Ad for coming attraction in program from the Strand Theatre, Shreveport
Newspaper ad for Sunday recitals at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans
Ad for New Year's Eve program, 1927, Saenger Theatre in Mobile, Alabama
Here's a selection of music from the theatre organs at some of the Saenger theatres.
  Rosa Rio was the house organist at Saenger's Strand theatre in New Orleans, & toured the Saenger houses as a featured organist.

This recording was made February 21, 1976, when Rosa Rio returned for a performance on the Robert Morton theatre organ at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans.

Which do you prefer, something uptown or downtown?

Here's a brief biography of Rosa Rio.
  Here's another from the Robert Morton theatre organ at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans:

Barry Henry playing from around 1974.
  Dolton McAlpin & Don May stopped by to give the organ in the Saenger Theatre in Mobile, Alabama a workout.

Here's one from October 29, 1967.

Have another!
  This is the famous Robert Morton organ prepared by Don May at the Paramount Theatre in Baton Rouge, famously played by house organist Dolton McAlpin.

Dolton McAlpin demonstrates why the theatre organ was also called a "Unit Orchestra".
  Frank Evans has been not only the house organist & organ technician, but the best friend of the magnificent Robert Morton organ in the Temple Theatre in Meridian, Mississippi.

Here's Frank Evans putting the organ at the Temple Theatre through its paces.
  The SMGC chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society in 2004 produced a CD of performances by several artists on the Robert Morton organ installed the Strand Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana, displaying the traditional flexibility of theatre organs for playing both popular music & classical music.

E. Ray Peebles performs Widor's "Toccata" from Symphony #5
  John DeMajo, president of the SMGC chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society & webmaster of, has been one of the southeast's most active advocates for all types of pipe organs.

Here's John DeMajo on the Robert Morton theatre organ in the Saenger Theatre in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
  And finally, a little mystery:
There has always been a widely-known rumor that a series of 78 RPM theatre organ recordings by John Hassel are actually of John Hammond, the first house organist at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, doing a little moonlighting & sneaking a recording technician from WSMB into the theatre after hours.

John Hassel (thanks to Dr. John Landon!)





Saenger Theatre, New Orleans, 1927
The orchestras & theatre organs were the big draws at the movie palaces of the 1920's. Surveys of patrons revealed that their decisions about which theatre to attend were based most often on which theatre had the best music. Movie theatres competitively advertised the size of their orchestras, the cost of their theatre organs, & the talent of their conductors & organists heavily in print, on the marquee, on standees in the lobby - everywhere they could. The competition was to establish with the public that the music at their theatre was the best.
It may be difficult now to understand how integrally & inseparably music was a part of theatres in the 1920s. Starting with the first show at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m., the orchestras & organs would play nonstop as the theatre presented its program for the day. A prelude or musical feature, accompaniment of a stage show if the theatre had them, then accompaniment of the film program of newsreel, travel & comedy shorts, then the feature film. Then starting over again, continuous performances, until closing around 11 p.m.

The music played by the orchestras & organs was a variety of pop tunes, classical, jazz, & accompaniment for films & stage acts. When the movie feature shown at the theatre was changed, about two or three times a week, the orchestral & organ prelude was changed, along with a stage show if the theatre had them. Musical features ran from contemporary hits to popular light classics, & the accompaniment of films & stage acts similarly ran from fairly classical to contemporary depending on the subject of the film.

In houses with orchestras, musicians' union rules requiring breaks for the musicians were satisfied by the orchestra & organ taking turns. Often the orchestra would begin the accompaniment of the feature, then the organ would take it up, the orchestra would take its break then come back to join in the finish of the feature. In theatres that did not have an orchestra, it was essential to have two organists, because while the organ would play the music for the entire day, the organists would need to take turns.

From the point of view of the fire marshal, a theatre may have been just a big box full of people, but from the point of view of someone next door or across the street, a theatre was a big box with music coming out of it all day long.

1927 sheet music cover featuring Ada Rives, organist at the Loew's State theatre in New Orleans

The buildings were designed around the production of music from the orchestra & organ as much as other technical issues. Orchestra pits in movie palaces advanced technically past the orchestra pits in vaudeville & opera houses, with sprung wood floors set on top of the slab in the pit to create a resonator for the entire orchestra. And the importance of the organs in theatres wasn't seen only in their promotion & shows of audience affection for the instruments:

The way you identify a Movie Palace is by the presence of organ grilles in the auditorium.

With only a scant few exceptions, other theatres don't have them. The function of the movie palace required them, & the expectation of the audience required them to be not just architecturally obvious but heroicized.

The orchestras disappeared shortly after the arrival of motion pictures with synchronized sound. The theatre organs installed in the houses remained popular, though, & audiences continued far into the talkie era to expect a deluxe movie house to have a musical feature from the organ preceding the movie.

Theatre organs were designed for provision of a great deal of musical flexibility, adapting to not just a broad repertoire, but offering agility & facility across entire musical genres. They were required to switch the entire character of their sound as needed from playing popular music to classical to even substituting for the entire orchestra at times.

Because their primary function was the accompaniment of films & playing popular music, theatre organs were designed to not sound like church organs. However, because they are designed to play a broad range of instrumental styles, they are designed so that if needed, they can sound like church organs.

Temple Theatre display of its former marquee sign promoting organist Lois Bosarge

Standee for house organist Dolton McAlpin at the Paramount Theatre in Baton Rouge, 1967
Theatre organs were often called "Unit Orchestras" by the manufacturers, because they were designed to allow one musician to command the facilities of an entire orchestra.

Ranks of pipes imitative of flutes, trumpets, tubas, clarinets, & other instruments could be found in church & symphonic organs, but theatre organs also included full tuned percussion sections of orchestra bells, xylophones, chimes, chrysoglott, as well as untuned percussions such as bass drum, snare drum, tom-tom, triangle wood block, & more.
All of these resources under the control of one musician had two aspects in theatres - a single organist could often be more quickly & intensely responsive when accompanying a film than could an orchestra, & a single organist could more easily become attached to an audience as star personality than musicians in an orchestra.

Their musical agility & affection from audiences enabled theatre organs to persist in theatres even as musical styles changed -- still "warmup" acts before a show, concert instruments, & sometimes once again instruments for accompaniment of silent films.

And still marquee items to draw customers: show business has always been about putting on a show.
Saenger Theatre, New Orleans
Rene Brunet gets his turn at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans.


Other information:

  The American Theatre Organ Society  
  The Theatre Organ Home Page  
  Save The Organ, The Organ Place, America's organ technical resource site  
  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, information about silent film theatre orchestras from one that's still doing it  




Copyright © 1997 - 2010, William Hooper.