When we speak of vintage Theatre Pipe Organs, we tend to focus on the major manufacturers. The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company entered the business by buying out and hiring musician and inventor Robert Hope-Jones who is regarded as the father of the Theatre Pipe Organ. Wurlitzer, with its factory in North Tonowanda, New York, is the most commonly known name, and rightly so. The company produced over 2,000 instruments, which is over twice their nearest competitor.
Robert-Morton, the second most prolific manufacturer, produced almost 900 instruments.
Contrary to popular legend, the company was NOT named after the owner’s two sons, Robert and Morton. Owner Harold Werner did NOT have a son with the first name Morton. In fact, the company was named after his second son, Robert Morton Werner, who was newly born at the time of the formation of the company. The hyphen in the company name was a marketing gimmick designed to cause confusion with Hope-Jones. It was later eliminated after Wurlitzer ceased using the Hope-Jones name.
Third in line was Kimball with a production of about 650.
Fourth was Möller, the well-known classical organ builders, still in business today, with about 560.
Fifth was Barton with just over 300. The firm was founded by Dan Barton and originally named the “Bartola Musical Instrument Company”. It was later known simply as the “Barton Organ Company”. It sold most of its instruments in the Midwest.
Sixth was Marr & Colton with about 300.
Seventh was Wicks with about 240,
and eighth was Kilgen with just over 200.
Most of these names are familiar to GSTOS members because we are fortunate to have these manufacturers represented in the organs we restore, maintain and visit. We have Wurlitzers at the Union County Performing Arts Center, Brook Performing Arts Center, Rahway Srs Center, Brielle residence, Unification Church Clifton, and the console of the New Hope residence organ in Pa.. The Robert-Morton company is represented by the huge Wonder Morton at Loew’s Jersey City, and by the Mt. Arlington residence organ. We can hear a Kimball instrument at Our Lady of Consolation RC Church, Wayne, and we have two more within driving distance, one in South Jersey at the Broadway Theatre in Pitman, and one in Delaware at Dickinson High School. Our Trenton installation is a Möller, and another, maintained by our New York friends, is located at the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson. We have no Barton organs in our area, but the hybrid organ at Northlandz in Flemington is mostly Marr and Colton, and a Marr and Colton console now controls the Griffith Beach organ in Newark Symphony Hall. We have no Wicks theatre organs, but Opus 1, the first organ ever owned by GSTOS at the Mayfair Theatre in West New York, is a Kilgen. So, GSTOS is very fortunate indeed in having representation from 6 of the 8 largest manufacturers!
But what about the non-major companies? The late David Junchen in his “Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ, Vols I &II” identifies and describes an astounding 90 American firms that built Theatre Pipe Organs. Of these, only 30 firms built 20 or more instruments. The other 60 built 19 or less each, some as few as one or two! Reading down the list, some names are familiar from the church organ world (Austin, Page, Welte, Wangerin, Tellers, Skinner, Shantz).
Others such as Griffith Beach have local interest. Junchen identifies only 10 organs ever built by Earle Beach in partnership with the Griffith Piano Company. All were installed in northern New Jersey: three in Elizabeth, two in Paterson, and one each in Newark, Newton, Passaic, Ridgewood, and West Hoboken. Three of the 10 still play today, an amazing percentage given the number of theatre organs which have been destroyed over the years. Thus, when we talk to other theatre organ enthusiasts about the Newark Symphony Hall organ, the Little Falls residence organ (now moved to a theatre in Oswego, N.Y.), or the St. Jude’s Church, Lake Hopatcong organ, we must realize that this brand of instrument is unique to us and is little known outside our geographic area.
One other small brand of local interest needs mentioning: the US Pipe Organ Company of Crum Lynne, Pa (near Philadelphia). Opus 101, fondly known as “Ursula”, is believed to be one of only a few specimens of this company’s work still in existence. It plays today at Sunnybrook Ballroom, Pottstown, Pa.