Written by Sam Marks
Silent films were immensely popular upon their release. There was, however, one key technological issue, as their name alludes to, that kept them from perfection: they had no sound. To fix this, silent films added dialogue cards and long, eloquent musical scores that played throughout the duration of a film. But before the technology existed to add musical scores to films, silent films had to have their sounds played live from theatres. Naturally, the amount of time, money, and coordination made it impractical for movie theatres to have whole orchestras readily at their disposal. The photoplayer was invented to amalgamate all the components of a full feature orchestra into the control of one person.
The photoplayer was a piano and percussion instrument with some models containing organs as well. The center piano console had a piano, bells, xylophone, siren, triangle, and organ pipes attached to it. Pianos played music automatically by using dual Picturoll players (rolls of perforated paper that signaled what notes the piano should play) that could be quickly swapped for changes in scenes. Side chests were connected to the piano containing drums, sirens, wood blocks, and cymbals. Sound effects including sirens, train horns, bangs, gunshots, and doorbells, were all activated by pulling leather cords on the piano console. The piano would play automatically while the operator would manually activate percussion and sound effects.
Between 1911 and 1926, around 4,500 photoplayers were manufactured and used in theatres. Although they were not popular in England, a wide range of companies in the US began manufacturing variations of the instrument. The American Photo Player Company produced the Fotoplayer; the Operators Piano Company of Chicago produced the Reproduco; the Bartola Company of Wisconsin made the Bartola; and both Seeburg and Wurlitzer organ companies took up crafting photoplayers.
Around the mid-1920s, Photoplayers declined massively due to the rise of sound films. Only a few machines are still in working condition today. Joe Rinaudo is one of most prominent operators of a working American Fotoplayer. He consistently uploads videos on his Facebook page of him playing various scores. Even with an instrument over 100 years old, Joe nevertheless shows the true scope and scale that photoplayers could perform.
“Encyclopaedia of Australian Theatre Organs – What Is a Photoplayer?” Accessed November 15, 2022. http://www.theatreorgans.com/southerncross/Photoplayers.htm.
Silent Cinema Society. “The American Fotoplayer.” Accessed November 15, 2022. https://www.silentcinemasociety.org/the-american-fotoplayer/.
What Is a Fotoplayer? Youtube: LA This Week, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qx7q8C-NpwI.
Featured image credit: Kings Cinema Fotoplayer made by the American Photo Player Company, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. Accessed 4 December 2022 via: https://ma.as/232262.