The Mighty Wurlitzer

The 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 key- board 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 sleigh bells,
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 him self, 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