In the early days of silent motion pictures, it was realised that background music had a great influence on the audience. Before movies had sound, many picture theatres had special 'player pianos' to reproduce music mechanically from piano rolls. The music was meant to accentuate the mood of the film.
Some player pianos were elaborately extended, with pipe organs and sound effects installed in adjacent side-cabinets, so that the accompanist could create sounds to match the action on the screen. Several of these mechanical music makers -- called photoplayers - were produced and the Fotoplayer brand was one of the most popular. Fotoplayer was a trade name used by the American Photo Player Company.
From a location in the front stalls or orchestra pit, the operator of a Fotoplayer would follow the action on the screen while pulling cords and pushing buttons to make sounds that brought 'life' to the film. The cords activated such dramatic sound effects as a pistol shot, steamboat whistle, bird chirp, cymbal crash, bass drum and wind, while the buttons activated thunder, the horse trot, telephone bell, Klaxon horn, and other strange noises. The Fotoplayer, it can be truly said, comes with bells and whistles! And all this before electronics.
Powered by an electric motor and an air pump, the Fotoplayer plays the piano and pipe organ automatically. At intermission piano rolls of old-time favourites and popular tunes could have been played to give the operator a rest. Today the Fotoplayer uses special rolls imported from the USA.
No musical skills are needed to operate this instrument. However the operating manual states that 'The success of the Fotoplayer, like other musical instruments, largely depends upon the intelligent direction of the performer or operator. The resources of the instrument and the unlimited combination of stops permit the experienced operator to inject his personality into the work and thereby secure the sympathetic approval of his audience'.
Made in California around 1918, this particular Fotoplayer was purchased by Mr Percy Middleton Wells in 1929. He was a chemist and optician, and at one point the Mayor of Goolwa in South Australia. When he built the Goolwa Centenary Hall to celebrate 100 years since the arrival of Charles Sturt on his expedition down the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, Wells fitted it out as a silent cinema, complete with the Fotoplayer. However times were changing and due to the advent of the 'talkies' around 1930, the instrument was locked away and never used to accompany films. This explains its very good state of preservation. It remained there until the hall was sold thirty years later.
In 1984 the Fotoplayer was restored and donated to the museum by the Mastertouch Piano Roll Company. Since 1988 it has been demonstrated in the 'Kings Cinema' exhibition to accompany silent films.