The OHS Pipe Organ Database

BuilderID 5249

Builder Identification

Robert-Morton, Van Nuys California, 1917-1929.

Additional Notes

  • From "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. --

    The Robert-Morton Organ Co. was a major organ builder on the west coast, primarily building theater organs. The firm was a subsidiary of the American Photo Player Co. of Berkley, California from 1917 although most of the staff had worked together under three different owners and corporate names prior to the acquisition. The two firms were later merged under the name Photo Player before finally becoming the Robert Morton (no hyphen) Organ Co. in 1925. It ceased production in 1929.1

    The firm has a tangled history, most of its production staff were from the second Murray Harris firm of Los Angeles, California which Harris re-established in 1906. Harris had relocated to Van Nuys, California in 1912, lured there by an offer from Suburban Homes, a real estate developer. The developer was looking for businesses to attract workers who would then purchase homes from the developer. Although Harris made the move, he left the business immediately after arrival due to financial problems. E.S. Johnson purchased majority interest and operated the firm as Johnston Organ & Piano Manufacturing Company with the same core of craftsmen from Harris. Suburban Homes supported the company initially with generous capital contributions, but grew tired of the lax financial practices of the firm. In 1914 the developers took over, and then promptly turned their interest over to Title Insurance and Trust Company of Los Angeles, holders of the mortgage on the factory building.3 The firm was renamed the California Organ Company. As the owners' interest was in real estate and not pipe organs, they immediately sought a buyer for their unwanted asset.

    Harold J. Werner was the president of American Photo Player Co. of Berkley, CA. Photo Player made small stock model theater organs of twp to five ranks, and had sales offices in Chicago, Illinois and New York, New York. Werner noted the growth of the 'palace' type theaters seating over a thousand patrons; these huge spaces required far larger organs than anything Photo Player could build in their factory. Werner began a search for a larger production facility, his top sales man, Henry "Cocky" Charles, discovered the plant at Van Nuys. Werner investigated, and began negotiations. It seemed an ideal match, the only impediment was A.E. Spencer, the foreman at California. Spencer had started with Harris, and he had no interest in building theater organs. The deal was struck while Spencer was out of town for an installation. Spencer was transferred to American Pipe Organ Company in Berkley, a small subsidiary of Photo Player. Head voicer Stanley Williams reluctantly took over the design and manufacture of theater organs for his new employer at the Van Nuys facility.

    The Van Nuys plant underwent another name change, it was now Robert-Morton Co. The new joint company had two manufacturing locations: Photo-Player continued to build smaller theater organs in Berkley while the Van Nuys plant built the larger instruments under the Robert-Morton name. The name was chosen by Werner, using the first and middle names of his younger son, Robert Morton (Mort) Werner, the hyphen added in imitation of Robert Hope-Jones who was with Wurlitzer at that time. Under the new name, the factory built the larger instruments that Werner needed to compete with the eastern firms. With an excellent sales force already in place, a new wider range of products including custom work as well as stock models, the company rapidly expanded. By 1919, the company had dealers in seventeen cities across the country, including Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Memphis, Tennessee; Dallas, Texas; St Paul, Minnesota; Seattle, Washington; and Los Angeles, California. This was in addition to their sales offices in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. There was a limited international effort as well: Pianola Co. Ltd. represented them in Australia.2

    Although the company was busy, it still faced financial problems. Werner was a great salesman, but lax with company finances. The company lacked operating capital, it frequently could not make payroll and had some shut downs. Stockholders and creditors joined in a lawsuit against Robert Morton and H.J. Werner, forcing the company into receivership in 1923. The state of California revoked the charter of incorporation for Robert-Morton in 1924 for failure to pay franchise taxes. Werner was accused of fraud: selling organs in the East, obtaining the money for them and then pledging the contracts in the West to get additional money. Werner was forced out of the company, but eventually cleared of criminal charges. Always a better saleman than executive, Werner became a representative for the M.P. Moller firm of Hagerstown, Maryland. He later left the organ business and sold insurance.

    The financial and legal turmoil eventually resulted in the reorganization of the company, which became The Photo Player Company. The reorganized firm continued building organs under the two previous names. Stanley Williams had resigned in 1923. James A.G. Schiller was appointed as general manager, taking over Williams' business responsibilities for manufacturing, but not his technical duties. As Schiller was not an organ builder, Leo Schoenstine was hired to handle the production side. Schiller was a good businessman and an outstanding organizer. The firm was soon operating smoothly, but still in need of additional capital. That problem was solved when San Francisco banker and businessman, Mortimer Fleischacker was persuaded to back the revived company.

    Under Schiller's management an enormous expansion program was undertaken, nearly doubling the size of the factory before the end of 1925. The Berkley plant was closed, and the FOTOPLAYER brand instruments were built at the Van Nuys plant, although the executive offices remained in San Francisco. In 1925, the final corporate title became the Robert Morton Organ Company with no hyphen. Sales remained brisk until near the end of the 1920s, but a seismic shake to the industry occurred in 1927 with the opening of The Jazz Singer, the first nationally released film with a sound track. It would take a few years for 'talkies' to make inroads into the industry, but they would eventually spell the end of the theater organ industry. The change in film from silent to sound and the stock market crash of 1929 with the subsequent depression was a double blow to the industry. The factory ceased operation in 1929, although some activities, likely maintenance of existing organs in the area, continued until the firm's assets were sold in 1933 to former employee Carl B. Sartwell.

    There is little information available on Carl Sartwell. He had worked at Robert Morton, then been a partner with Stanley Williams in a brief venture after Williams left Robert Morton in 1922.4 The firm closed and Williams went to Chicago to join W.W. Kimball. We have no information on Sartwell between his involvement with Williams and his purchase of the Robert Morton factory assets, nor his activities thereafter. He died in 1956.5

  • NOTES:

    1) David Fox, A Guide to North America Organ Builders (Organ Historical Society, 1991)
    2) The Music Trades Volume 57: June 7, 1919 issue, p.5; available on-line at Google Books, accessed Jan. 22, 2016.
    3) R. E. Coleberd, "Stanley Wyatt Williams, 1881-1971, The Odyssey of an Organbuilder" The Diapason June 2006, p. 26
    4) Coleberd, ibid.
    5), "http://death-" Accessed Jan 23, 2016.

  • Staff:

    American Photo Player (c.1912-1925) and Robert-Morton (1919-1925)
    Harold J. Werner - President of Robert-Morton and American Photo Player prior to re-organization, forced out in 1924
    Sylvain S. Abrams - Vice President of American Photo Player and Robert-Morton
    Robert Pernod "Joe" Matthews - advertising and sales; general manager East Coast

    Photo Player / Robert Morton Company (after 1925)
    Mortimer Fleishacker - major investor, unsure of title: Chairman and/or President
    B. T. Bean - Accountant

    Stanley W. Williams - Superintendent of the Van Nuys plant replacing A. E. Spencer
    Leo F. Schoenstein, Sr. - Superintendent of the Van Nuys plant replacing Stanley Williams
    Carl B. Sartwell - Assistant Superintendent
    Wilbur R. Bergstrom - head of machine shop
    Carl Pearson - Console Department Supervisor.
    Arthur C. Pearson - son of Carl, replaced his father after his retirement

    Paul S. Carlsted - draftsman;
    Bert Kingsley (Kinsley) - Head Voicer
    Henry J. Carruthers - Voicer

    Other staff members:
    A. L. Abrams; A. L. Armuth; Roy Arnovitch; Fred F. Auer; 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. George J. Bohen; Paul Carlsted; Henry F. Charles; H. C. Ferris; Louis Maas; R. P. Matthews; Henry P. Platt; Carl Riedler; (Gail Seward?); A. E. Streeter; ; William D. Wood.

    James Bolton - pipemaker, probably independent contractor

    Service Representatives:
    Installation Contractors:
    - Balcom & Vaughan, Seattle, WA
    - Schoenstein & Co., San Francisco, CA
    - Roy Gimpel -- installer in the southern states

    Note: Robert-Morton employees are often not clearly differentiated from those of American Photo-Player.

  • See also: California Organ Co. and American Photo Player Co.

Database Entries

There are 307 entries in the database that describe organs by Robert Morton Organ Co.

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Builder's Nameplate. Photograph by David Bohn

Builder's Nameplate on Great windchest. Photograph by David Bohn