The Unit Orchestra (otherwise known as the Theatre Organ)

Once upon a time, when movies were silent, audiences would enjoy films accompanied by a live orchestra that provided background music and sound effects. This, however, was an expensive proposition for theater owners, and when Robert Hope-Jones introduced his “Unit Orchestra,” smaller theaters had the option of providing a reasonable fac-simile of orchestral music with a single instrument and a single musician.

Robert Hope-Jones (1859-1914)

Hope-Jones combined his organ-building operation with Wurlitzer, but apparently became despondent over the partnership and ended his life in 1914; his legacy, however, lived on and blossomed into one of the most unique eras in American theater music.

The Detroit-Senate 4/34 Wurlitzer

Today, only the devoted or the fortunate have had the chance to see, hear, or lay hands on one of these behemoths; I have been privileged to play several of them, although I am nothing but a dilettante, a duffer, and an amateur in the purest sense of the word – I simply love the music of these incredible one-man orchestras. While in their heyday there were hundreds of these around the country, only 40 or so exist in their original theatres, but many have been rescued, restored, and installed in private locations.

I was first introduced to the magic of Theatre Organ music when I worked at a restaurant in Salt Lake called Pipes and Pizza shortly before serving a mission for the LDS Church in Austria.

The Wurlitzer 3/32 console. This means that the console has 3 manuals or keyboards, and there are 32 different sets of pipes with different voices.

Typical theatre organ pipe chamber; note the percussion instruments above, and the accordion-like bellows below which vibrate up and down to produce the signature tremolo sound.

The console showing the pipe chambers behind half-moon windows. Notice the shutters above the windows, which open and close to control volume.

Theatre organs included many percussion instruments including xylophones, glockenspiels, marimbas, chrysoglotts, and traps (drums, triangles, castanets, bird whistles, etc.) and many others. This enabled a performer to provide endless combinations of sound effects to accompany silent movies.

Thanks to a comment from Mike Ohman, noted classical and theatre organist and co-owner with Cal Christensen in the Pipes and Pizza venture (also assistant director of the BYU School of Music), we have learned that this wonderful instrument was not disassembled, but transported to the Founders Church  in Los Angeles. A manual was added to make the instrument a 4/34, and is played by venerable Lawrence Welk organist, Bob Ralston, weekly. Wonderful news!



This is the best photo I could find of the Holmes Chapel at the Founders Church of Religious Science. You can see the console at the upper left… barely.

The El Capitan Theatre Wurlitzer in Hollywood

Many of these organs were never envisioned by Wurlitzer itself – people bought consoles and various pipe ranks, added manuals, and created incredible monsters of astonishing range and power. Wurlitzer was not the only company to get on the one-man-bandwagon; Möller, Kimball, Compton, Robert-Morton and many others manufactured organs for theater use. In later years, Rodgers, Allen, Conn and others produced some amazing electronic theatre organs for home and professional use.

The Allen “George Wright IV” symphony organ

Rodgers 33-E

If you have more money than God, Allen would be happy to build you a behemoth, either to your specifications or from their catalog.

Having mentioned George Wright, I need to say that from where I sit, this man is the Babe Ruth of the organ world. As you will hear below, there are many people with absolutely mad skills on these instruments, but Mr. Wright is probably the best of the best. Of the best. Sir!

Organs I have been privileged to play include the Pipes and Pizza organ above;

The Salt Lake City Organ Loft 5/34;

The two-manual Wurlitzer in Salt Lake City’s Capitol Theatre,

and a couple of others in various places which are no longer existent.

Organists I have met include Gaylord Carter (1905-2000)

and David Reese (1950-1995)

as well as a number of very talented people local to the Salt Lake area.

I own a small Conn Theatrette organ which is still plugging away, more or less,

but when I get to Heaven, I’m going to spend 10,000 years really learning how to play one of these monsters.

Here’s a recording of George Wright playing the “Chit Chat Polka”

Listen to Steve Eaklor from the Chicago area rip up one of these beasts.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

8 responses to “The Unit Orchestra (otherwise known as the Theatre Organ)

  1. The organ from the Salt Lake City Pipes and Pizza is NOT scattered to the wind. In fact, it is intact and playing (still) at Founders Church in Los Angeles. A few minor changes were included, such as a 4 manual console. It is played by venerable Lawrence Welk organist, Bob Ralston, weekly. The organ was a 3/32 while in the pizza joint, but became a 4/34 at Founders. I was a patner in this business in the 1970’s. We built three pizza restaurants which did very well. I would be curious who wrote this blog. Best! Mike

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  3. I am a fan and organist of the theatre organ. Strictly classical for the first decades of my relationship with the organ, and then, discovering the wonder of the theatre organ I find myself reborn as a “show biz” organist! I bristle when my fellow classical organists bristle at the mention of the theatre organ. There is much sanctioned ignorance toward it among certain classical organists. The book: The Contemporary American Organ raked the Unit Orchestra over the coals and back, and dismissed those who favored it as uneducated and crude. BOY I BET THOSE OLD CLASSICAL SNOBS ARE NOT LAUGHING NOW! Not only did the Unit orchestra do the job of silent accompaniment, but it went on to a career all of its own and is being reborn again today. I have two “electronic substitute” organs, one a theatre organ and one a classical organ. I am working with the free “Miditzer” download. I am trying to open my mind a bit more toward the new technology afforded our medium in the digital age. I am a dyed-in-the-wool PIPE organ advocate—but I am reminded by fellow ATOS members of the possibilities of this new technology. Well, sorry to run on. Enjoyed this blog so much! Wonderful pics. Have you ever played the tabernacle organ? 🙂

    • Thank you for this lovely comment! No, I never got to play the Tab organ, but I did get a personal tour of the pipe lofts in the Conference Center before I retired from Church employment. It was a beautiful experience. I appreciate your insights!

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  5. A Wurlitzer Hope Jones Orchestra was installed in Piller Theatre about 1928 and was removed when it closed. The organ went to a Church in Lisbon, North Dakota . Then it was sold and they say ended up in auction in St. Louis, Missouri. Would anyone have any information on this organ.

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