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BenTurpin and a type of photoplayer instrument known as the Fotoplus JunAug1922

The photoplayer is an automatic mechanical orchestra used by movie theatres to produce photoplay music to accompany silent films.


The central instruments in a photoplayer were a piano and percussion; some machines also added pipe organs and methods for manually creating sound effects. Like a player piano, the photoplayer played music automatically by reading piano rolls (rolls of paper with perforations), but the photoplayer could hold two rolls: one that would play while the other was prepared. Common sound effects included gunshots, bells and drums, which were generated by pulling chains called "cow-tails". Some photoplayers feature electric sound effects, such as sirens, automobile horns, and other oddities. A photoplayer operator had to load the paper rolls, start the machine and add the manual sound effects and percussion using the cow-tails.[1]


Approximately 8,000 to 10,000 photoplayers were produced during the boom era of silent films, between 1910 and 1928.[2] Around a dozen manufacturers produced the instruments, including the American Photo Player Company, which made the Fotoplayer; the Operators Piano Company of Chicago, which made the Reproduco; The Bartola Musical Instrument Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, maker of the Bartola, Seeburg; and Wurlitzer.[1] The popularity of the photoplayer sharply declined in the mid-1920s as silent films were replaced by sound films, and few machines still exist today.[1]

See also[edit]

  • Theatre organs: played by an organist, they could produce a wider range of sound and were popular in larger theatres
  • American Fotoplayer, a type of photoplayer by the American Photo Player Co.


  1. ^ a b c Ord-Hume, Arthur W.J.G. (2003). Robert Palmieri, ed. Piano: An Encyclopedia (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 411. ISBN 0-415-93796-5. 
  2. ^ "What is a photoplayer?". Encyclopaedia of Australian Theatre Organs. Retrieved 26 December 2008. 

External links[edit]