Movies Way Back When: Silent Movies and Mood Music

Movies Way Back When: Silent Movies and Mood Music title=
Image: Moving Picture World, July 1914
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By Betsy J. Green

As silent movies became longer and more complex, so did the music and sound effects that cinemas used. In 1915, a $5,000 "photoplayer" was installed in one of the movie theaters on State Street.

The photoplayer ad boasted that it included "player piano, reed organ, pipes, drums, cymbals, bells, wind siren, locomotive whistle, auto horn, horses' hoofs, castanets, tambourines, etc."

The photoplayer here was shipped from Los Angeles in three pieces, and measured 17 feet wide.

Betsy's Way Back When book -- 1919 -- is now available in local bookstores and at This is the sixth book in her series of the history of Santa Barbara, one year at a time. Learn more at​.
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photodude Oct 10, 2021 01:44 PM
Movies Way Back When: Silent Movies and Mood Music

Silent movies originally had a full orchestra to accompany the movie. Orchestras are expensive, and only the conductor sees the movie action. The orchestra's music and sound effects must be spot on timing wise for them to just become part of the movie.

The Photoplayer was a less expensive alternative to a theatre pipe organ, such as installed in the Arlington, which is also known as the Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra.

For either the Photoplayer, or the theatre pipe organ, one person plays the instrument while watching the movie and can emulate the sounds of an entire orchestra, and be precise in movie effect timing.

The theatre pipe organ differs radically from a church pipe organ. It runs on 15-times the air pressure, has 27 pipe ranks that are voiced to sound like 27 different orchestral instruments.

It has percussion both tuned (piano, marimba, glockenspiel, xylophone, cryssoglott (celesta), vibraphone, chimes, high and low church bells), as well as untuned percussions (bass drum kettle drum field drum, snare drum, tom-toms, tambourines, horse's hooves, triangle, police whistle, phone bell, door bell, bird whistle, castanets, and wood block. All these percussions are real instruments.

Unfortunately, the Santa Barbara Theatre Organ Society (, has not been holding monthly open console sessions since covid arrived. Hopefully the virus will get eradicated, and we again can allow the public to tour the organ, play the organ, listen, take pictures, and ask questions.

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