Music in the Theatre Organ Style

This information is being provided to answer that frequently asked question on the organ chat lists: where can I find music to help me learn to play the theatre organ?

What is ‘Theatre Organ Style’? To different people, it means different things. However, to paraphrase my friend and teacher, Marti Lynch, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And since you are the entire orchestra you have the liberty to make each as long or short or as fast or slow as you like. Frequent change is good. The goal is to be entertaining and the only sin is to be boring! There are standard tricks of the trade used to reach this goal. Several outstanding musicians have provided books with instructions and full example arrangements. And others have simply provided portfolios of excellent arrangements. Both can help us learn the ‘Theatre Organ Style.’


Console Up! Vintage Theatre Styles for the Modern Organist, arranged by William McMains, 1967, published by Edwin H. Morris & Co., distributed by Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation. This is a series of at least 4 books: Instruction Book1, Instruction Book2, Pop Themes From the Classics, and Console Up. These four books were written to provide the home organist the sounds and patterns that were the basic bag of tricks in the hey-day of the first theatre organists. Recordings of some arrangements, played exactly as written, were provided to assure you that these arrangements are authentic.

The Mighty Theatre Organ--Original Organ Solos in Theatre Organ Stylings by Don Baker, Jeff Barker, Al Bollington, Lee Erwin, Eddie Layton, Ann Leaf, Allen R. Mills, Ashley Miller, Rosa Rio, Eddie Weaver, edited by Lee Erwin, foreword by Ben M. Hall, 1969, Edward B. Marks Music Corporation. As the title says these are all original songs so you can use them to entertain your friends with something ‘new.’ They are not difficult, but they are not too easy—the left hand normally plays a simple counter melody plus rhythm. My favorite is Lee Irwin’s "My Best Girl"—but I should add that I once heard it played during an open console session so this book is probably familiar to the experienced members of your club.

Theatre Organ Greats, A Salute to Radio City Music Hall, 1979, Bradley Publications. This contains 15 advanced theatre organ arrangements by 15 theatre organists: "As Time Goes By" arr. by Ray Bohr, "Blue Tango" arr. by Reginald Foort; trans. by Ken Rosen (thanks Ken!), "Come Dance With Me" arr. by Richard Leibert, trans. by Ken Rosen, "Forgotten Melody" arr. by Rosa Rio, "Here’s That Rainy Day" arr. by Rex Koury, "Inspiration" arr. by Ann Leaf, "Limehouse Blues," arr by Don Baker, "Musetta’s Waltz (from La Boheme) arr by Doreen Chadwick, "Open Your Eyes," arr. by Eddie Dunstedter; trans by Dan Bellomy (thanks Dan!), "Peanut Vendor" arr. by Del Castillo, "The Perfect Song" arr. by Gaylord Carter, "Sherlock Junior" comp and arr. by Lee Erwin (turn on the projector!), "Smile" arr. by Jesse Crawford; trans. by Ken Rosen, "The Song is You" arr. by Ashely Miller, "Sumertime" arr. by Lance Luce.. These are excellent arrangements—often close to the recordings of these songs. A one-page biography of each organist is included.

Mildred Alexander In Concert (advanced organ), 1981, Bradley Publications. This collection was probably prepared for the e-org student and has theatre style arrangements as well as arrangements that are somewhere between theatre organ and jazz organ. The arrangements are excellent. "The Sound of Music Medley" is classic, dramatic theatre organ at its best. When you can play the ascending chord sequences of "My Silent Love" smoothly and not drop a note, you know you have figure substitution down pat! This arrangement of "My Silent Love" is better than the one used in some recordings. The jazzy renditions of "Indiana" and "Lover" are also very good—but, not what I think of as theatre organ style.

Organ-izing Polular Music Book1 and Book2 by Al Hermanns, 1969, Robbins Music Corporation. These books teach making your own organ arrangements. Chords, fill-ins, registration, counter-melodies, endings, and modulation are among the topics addressed. In addition there are 30 complete arrangements—starting from the simple and ending at the advanced level to assist your learning. These two books could be the backbone for a two-year study course for the adult organist.

Richard Bradley In Concert (advanced organ), 1979, Bradley Publications. Richard Bradley publishes many organ books from the easy to the advanced. And his are the ones you are most likely to find today. For instance, I noticed today (November 6, 1998) that the Day Music Company ( in Portland, Oregon, has a couple of copies of this book in stock. The title page says "Played from beginning to end, this book presents a complete and exciting concert program…" Very true. Included are "Brazilian Sleighbells", "Malaguena," "Stars and Stripes Forever" and others. Turn on the glock and piccolo for the last stanza of the "Stars and Stripes" and you will know you have arrived!

A Study in Theater [sic] Organ Style by Don Baker, 1968, Peer International has more text than the rest of the books put together (if you leave out Al Hermanns). Subjects include "What Theater Organ Style Is," "The Swell Pedal," ..."The Glissando," "Tricks of the Trade (wah-wah, accordion, etc.)" and 13 big stylized arrangements. If you could have only one book this is it--provided you have big hands, there are many 4 and 5 note chords.

Theatre Organ Gems by Lyn Larsen; 1991; Musical Contrasts. This one comes with a recording of the music. The songs are: "Louise", "Pick Yourself Up", "A Broken Rosary," "Intermission!", "The Perfect Song." These were arranged with the 'average' home theatre organist (who buys an Allen or Rodgers?) in mind. But they are not necessarily easy. The arrangements of "Pick Yourself Up" and "Broken Rosary" were played by Mr. Larsen in his video concert, Lyn Larsen in Concert (see the Allen Organ web site to order this video). You can find ordering instructions for the book on the Lyn Larsen web site,

Theatre Organ Collection, 7 Original Selections for All Organs, by Lyn Larsen, 1976, Gentry Publications. These are excellent study pieces for theatre organ technique. And they are good music. These help answer that problem of ‘what do I play for my organist friends that they probably haven’t heard before.’ You can find ordering instructions for this on the Lyn Larsen web site

The Secrets of Theatre Organ Registration by Walter Strony, 1991, privately published by him. Contains an excellent dictionary of theatre organ stops, sample registrations, sample piston settings (his personal standards), suggestions for rebuilding theatre organs, and registrations for the Allen MDS series. Order this book from Walter Strony Organ Concerts, P.O. Box 3532, Carefree, Arizona 85377. (602) 488-5028 or (602) 488-5029 FAX.

The Genius of Jesse Crawford, books 1 and 2, 1984, Columbia Pictures Publications. These are must have books for the home theatre organist. There is no instructional material in this printing (the 1950’s version did have some instructional notes). However, the arrangements are excellent study pieces. They provide practice in figure substitution, glissandos, left-hand melody and, of course, the famous Jesse Crawford 9th chord sequences.

In addition to these books, I should mention other excellent material more generally.

David Coleman (Robbins Music Corporation circa 1960) created many arrangements for the organ. Some of them are relative easy but others are advanced complex and brilliant with unique tonal and rhythmic effects. Pick up a folio of the latter and you have outstanding theatre organ music.

And the Charles Raymond Cronham arrangements are excellent. The arrangement of "Teddy Bears' Picnic" that I have, lists 57 other arrangements by him. I would like a copy of his arrangement of "When Yuba Plays The Rumba on The Tuba."

Undoubtedly, with the exception of the Richard Bradley, Lyn Larsen, and Walt Strony books, most of the books I described are out of print. However, if you join a local theatre organ group, such as the ATOS groups, you will undoubtedly find that many of the members will either loan you music or help you find a copy of the out of date music.

Sometimes piano music is close to famous theatre organ recordings. Last week I found a Deluxe Edition of "Jalousie" (Jealousy) by Jacob Gade, Warner Bros. Publications Inc., 1925,1926,1944, in Seattle’s Capital Music store. This arrangement is close enough to the George Wright, Andy Crow, and others recordings that you don’t have to work hard to build your own dramatic arrangement.

Another good source of material is the original piano folios of Broadway musicals. The piano arrangements are normally better than the organ arrangements because the organ arrangements have been simplified (too much in my opinion).

One last thought, gather all the old piano music you can. By old I mean before 1930, and even better, the large format (pre-1920?) stuff. These were written when the level of amateur piano playing was very high and they have the all of the music--intro, verse, and chorus--with the correct chords and fills.

[Roger McNair prepared this information. All of the opinions and mistakes are his. And he will gladly accept suggestions for improvement. He is strictly an amateur organist whose only ‘professional’ stunt was demonstrating Wurlitzer electronic reed organs at the county fairs when he was in the eighth grade. For this he received $1.25/hour. You may e-mail him at ]


This page was last updated on November 7, 1998.

This page brought to you by:
VintageHammond.Com - We Buy-Sell-Trade Vintage Hammond Organs operates KEZL-FM Culbertson, NE A Non Profit Full Powered Radio Station