Search billions of records on Ancestry.com

George Hockemeyer
genealogist, musician

by: Charles Young

George Hockmeyer lives in Houston, Texas. He has always loved pipe organs. He had an electronic version of a pipe organ in his house which he played every day for many years. It sounds just like a real pipe organ. Dad and Mom were able to visit George several years ago, and see and hear the "pipe organ". In 1998 George wrote;

I fell in love with the sound of the theater pipe organ during the days of silent films. People too young to have seen silent movies imagine they were actually silent but they weren't. There was always music --- at first, a piano but later a pipe organ or an orchestra.

No, they weren't like TV with the sound turned off. You wouldn't be able to follow that. But the sound in the silent movies was not missing because it was never there to begin with.

You've used the telephone all your life but never saw the person you were talking to. The audiences during the silent film era experienced just the reverse of this. We SAW them but didn't HEAR them. So the "silents" were never really silent. There was always music.

In the very earliest days of the motion picture, films were shown in vacant stores and the only accompaniment to the film was the racket of the projector. In order to help drown this out, a piano was brought in. But it was soon seen that the piano served another purpose. It set the mood of the movie. Judged by today's standards, movie patrons of the early days weren't very particular. The sight of a photograph that actually moved was of sufficient interest to captivate most ANY audience.

When this novelty wore off, the films began telling stories. Then they were shown in buildings specifically designed and built for this purpose. Some of the movie theaters of the 20's resembled European palaces.

It was in these that orchestras were first tried but the scenes changed so rapidly, the musicians were unable to keep up with them. What was needed, was a one-man orchestra, where a musician could improvise while watching the film.

Robert Hope-Jones was a technician in an English pipe organ factory. His company built church and classical organs. The keys on those organs were attached to long levers that opened and closed the valves feeding compressed air to the pipes. Because of the length of the levers and the friction involved, the keys on these old organs were stiff and difficult to depress. This arrangement also limited the design of the church or the auditorium because the keyboard had to be so close to the pipes. The stiff organ keys also put a limit on the tempo of the musical selections. The music had to be slow.

Hope-Jones suggested opening and closing the air valves by an electric magnet. The keys would merely be completing an electrical circuit. The keyboard and the pipes could be connected by a cable and be widely separated if so desired. The head of the factory rejected this revolutionary idea in organ building. Probably because it had never been done before. So Robert Hope-Jones quit his job and sailed with his patents to the United States. He arrived in 1910 and he soon heard about the crying need for music for the movies.

He took his patents to the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of North Tonawanda, New York. They were in the business of manufacturing coin-operated music making machines for fairs and penny arcades. When they saw what Hope-Jones had, they jumped on him like a dog on a bone. They bought all his patents and gave him a job.

Their first theater organ was a one-keyboard instrument and they sold so well, they brought out a new model with two keyboards, or manuals, as they are called. Before long, they were making organs with as many as five manuals, which became known as the "mighty Wurlitzer."

Most theaters had organs with only three manuals and this is about where I entered the scene at the age of around 5 or 6. The time was in the early 20s.

I've had a heart by-pass and know the euphoria a shot of morphine causes. And this is what I felt when I heard that organ at an early age. For many years, I thought everyone experienced this but I eventually found out they didn't. In fact, many people hate the organ. My late brother, Ted, once said, "Yeah, I remember the organ. What about it?"

The Hammond organ came on the market in 1935. I recall hearing it being demonstrated on the radio and I thought it sounded exactly like a pipe organ. I thought how wonderful it would be to have one at home. The now-defunct Saturday Evening Post used to run a small ad for the Hammond every week and the price was $1,250.00. But it might as well been ten times that, as far as I was concerned. It was 1951 before I could afford a Hammond organ and, by that time, the price had risen to about $2,300.00

Once a year, the local Hammond dealer would bring a first-rate organist to Houston to demonstrate the Hammond to prospective buyers. I never missed these concerts by Porter Heaps of Elkhart, Indiana. With a battery of about ten huge speakers, Heaps DID make the Hammond sound like a real pipe organ but I was never able to do it. To me, it sounded like a Hammond organ and I grew to detest it!

It was years before I learned why it didn't sound like a pipe organ. It was too perfect. A recently tuned pipe organ will be thrown way out of tune if the weather changes. A change in the barometric pressure will throw it off. Temperature changes also play havoc with them. Changes in the humidity too. An electronic organ is never out of tune but a pipe organ almost always is.

Several milliseconds are required for a sound wave from an organ pipe to reach full volume. Yet the human ear can detect this slight delay. The sound wave from the average electronic organ bursts fully formed from the speakers and the effect literally screams "electronic." In addition to the sound wave coming from an organ pipe, there are also ultra high harmonics coming from the metal surface of an organ pipe itself.

I know of two electronic organs that have built all these characteristics into their instruments and they actually sound like real pipe organs. The Allen and the Rodgers. My organ is a Rodgers and it is a digital version of a three-manual Wurlitzer organ that was once in a New York movie theater. The Rodgers engineers sampled each note and stop of this old Wurlitzer and came up with digital circuitry that duplicates the exact wave patterns that emanate from the prototype pipe organ. I thoroughly enjoy it.

The American Theatre Organ Society was founded sometime in the 1950s with chapters in most large American cities and some in Great Britain, Europe and Australia. Ed Twelker and I are both long-time active members and we know a number of the same people, for I was once a member of the Aloha Chapter in Honolulu.


Big Hockmeyer list | HOME | [an error occurred while processing this directive] since 1997