The Fotoplayer

Thanks are due to the Bioscope’s continental Europe correspondent, Frank Kessler, for this delightful YouTube clip. It features Maud Nelissen, regular accompanist for silent films at the Nederlands Filmmuseum, playing a Fotoplayer organ at the Utrecht musical museum Van Speelklok tot Pierement. Her explanation is in Dutch, part of which is to announce an upcoming screening in Utrecht, which was on 18 April, so apologies for being a bit late with that, but the Fotoplayer itself plays on.

The photoplayer (the Fotoplayer itself was one make, produced by the American Photoplayer Company) was a form of player piano, electrically-driven, with augmented orchestral effects, including organ pipes, percussion instruments and assorted sound effects (whistles, bird song, thunder etc.). The organ could be played manually, as shown above, but it also took piano rolls as with a conventional player piano, each of which would be designed for particular genres and scenes. An operator (often an usherette, it is said) would therefore have to switch from one roll to another as the action changed.

Photoplayers were first introduced around 1910, and were produced in their thousands in the United States. Generally they were installed in smaller cinemas throughout the silent era, as the amplification was not good enough to larger theatres. Their peak years were the late teens, and production tailed off after 1925. Only a hundred or so exist today. In part they were dumped once the talkies arrived, in part they suffered greatly from the wear-and-tear of all-day operation.

There is more information on the Fotoplayer at The Musical Museum and The Encyclopedia of Australian Theatre Organs.

Now would one of those be fun to have at Pordenone? Possibly a little tricky to transport, but even so…

Update (December 2009):
Maud Nelissen has kindly sent me four photographs of the Fotoplayer in action, with these notes on its performance:

First we explained how this great Photoplayer was used in the earlier days. Then we started our programme:

1) First we showed a film with the musicrolls in the piano and the effects (made by us, by pulling, pushing ropes, buttons etc).

2) Then we showed a Chaplin programme: The Cure, The Rink and Easy Street.

The Photoplayer’s piano was played by me, and I had a very valuable assistant (Daphne, musician of my band The Sprockets) who did marvelously all the effects and was running around me like a madwoman to get everything totally synchronised with the Chaplins. It was incredibly funny and the audience loved the films even more through it!

Although it looked very loose and vibrant at the time … we had numerous rehearsals and Daphne practiced the effects at home (she made a “practice” installation, pulling ropes without sound + running around … can you imagine …?)

Our next aim now is to visit all the remaining photoplayers in the world, We have a great show to put on and we adore the photoplayer!! Daphne is thinking about a career switch, leaving The Sprockets to become a fulltime photoplayer-player. Who knows … Luckily there will always be Utrecht!

10 responses

  1. What an exquisite clip! I once played a circus calliope at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, and this clip brings back memories of that experience.

  2. Dear Luke,

    Thanks very much for reporting on this wonderfull instrument called the
    photoplayer, do you have an emailadress where I can send some photo’s
    of the Photoplayer “live” in action during our performance ? (in case you might
    be interested ?)

    Thanks in advance,
    Kind regards,

    Maud Nelissen

  3. Hi Maud,

    I’d love to see some photos – email me at lmckernan [at] talktalk.net. Can you say something about the experience of playing the Fotoplayer? It looks fun, but quite demanding.

    Luke

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  6. Thanks for updating the article and thank you to Maud for the photos and the comments. Playing the photoplayer could be a whole exercise program. If only I could fit one in my living room…

  7. Dear Maud-
    Thank you for the great photos and stories about the Fotoplayer. It’s good to know that someone else is using one for the purpose which it was intended. I have three American photoplayers. A style 20 which is fully restored in my home,a style 41 (we think) which is a very rare and special fotoplayer which I have donated to the Motion picture Academy and is presently being restored by my shop and a style 50 which is the largest ever built by Fotoplayer. the 50 is one of two known to exist but is in storage. I noticed that you or your assistant wanted to play every working Photoplayer, please consider this an invitation, if you are ever in the U.S. it would be an honor to have you play my style 20 and the style 41,if finished.
    All the best, Joe Rinaudo

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