In the early days of silent movies, large theaters would engage orchestras to play the accompanying music. But starting around 1910, small venues that lacked the money or the space could use a machine instead. In Film Music, music editor Roy M. Pendergast writes, “In addition to music, these machines were capable of providing a battery of sound effects, and they ranged in size from what was essentially a player piano with small percussion setup to elaborate instruments nearly equaling a twenty-piece pit orchestra.” He quotes Samuel A. Peeples in Films in Review:
The crowning achievement of the American Photo Player Company was their Fotoplayer Style 50, only one of which is presently known to survive in operating condition. Among the most splendid automatic musical instruments ever built, it was 21 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 5 feet 2 inches tall. It was capable of recreating the volume of a 20-piece pit orchestra, plus a full-scale theatre pipe-organ, with an incredible range of effects, such as the lowing of cattle, the drumming of hoofs in assorted gaits, several varieties of klaxons, street traffic noises, crackling flames, breaking wood and brush, rifle, pistol and machine gun shots, even the sound of a French 75MM cannon!
Pendergast adds, “One wonders about the quality of genius it must have taken to operate one of these devices.”