Category Archives: Mechanical instruments

The American Fotoplayer

Plug your ears!  Joe Rinaudo demonstrates his American Fotoplayer on Huell Howser’s California Gold:

Joe Rinaudo discusses the American Fotoplayer:

Joe Rinaudo, founder of the Silent Cinema Society, has a passion for antique phonographs, hand crank motion picture projectors, and mechanical musical instruments. Among these, his most prized possession is the American Fotoplayer.

American Fotoplayer


Fotoplayer Model 20 modified


So what exactly is an American Fotoplayer ?

The fotoplayer (“foto” from photoplay and “player” from player piano) is a wonderful contraption that was built to provide music and sound effects for silent movies. These machines appeared around 1912 and were used in medium sized theaters. Fotoplayers were in expensive to operate because you didn’t have to be a musician to play them as they were also playable by way of player piano rolls.

The fotoplayer used a fascinating combination of piano, organ pipes, drums, and various sound effects designed to narrate the action of any silent film.

Pedals, levers, switches, buttons, and pull cords were all used to turn on the xylophone, beat a drum, ring a bell, create the sound of thunder, or chirp like a bird.

When sound films came into being in the late 1920’s, the fotoplayer became passé. Of the thousands of American fotoplayers made during their heyday, sadly less than 50 survive, and of those only 12 are known to be in playing condition. One of those 12 is in Joe’s living room.

This machine was originally built in 1926 in Van Nuys Calif. and shipped to a theater in Saskatchewan Canada. It was meticulously restored by Joe Rinaudo in 1976…after being shipped back to California.

The Piano Console

Fotoplayer Piano Console

The piano console houses the piano, sleigh bells, xylophone, claxon horn, siren, triangle and a variety of organ pipes. From top to bottom there are pull cords that control gun shot, wind siren, ride and crash cymbals, train whistle, chime, tom-tom, and bass drum. Just above the keyboard there is a series of switches that can turn on and off the tremolo effect and various organ pipes ranging from bass flute to violin. Some switches also control the xylophone and mandolin sounds while push buttons control sound effects such as sleigh bells, door bell, car horn, and bird whistle. The triangle, castanets, tambourine, wood block, snare drum and cowbell are also controlled from telegraph type keys in this same location. To the far right is a bulb horn. The pedals at the floor are used for thunder, bass drum/cymbal, soft piano, sustain, snare drum, and police siren.

The Side Chest

Fotoplayer Side Chest

The side chest houses most of the organ pipes and sound effects. Visible are the organ pipes, snare and bass drums, ride cymbal, castanets, cowbell, wood block, tambourine, and chime. Concealed under the lid or behind the pipes are the crash cymbal, wind siren, bird whistle, thunder, and police siren. Larger model fotoplayers used two side chests that contained a wider array of pipes and sound effects.

Dual Roll Player

Fotoplayer Dual Roll Player

A unique feature of the fotoplayer is the dual roll player. Not only does this keep a constant flow of music without interruption, but it also allows the operator to change the music to suit the scene instantly. With the flick of a lever the mood can be changed from an exciting chase to a mushy love scene.




Though any piano roll could be used on the fotoplayer, the Picturoll made by the Film Music Co. were made specifically for the fotoplayer. The Picturolls were cut with a unique combination of long and short holes in the paper to make the piano and the organ pipes perform better together.

The titles of these rolls indicate the mood of music which one would play to match the action projected on the screen. Titles such as Mushy Music, Fire! Fire! Fire!, Drunk Soused Spree, and The Roaring Volcano, are some of the typical rolls that a fotoplayer operator would have ready-at-hand.

Please let Joe Rinaudo know if you have or have seen any of these Picturolls, as Joe  would love to hear them played on his machine. Contact him here.


Scott Lasky and Joe Rinaudo listen to a few test runs of Mr. Lasky’s new roll arrangement of ‘traditional’ silent film chase music.

Scott Lasky is Musical Director for Famous Players Orchestra, a silent film orchestra based in Los Angeles. Mr. Lasky visited Joe Rinaudo to test his newly-cut piano roll.

According to Mr.  Lasky , “I recently dropped in on Joe Rinaudo and showed him a new piano roll arrangement I was working on. This was a test roll which we tried out on the American Fotoplayer in order to hear how it would sound using different settings and tempi and also check for errors.” That visit was filmed for the above video.


Visit the Famous Players Orchestra website,, and enjoy this short piece about music of the silent cinema, and about the organization:

Famous Players Orchestra CD Fund Drive

Share your love of silent films and great historic music of the silent era with a contribution to Famous Players Orchestra. Famous Players Orchestra is an IRS 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization and your tax-deductable contributions are greatly appreciated! Your generous support will help FPO to continue their work in reviving this remarkable forgotten music through live concert performances and new recording projects. Visit the donation page.

The End


Subscribe to the NEWSREEL

Our newsletter will notify you of upcoming Itinerant Shows, articles about Silent Cinema Art and Technology…and when a long-lost reel is discovered in someone’s attic!

100% Privacy. No spam. No sound or color, either.