Theatre Organ History - End of an Era

In 1927, an amazing event occurred, which would forever change the face of American theatre and the future of the theatre pipe organ: In a film called "The Jazz Singer," Al Jolson spoke and sang! Soon, theatres from coast to coast and beyond would be rushing to install speakers and equipment to show "talking pictures." With a soundtrack accompanying the movie, there was no longer a need for musical accompaniment. With the arrival of the Great Depression two years later, the second death-blow was delivered to the theatre pipe organ. Theatres could no longer afford to retain legions of performers for live stage shows, much less thousands of dollars for pipe organs which would see little use. The handwriting was on the wall, and the market for these instruments quickly dried up. Just a few short years later, with most of their competitors either out of business or manufacturing other things, the Wurlitzer staff would be installing their last theatre pipe organ.

As theatre organ jobs dwindled, many organists were able to continue careers in an entirely different arena: radio (and later, television). At the same time, Laurens Hammond was developing and producing the new electronic marvel, the Hammond organ. This pipeless "organ" was infinitely smaller and more portable than a pipe organ, and many were purchased for homes, churches, and broadcasting facilities. That it did not begin to approach the variety of tones and breadth of expression of a pipe organ was of little consequence to its many admirers. So, while theatres were covering up, tearing out, or otherwise destroying or making inaccessible thousands of pipe organs which they housed, many former theatre organists were able to continue making music in the broadcast booth, the sports arena, and the night club.