Pipe Organ Database

a project of the organ historical society

Harold J. Werner View Extant Instruments View Instruments


San Francisco, Californa, 19--?-1918, Van Nuys California 1918-1923
Classification: Corporate Officer

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January 20, 2016:

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

Harold J. Werner was president of the American Photo Player Company of Berkeley, California, producer of the "Fotoplayer" brand of theater organ. Werner was aware of the sales potential in providing full sized pipe organs for the ever larger theaters being built. Werner became interested in following Wurlitzer's lead in producing full-size pipe organs but the Photo Player facility lacked the space for such an endeavor. Werner discovered the California Organ Company in Van Nuys through Henry "Cocky" Charles, one of Photoplayer's premier salesmen.

The Van Nuys facility had a large plant designed for pipe organ production with a large erecting room. It was close to major rail lines for shipping the finished organs. It was a perfect location to become a major production facility for theater organs. In 1916, Werner approached the owners of the California Organ Company (a development corporation which did not want to be in the organ business at all but which had acquired the Johnston Organ & Piano Manufacturing Company and changed the name to California Organ Co.) and began negotiations for acquiring the firm. The acquisition of California Organ Company in 1917 gave Werner the manufacturing power he needed, and Photoplayer's offices in New York, St. Louis and San Francisco provided ready, national sales offices from which to build the identity of the newly named Robert-Morton organ.

Werner now had a new joint company with 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. Werner intended the Robert-Morton name to be a major rival to Wurlitzer, the hyphenated name was probably in imitation of Robert Hope-Jones who was associated with Wurlitzer at the time. His sales force could now offer the PhotoPlayer brand to smaller theaters and the Robert-Morton logo to the new grand movie palaces being built. Under Werner, the fledgling company went through periods of feast and famine in its early days, with the factory sometimes shutting down for a few weeks, or occasionally a month or two. There were certainly orders for theater organs coming in, but the firm lacked operating capital to buy materials and make payroll.

But the final blow for Werner came in 1923/1924, when the State of California suspended Robert Morton's charter of incorporation on March 19, 1924, for failure to pay franchise taxes. This apparently happened because of a lack of funds which was provoked by a serious charge: hypothecation of contracts. The charges were specifically leveled at H.J. Werner, who was accused of "selling organs in the East, obtaining the money for them and then pledging the contracts again in the West to get additional money." Ultimately, it was determined that Werner had not committed any fraud, but had managed the company's finances so carelessly that most of the time it teetered on the brink of insolvency. The company went into receivership in 1923, Werner was forced out, replaced by James A.G. Schiller, who was appointed as general manager. Schiller was not an organ builder, but was a good businessman and organizer. The company was reorganized as The Photo Player Company, but continued building organs under the two previous names. The Robert Morton Organ (without the hyphen) had its boom period in the mid 1920s, but pictures with sound would soon send the theater organ business into a tailspin. Werner was proved innocent of wrong doing, but still lost both companies he founded. He became the Californina representative for M.P. Möller, Inc. of Hagerstown, Maryland around 1927. Leaving the organ world a few years later, he sold insurance. He was killed in an automobile accident in San Francisco in 1937.

Source: Greg Rister, "The Robert Morton Organ Company" website, http://www.robertmorton.org/history-of-the-firm.html, Accessed Jan 16, 2016.

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

October 30, 2004:

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

Harold J. Werner (18887-1937) was the father of Robert Morton Werner. He was president of the American Photo-Player firm of San Francisco, California, 1918; and then of the Robert-Morton firm of Van Nuys, California. [With Tellers-Kent 1927, representative.]

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

Database Specs:

  • 1 Organs
  • 0 Divisions
  • 0 Consoles

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