Copyright: Friends of Beer Wurlitzer 2017
The Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra
The Wurlitzer Factory at North Tonawanda, USA
By the mid 1920’s things couldn’t have been better at Wurlitzer. The Unit Orchestra was now available in a selection of standard and custom-specified models. It had proven to be the ideal instrument with which to accompany silent films.
They had made sales throughout the United States and although there were now quite a lot of other companies building large numbers of these instruments, the Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company had the majority of the business in America.
Wurlitzer soon became the most famous and prestigious manufacturer, using the slogan “The Wurlitzer combines the world's finest pipe organ with all the voices of the symphony orchestra, under the control of one musician”.
Wurlitzer appointed Walter Pearce as their European agent. Walter Pearce operated in partnership with S.J. Wright of Kentish Town, London, who were to install and service the organs.
By the end of 1924 Wurlitzer had produced almost 1,000 unit orchestras, but it wasn’t until then that the British cinema circuit “Provincial Cinematograph Theatres” (PCT) decided to offer their patrons something new. Now thirteen years into production, the Wurlitzer Company had, by this time, perfected the designs of Robert Hope-Jones.
Perhaps because of the experimental nature of the instrument to an English audience, PCT ordered their first Wurlitzer organ not for London's West End, but for the Picture House in Walsall. The instrument cost in the region of £3,900. Although the installation was small, it was an undoubted success and it paved the way for almost 100 Wurlitzer installations across the UK before the outbreak of the Second World War.
However, it wasn’t long before Robert Hope-Jones started to alter the designs and make changes to instruments, often mid-way through being built, without permission to do so.
The Unit Orchestra department began to lose large sums of money due to his interference. This eventually resulted in him being banned from the factory, and also from talking to customers, whilst still on full pay.
At this stage Hope-Jones tried to terminate his contract with the company, but Wurlitzer refused as they did not want him taking his ideas to a rival company. Totally demoralised by this, shortly afterwards Robert committed suicide in a rented room.
After emigrating to America, English organ building genius, Robert Hope-Jones, developed a different type of organ, using far fewer pipes but offering a much greater variety of tone colour using an ingenious system of electrical switching.
The pipes were voiced on much higher wind pressure than church organs, so even with fewer sets of pipes, such instruments were capable of filling the huge picture palaces, and comfortably accompanying the films under the hands of a single musician, without the need for an orchestra.
Hope-Jones called his new type of organ a “Unit Orchestra”. Although Hope-Jones was an inventive genius, he was a hopeless businessman.
He spent far too much money on research and development and often built instruments at a financial loss. His work hadn’t gone unnoticed though, and the Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company took up the opportunity to buy Hope-Jones’ failing company and all his patents.
Within two months all of the Elmira assets had been moved, and Unit Orchestra manufacture commenced at the North Tonawanda plant.
CLICK HERE to read more about Britain’s First Wurlitzer theatre organ
CLICK HERE for a list of other Wurlitzer theatre organ installations in the United Kingdom
The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company was founded in Cincinnati in 1856. At the age of 22 years, Rudolph Wurlitzer decided to emigrate from the Saxony area of Germany to the United States as he no longer wished to remain in his Father's musical instrument manufacturing business.
Over the next three years Rudolph saved enough money to buy instruments from his family back in Germany and sell them in America. His business grew rapidly and just two years later he had to find larger premises to operate from. Here he added offices, stockrooms, and a showroom.
Through expansion and acquiring other companies, Rudolph Wurlitzer continued to flourish for many years to come and built upon his reputation of making the best musical instruments.
In 1908, the Wurlitzer company acquired DeKleist's factory, The Barrel Organ Works, in North Tonawanda. At this factory, Wurlitzer initially manufactured its pianos, band organs, and orchestrions.
A couple of years later Wurlitzer went on to purchase the bankrupt Hope-Jones Organ Company of Elmira, USA.