The Mighty Wurlitzer

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe theater organ, surprisingly enough, is not an American invention. Credit for its creation must be given to an eccentric Englishman named Robert Hope-Jones, an electrical engineer by profession, who first succeeded in electrifying the organ keyboard and doing away with its clumsy levers and wires. Discouraged by the indifference of traditional organ manufacturers to his revolutionary improvement, in 1903 Hope-Jones came to the United States. In 1907, after a brief association with the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company in Boston, he started his own firm in Elmira, New York, where one of his backers—always eager to speculate in a new venture—was none other than Mark Twain.

During the next three years Hope-Jones launched a series of sweeping changes in organ construction. In the first place, all of his organs were unified—that is, any of the pipes could be played from any of several keyboards, making possible a greater variety of tone colors with, in actuality, a smaller number of pipes. Second, he began to invent means of producing new and unheard-of tones, like the tibia, a flute-like pipe with leathered lips that produces the sweet, sobbing sound we always associate with theater organs. Later Hope-Jones devised the sound-trap swell shutters, allowing the organ to be played loud or soft as desired; and then, to round off what was now in effect a complete orchestra, he added a percussion section of sleighbells, marimba, harp, chimes, piano, kettle drums, triangles, castanets, and so on. Finally he devised the familiar “horseshoe” console, inclining the keyboards and replacing the stop knobs with multicolored keys.

Throughout his life Hope-Jones was dogged by financial difficulties. In 1910 they caught up with him again, and his company failed, only to be bought out by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of North Tonawanda, New York. The Wurlitzers were well established in the music business, and understood the market that motion-picture houses were opening up to them. Hope-Jones himself, unhappily, did not, and friction between him and his new employers mounted until his death, in a fit of despair, by his own hand, in September, 1914. Three months later the Wurlitzer company received a contract for a large Hope-Jones theater organ, and went on to build them by the many thousands until the advent of talking pictures in 1927 ended the great era of this noble instrument.

Charles W. Stein