes in a single cabinet on the right of the piano. After the demise of sound films, it was placed in a store room at the hall, and lay there forgotten until 1975. It was then discovered and recognised for what it was. It was purchased by Mr Barclay Wright of Mastertouch, who removed it to the company's factory. Amazingly, it was absolutely complete, and he later sold it to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where it was restored to full working order. It can now be heard daily at the Powerhouse, where it is demonstrated in silent film accompaniments. As far as is known, it is the sole surviving intact photoplayer in Australia, but there may be others similarly forgotten in old theatres or Schools of Art around the country.

For an epitaph to the photoplayer, we need turn no further than Seeburg's photoplayer catalogue, "The Soul of the Film", which contains a number of couplets in verse. These may not be any threat to Shakespeare, but they encapsulate the fun of these strange instruments:

AUSTRALIAN PHOTOPLAYER INSTALLATIONS (during the Silent Film Era)

 

 

 State and Town/Suburb

New South Wales

 Building

 Builder

Ballina

Moss' Pictures

Gulbransen

Hurstville

Civic Theatre

Make unknown

Kogarah

Victory Theatre (1st organ)

Seeburg

Manly

Embassy Theatre

Wurlitzer

Mosman

Lyceum Theatre

Make unknown

Sydney (City)

Crystal Palace (2nd organ)

Wurlitzer

 

Haymarket Theatre

Make unknown

 

Hoyt's Picture Palace

Make unknown

 

Lyric Theatre (1st organ)

Fotoplayer

 

Majestic Theatre

Make unknown

 

Opera House

Make unknown

 

Princess Theatre

Make unknown

 

 

 

Queensland

 

 

Brisbane

Majestic Theatre

Make unknown

 

 

 

South Australia

 

 

Adelaide (city)

Chinese Garden Theatre

Wurlitzer

 

Grand Theatre

Wurlitzer/Dodd

 

Pavilion Theatre ("Pav")

Wurlitzer

 

Skating Rink (Pirie St)

Make unknown

 

West's Theatre

Make unknown

 

Wondergraph Theatre

Fotoplayer(1)

Glenelg

Glenelg Theatre (1st organ)

Fotoplayer(1)

 

Glenelg Theatre (2nd organ)

Fotoplayer(2)

 

Strand Theatre

Fotoplayer(1)

Goodwood

Star Theatre

Seeburg

Goolwa

Mechanics' Institute

Fotoplayer

Kadina

Ideal Theatre

Make unknown

Port Pirie

Adastra?? Theatre

Wurlitzer

Victor Harbour

Wonderview Theatre

Gulbransen

 

 

 

Tasmania

 

 

Hobart

Palace Theatre

Wurlitzer

 

 

 

Victoria

 

 

Brighton

Prince George Theatre

Cremona

Canterbury

Hoyt's Theatre

Fotoplayer(2)

Melbourne (City)

De Luxe Theatre (1st organ)

Fotoplayer(2)

Richmond

Hoyt's Theatre

Fotoplayer(2)

South Melbourne

Sleight's Funeral Home

Seeburg

 

 

 

Western Australia

 

 

Fremantle:

Majestic Theatre

Cremona

 

Princess Theatre

Wurlitzer

 

Fotoplayers marked (1) and (2) indicate multiple locations for the same instruments. "Fotoplayers" were built by the American Photoplayer Company (which later became the Robert-Morton Organ Company).

The photoplayers at the Victory, Kogarah, De Luxe, Melbourne, and Lyric, Sydney, were replaced by unit organs.  That at the Crystal Palace, Sydney, replaced the original Estey organ that was destroyed in the 1921 fire.

The pipe organ installed in the 1910s at the Shell Theatre, Sydney, at a reputed cost of 4000 ["Everyone's", 22 February, 1922], is often listed as a photoplayer. However, it is the author's belief that it was not. This view is reinforced by its sale in 1925 ["Everyone's", 25 March, 1925], at a time when photoplayers were at their zenith; hence it is unlikely that a city theatre would dispose of one then.

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