The Palace Pipes

“In the middle of my third Hollywood picture The Magician, the earthquake hit Hollywood. Not the real earthquake. Just the talkies.“
– Conrad Veidt

The phenonmenon Veidt called an ”earthquake” hit more than Hollywood; it played a dirge for other industries as well, including one completely unique to silent films: the theatre organ.

In 1927, the year Al Jolson uttered the first words on the silver screen, the Robert Morton Organ Company was the second largest producer of theatre organs in the United States. Despite a rather turbulent corporate history, the company had long been known for the consistent quality of its instruments. Yet neither quality or quantity could save the industry; by 1931 the Robert Morton Organ Company had closed its doors. Theaters no longer had a need for the massive machines, despite their magnificent sound. Though of considerably lower quality, all films now had their own scores, and most importantly, dialogue.

The invention of the theatre organ is credited to English musician Robert Hope-Jones, who believed that a pipe organ should be able to imitate the sounds of an orchestra. For the first three decades of the 20th century, his invention was the gold standard for musical scoring in cinema. A so-called “theater palace,” such as the Jefferson Theatre in Beaumont, TX, was not complete without an organ. After giving way to the Vitaphone and later advancements in feature film sound, the theatre organ experienced a brief revival in the 1950s with the development of high-fidelity recording. However, mainstread production of the instrument was never again commercially viable, and today fewer than 40 organs are still installed in their original venues.

The Robert Morton organ that sits in the Jefferson Theatre in Beaumont, Texas, is one of the few. Installed in 1927, the organ was constructed in California and shipped through the Panama Canal. It’s the only organ that’s designed to rise majestically from the orchestra pit when activated. It has been restored twice, most recently in 2022 to repair extensive hurricane damage.

Since its repair, the Robert Morton organ in the Jefferson Theatre has been used for its original purpose: to provide a moving score to silent movies. Its first film in 2022 was The Phantom of the Opera, and has been used regularly for films like Safety Last! and Sherlock Jr. The Jefferson Theatre’s Classic Movie Nights schedule can be found at

The organ’s 778 pipes are located behind the grills on either side of the proscenium arch