When the present Roxy Theatre opened as the Lyric in early 1921, sound movies were still eight years away. The early silent films required some sort of musical accompaniment to help bring the action to life and to set the proper mood. Various types of musical instruments were utilized to provide the sound for those early movies. A single piano player, organist, or a complete orchestra was generally used.
When the Lyric first opened, it was equipped with an American Photoplayer pit organ. Photoplayers were part piano and part organ. The photoplayer had two cabinets, one on either side of the console. One contained several ranks of organ pipes, including violin, violoncello, brass effects and flute pipes, while the other housed all the percussions, which included a bass drum, snare drum, tom-tom, tympani, cymbal, tambourine and other whistles and bells that provided sound effects for the action in the film. (Some theatre organs, such as the Marr & Colton Symphonic Registrator provided the Silent Movie organist with a catalog of built in emotions. Some of the organ tablets (buttons) were labeled "LOVE (Mother)," "LOVE (Romantic)," and "LOVE (Passion).") They were operated either by a trained musician (who played the music from a score provided with the film or improvised as best as possible to coincide with the action of the picture.), or by any individual (often a young boy) who peddled a player unit that read paper rolls.
The photoplayer was equipped with two roll players so that while one was being played, the operator could change the other one with the type of music needed to accompany the next scene. The theatre had a selection of rolls that would cover every possible scene. Those listed as HEAVY MUSIC was used for fights, fires, riots, storms, etc. Other categories that were part of the library were listed as PATHETIC, ORIENTAL, NOVELETTES, PATRIOTIC, GALLOPS (used for chase scenes), MARCHES, OPERATIC, DRAMATIC, SENTIMENTAL and many more.
Photoplayers served well during the early years of motion pictures, but by the mid-twenties they had been made obsolete by the new "unit orchestras" that had been developed by Robert Hope Jones. While Jones developed the unit orchestra concept, which was essentially an organ re-voiced to reproduce the sound of an entire orchestra, many other companies copied his ideas. Jones sold his patents to the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company which became the preeminent builder of theatre organs. One of the other companies to use his ideas was the Marr & Colton Organ Company. In 1924, the Lyric management removed the photoplayer and replaced it with a Marr and Colton theatre organ. This organ required the installation of a pipe chamber to the right of the stage. The console, however, remained in the orchestra pit where the organist could view the action on the screen in order to synchronize the music with the action of the film.
Virtually no information exists about that instrument other than the fact that it had a two-manual console. The number of ranks of pipes is unknown as well. It is believed to have been removed from the theatre shortly after the renovation into the Roxy in 1933, as sound films were sure to stay and vaudeville was discontinued after the winter season of 1934.
The theatre remained without an organ until the mid-seventies when an electronic one was installed to accompany some live shows during that period. Although the make is unknown, it was a large three-manual church organ, used only on rare occasions with various live shows. It was removed in 1978 and again, the theatre was without an organ.
In 1981, a local music store provided a demonstrator Lowery electronic organ to the theatre. They also provided an organist each Saturday evening as a way to showcase their brand of organ. This organ was used by the theatre management to determine whether the public had any interest in live organ music before the show. It was decided that since the patronage seemed to enjoy the organ prologues, that a search would be made to acquire an original theatre pipe organ and have it installed in the Roxy.
In September of 1987, the Roxy's management was informed about a 2 manual, 6 rank Wurlitzer Theatre Organ that was for sale in Morris Plains, New Jersey. After having gone to inspect the instrument, it was decided that it would be purchased and restored while being installed in the theatre.
This particular instrument had made the rounds by this time. It was originally installed in the Pastime-Osborne Theatre in the Bronx in New York city on August 12, 1926. It was at that time a 4-rank instrument. Due to financial problems at that theatre, it was repossessed by the organ company, and set up as a demonstrator organ at the 42nd Street showrooms of the Wurlitzer company, where it was subsequently sold to the Fordham Skating Rink. It was installed there on September 19, 1935.
On January 15, 1939, Dr. Quinby DeHart Gurney of Hawthorne, New Jersey, purchased the organ, making him the instrument's 3rd owner. He removed it from the skating rink and installed it into his private residence. The organ was later damaged by a flood and abandoned by de Hart.
On November 11, 1976, the organ was purchased by organist N. Francis Cimmino, of Wayne, NJ, who restored it, enlarged it to 6 ranks and installed it in his home. Several years later when Mr. Cimmino decided to relocate to Florida, he put the instrument up for sale.
On February 15, 1979, the organ was purchased from Mr. Cimmino by Mr. Harold Benz (now the instrument's 5th owner), of Morris Plains, NJ. Mr. Benz, along with his son, installed the organ into the basement of their home. After Mr. Benz' son left home, the instrument again fell into disuse, and was again put up for sale.
It was at this time that it was brought to the attention of Richard Wolfe, that the organ was available. It was the perfect size for the Roxy, as it had come out of a 650-seat theatre originally, the exact same size as the Roxy. In September of 1987, when the agreement of sale was concluded, the organ made one more trip, this time back to a theatre where it belonged.
A number of setbacks occurred during the installation of the organ and it wasn't until 1995 that it was far enough along to be ready to be used for public performance. Through the efforts of crew chief Rusty King and Henry L. Appenzeller and others, the organ was made usable and regular Saturday evening pre-show concerts were begun with Henry T. Appenzeller at the console.
In the spring of 2020 after the theatre was forced to close due to the Covid 19 Pandemic which altered the movie industry drastically the decision was made to focus future attention more on live stage entertainment and less on movies. As the main pipe chamber was on the rear of the stage, it was felt that the full depth of the stage would be needed to present many stage attractions and therefore the pipe chamber was removed to reclaim the full depth. The entire WurliTzer organ was then given away and replaced with an Allen 3 manual 16 rank electronic theatre organ. All 38 speakers were divided and placed in the original pipe chambers to the left and right of the proscenium as they should be. The result has been fantastic as the now much larger organ placed properly sounds wonderful in the auditorium.
The organ is currently used only on special occasions as a regular organist is not available at the present time.