The OHS Pipe Organ Database

BuilderID 101

Builder Identification

Berkeley, California c. 1912-1925, corporate offices in San Francisco area, production moved to Van Nuys, California 1925-1929.

Additional Notes

  • Note from the OHS Database Builders Listing editor, April 8, 2016 -

    American Photo Player Co. was an early manufacture of theater organs. Based in Berkeley, California , the firm began manufacturing FotoPlayer brand theater organs circa 1912. The firm acquired the California Organ Company of Van Nuys, California in 1917, which became the Robert-Morton Co, a wholly owned subsidiary. In addition to theater organs, the larger Van Nuys facility also built church organs and several instruments for high schools under the Robert-Morton brand. American Photo Player had sales locations in San Francisco, California; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City, New York.

    President Harold J. Werner, eager to enlarge his manufacturing capabilities acquired the California Organ Co. of Van Nuys, California in 1917. The owners of the California Organ Company were happy to be rid of it, the company had been the Murray Harris firm of Los Angeles. It was relocated to Van Nuys because of an offer by group of real estate developers. When Harris left the organ business, E.S. Johnson purchased majority interest and operated it as Johnston Organ & Piano Manufacturing Company. Suburban Homes supported the company initially with generous capital contributions, but grew tired of the lax financial practices of the firm. In 1914 it took over the firm which was renamed the California Organ Company. Because the company's executive's interest was in real estate and not pipe organs, they sought a buyer. Werner found them and the match was made. The firm underwent another name change, it was now Robert-Morton Co. The new joint company had two manufacturing locations: Photo-Player continued to build FotoPlayer unit organs in Berkeley while the Van Nuys plant built the larger instruments under the Robert-Morton name.

    The joint companies had plenty of orders, but were under capitalized, and were frequently forced to shut down when they were unable to make payroll. During this period, Werner sub-contracted some orders to the Wicks firm of Highland Illinois. Wicks built the instruments and shipped them to California where the Robert-Morton nameplate was attached. Despite the shut downs, the staff remained loyal to the company, making do with other work and returning each time the plant reopened. Stockholders grew tired of the company's financial practices and filed suit; the company was forced into receivership in 1923, and Werner was forced out. He was accused of selling organs in the East and then using the funds to build orders for customers in the West. Werner was eventually cleared of all charges but had already lost the joint companies he had built.

    The company was reorganized as the Photo Player Company with financial backing from San Francisco banker and businessman Mortimer Fleishacker, with James A. G. Schiller as general manager and Leo F. Schoenstein Sr. as superintendent of the Van Nuys plant. It continued building organs under the two previous brand names. The Berkeley plant closed in 1925, and the FotoPlayer models were built at the Van Nuys plant, while the corporate office remained in the Bay Area. In 1925, the final corporate title became the Robert Morton Organ Company [no hyphen]. The firm closed in 1929, a victim of the double blow of films with sound and the Great Depression. Former superintendent Carl Sartwell purchased the remaining assets in 1933.


    • "History of the Robert Morton Unit Organ" a supplementary booklet distributed with the September 1966 issue of The Console magazine, edited and published by Tom B'hend

  • Note from the OHS Database Builders Listing editor, April 8, 2016 -


    • Harold J. Werner - president
    • Sylvain S. Abrams - vice-president
    • Edwin A. Spencer1 was superintendent of the California Organ Co. at the time of its acquisition, he was transferred to American Organ Co., a smaller subsidiary in the San Francisco Bay Area.
    • Stanley Williams replaced Spencer at the Robert-Morton plant.
    • Carl Sartwell replaced Stanley Williams when Williams left the company.
    No record has been found of who headed production at the Berkeley plant.

    • A. L. Abrams; A. L. Armuth; Roy Arnovitch; Fred F. Auer; B. T. Bean; C. E. Bloom; Philip C. Carlstedt; George F. Detrick; Roger Eaton; V. H. Falk; M. F. Goldberg; York Hoffman; Earl B. Hough; T. P. Jordan; William R. McArthur; R. P. Mathews; F. W. Miller; Henry A. Niver; Benjamin Platt; B. L. Samuels; Frederick Sherman; A. E. Streeter; Hal Van Valkenberg.

    Editor's Notes:

    1. Also listed as E. A. Spencer, or as A. E. Spencer in some sources.
    2. Robert-Morton employees are not clearly differentiated from those of American Photo-Player.

  • Related entry: Robert Morton Organ Co.



  • / / / / Archived Note / / / /
    The following note is from a previous version of this entry; it has been superseded by the note above, which contains new information or corrects errors or inaccuracies.

  • Archived Note: From the OHS PC Database, derived from A Guide to North American Organbuilders rev. ed. by David H. Fox (Organ Historical Society, 1997). -

    Active in Berkeley, California, c. 1912-1918; began church organ manufacture, 1915; locations in San Francisco, California, and New York City, New York; associated with the Wicks Organ Co. of Highland, Illinois, 1917-1923; acquired California Organ Co. of Van Nuys, California, 1917 as Robert-Morton Co.; {reorganized as a subsidiary of the J. D. Wheelan Pipe Organ Co. of Dallas, Texas, on 1 July 1919.}* Reorganized 1923 as the Photo Player Co.; reorganized as the Robert Morton Organ Co., [no hyphen] 1925.


    • The Diapason December, 1915, 11.
    • The Diapason May 1919, 3.
    • The Diapason August 1923, 2.
    • The Diapason September, 1923, 3.
    • The Diapason October 1924:12.
    • David Junchen, Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ, vol. 2 (Pasadena: Showcase Publications, 1990). 500.

    * The firm re-organized in 1917 when it acquired the California Organ Co. (which became Robert-Morton) and again in 1923 after being forced into receivership. Fox's note is the only mention of a reorganization in 1919, and Harold J. Werner was definitely president of the firm from its inception until he was forced out in 1923. It is more likely that Wheelan became a local agent for Photo Player; selling, installing, and servicing the instruments in the mid-Texas area. There is a full page ad in the June 7, 1919 issue of The Music Trades1 seeking dealers to carry the FotoPlayer theater organ, Wheelan is listed as one of the existing dealers.
    1. The Music Trades (June 7, 1919), 5; available on-line at Google Books, accessed January 22, 2016.

Database Entries

There are 4 entries in the database that describe organs by American Photo Player Co.

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