The photoplayer was inspired by a disagreement between a theater owner and his three-piece band. The year was 1908, the theater was the Palace in Tamworth, Staffordshire, England. The theater owner commissioned an electric piano with six ranks of organ pipes, and promptly fired his trio once the machine arrived to replace them. The photoplayer did not take off in England, however, but it did in the United States, with production of between 8,000 and 10,000 machines between 1910 and 1928, more even than theater organs. College courses became available across the country to educate musicians on how to effectively complement the images on the screen with the sounds available in the magical photoplayers.
The end of the silent film era inspired their destruction, and it’s estimated that less than one hundred survive today of the over ten thousand originally produced. (One website claims that less than fifty machines survive – Renaudo’s Reproductions.)
a) Picturolls – special paper rolls designed to complement the photoplayers based on the action depicted in the film. A man named Eddie Horton was well known for his productions made at the Filmmusic Company of Los Angeles.
b) Photoplayers generally used player piano rolls – they did not trigger drums or other instruments because those were to be controlled by the photo pianist.
c) They were not built with orchestion-style bellow pumps. Rather, they had organ blowers which proved much more powerful and effective.
d) The differences between orchestions and photoplayers (in a nutshell): Orchestrions were in taller self-contained cabinets. Most had fronts decorated with art glass or mirrors instead of grillwork, while the vacuum and pressure were supplied by self-contained pumps that worked as bellows. Almost none had controls for playing the extra instruments by hand. They were just put in place and turned on while the movies played, on the premise that any music (whether coordinated with the action on screen or not) was better than no music at all. The photoplayers were designed to be lower so that they would not obstruct the action in the films, in the event that the theater owner located them directly under the screen for maximum impact.