California Organ Co. View Extant Instruments View Instruments


Van Nuys, California, ca. 1915-1917.
Classification: Builder

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January 26, 2016:

From the OHS Database Builders Listing editor, April 11, 2016 -

The California Organ Co. 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 because of 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 promptly turned their interest over to Title Insurance and Trust Company of Los Angeles, holders of the mortgage on the factory building.3 As the owners' interest was in real estate and not pipe organs, they immediately sought a buyer for their unwanted asset. The following year, the company name was changed to California Organ Co.

Harold J. Werner was the president of American Photo Player Co. of Berkeley, California. Photo Player made small stock model theater organs of two to five ranks, and had sales offices in Chicago, Illinois and New York City, 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 its 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 Edwin A. 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 Berkeley, California, a small subsidiary of Photo Player. Head voicer Stanley W. 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, becoming Robert-Morton Co. The new joint company had two manufacturing locations: Photo-Player continued to build smaller theater organs in Berkeley while the Van Nuys plant built the larger instruments under the Robert-Morton name.


  • "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.

We received the most recent update for this note from Database Manager on February 11, 2019.

January 26, 2016:

See main entry Robert Morton Organ Company.

We received the most recent update for this note from Database Manager on April 09, 2020.

October 30, 2004:

From the OHS PC Database, derived from A Guide to North American Organbuilders, by David H. Fox (Richmond, Va.: Organ Historical Society, 1991) -

Succeeded Johnston Organ & Piano Manufacturing Co.; established in Van Nuys, California, 1915; acquired by American Photo-Player Co. of Berkeley, California, and renamed Robert-Morton Co., 1917.

Staff: John Dewar; Robert P. Elliot; E. B. Kittleman; Henry A. Niver; (David Schaub?); Edwin A. Spencer; A. E. Streeter; Stanley W. Williams.


  • The Bicentennial Tracker (Organ Historical Society, 1976), 122. The correct page numbers are 121-122.-Ed.]
  • The Diapason, June 1917, 2.
  • Jim Lewis.

We received the most recent update for this note from Database Manager on April 29, 2019.

Database Specs:

  • 36 Organs
  • 0 Divisions
  • 1 Consoles