Saenger Theatre
New Orleans, Louisiana

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142 North Rampart Street
Opened: February 5, 1927
Architect: Emile Weil
4000 seats




The New Orleans Saenger Theatre has one of the world's most famous theatre organs.

Orignally installed as a 4 manual, 23 rank instrument, it was the prototype for the Robert Morton company's "Wonder Morton" organs.


Click for a closer look at the console

Console of the Robert Morton theatre organ at the New Orleans Saenger Theatre, about 1978


The organ in the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans was a prestige installation for the Robert Morton company - & they bought a full-page ad on page two of the theatre industry trade magazine Motion Picture News to show it off.

Here's the organ's complete specification, additional technical information, & more pictures.

And a letter from theatre historian Ben Hall, with a recollection of organist Jesse Crawford's opinion of the Robert Morton organ in the New Orleans Saenger Theatre.

Listen to the organ - Click here!




Premiere organist for the New Orleans Saenger Theatre was John Hammond. Mr. Hammond was a former instructor in the program for theatre organ film accompaniment at the Eastman School of Music, a school established in Rochester, New York by Kodak magnate George Eastman.

After a stint as organist at New York's Piccadilly (later the Warner's) Theatre, Mr. Hammond toured the Saenger circuit, then was engaged for his position at the New Orleans Saenger Theatre.

Associate organist Ray McNamara was transferred from his post at Saenger's Liberty Theatre in New Orleans. Mr. McNamara also performed as an organist on WSMB - the New Orleans radio station owned by Saenger & Maison Blanche, located in the Maison Blanche building.

Mr. McNamara played for the Saenger houses from 1920 until 1933. After his stint as associate organist at the New Orleans Saenger Theatre, he moved into the position of house organist at Saenger's Strand Theatre in New Orleans. He was also the longtime organist for New Orleans Radio Station WWL

The organists at the theatre not only functioned as accompanists for silent movies at shows which did not utilize an orchestra (mornings & matinees), but performed their own novelties, musical features, & accompanied the Publix stage shows which preceded evening films.


From David Junchen's Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ
The organ was installed with a Robert Morton V'oleon - an ingenious mechanism which mimicked stringed instruments from the organ console. The device consisted of strings stretched across a resonating box, & 'bowed' via a rotating roller. The design is much like a large scaled hurdy-gurdy, but affording finer control from the organ console; nicer tonality & greater range is a result of the scale. Voices available from the V'Oleon were violin, viola, cello, & bass viol.

But sometime in 1927, shortly after the organ's installation, the manufacturer altered the installation: The V'Oleon was removed (the V'Oleon has acquired a reputation for insufficient volume in some installations). In the place occupied by the V'Oleon, a fife rank (flute harmonique) was installed. Also added at this time were the Vibrato Violins (a two-rank celeste). The organ's specification was then 26 ranks.



Some photographs posed at the console, about 1975

  Ray McNamara, associate organist at the theatre's opening in 1927.  
  Rosa Rio.

Her career is epic: recitalist, teacher, live & recorded film accompanist, radio performer, solo recording artsist.

To find out more about the amazing Rosa Rio, click here.

Click here to listen to Rosa Rio perform!




The organ has had an interesting life:

New Orleans had a disastrous flood in 1927, shortly after the opening of the Saenger Theatre. Rosa Rio recalls that, just in time, someone had the foresight to raise the console on its lift to the highest position. The flood submerged the first 50 rows of seats in the orchestra - but the console was saved.

During a concert by the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the theatre on December 15, 1989, bassist Flea renedered the console unusable. Attempting to create a strong stage visual, he leapt from the stage to the top of the organ console, which broke. Aside from wrecking the console, Flea looked fairly ridiculous standing knee-deep in pneumatic tubing, wires, and splintered hardwood.

The organ returned to life in 1999, through the hard work of Memphis organbuilder John Hiltonsmith.



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Copyright © 1999 - 2009, William Hooper.

Other information:

  Mother Morton Rises Again, photos & details of the most recent restoration of the New Orleans Saenger theatre organ, from the Magnolia Chapter of the ATOS  



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