During the silent movie era and into the early 1930s, theatre organs were built in large numbers in the US and few in the United Kingdom. They were built in a variety of sizes, filling the gap between a simple piano accompaniment and a full orchestra. Indeed, when theatre owners hired orchestras to accompany silent movies, they frequently included a pipe organ to provide relief to the orchestra, and to play for less-expensive showings.
On the European continent the theatre organ appeared only after World War I in the cinemas. Some instruments came from Wurlitzer, but there were European organbuilders like M. Welte & Söhne and Walcker in Germany, and there were also Dutch manufacturers like Standaart.
After the development of sound movies, theatre organs remained installed in many theatres to provide live music between features. However, after the 'golden years' of the 1930s, many were scrapped or sold to churches, private homes, museums, ice rinks, rollatoriums, and restaurants. In that era, commonly known as the theatre organ's second golden age (the 1950s), many of the tonal characteristics of theatre organs became somewhat more exaggerated than they had been in the silent movie era. This second age also saw the formation of the American Theatre Organ Society.
Many composers got their start by playing the theatre organ. Oliver Wallace, arguably America's first real theatre organist, was soon employed by Walt Disney, and composed, among other things, the score to Dumbo. Jesse Crawford, the first organist ever to sell over a million recordings, was known in households across America as the "poet of the organ". He was also responsible for developing many of the techniques and registrations used in the performance of popular music on the instrument. Rex Khoury composed the Gunsmoke theme. Reginald Dixon MBE was probably the most popular organist of all time, being a household name all over the UK and the British Empire. Probably the most legendary theatre organist of modern times, the late George Wright, was credited with saving the medium from certain demise in the 1950s and 60s, when he created a huge series of studio recordings which sold millions, as he was clever enough to have them included in the new stereo format used in early systems such as Zenith, Admiral and Magnavox. The late Richard Purvis, who was for many years the organist and master of choristers at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, was also an enthusiastic promoter of theatre organ, and wrote many arrangements for it.
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