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Jesse Crawford Papers

Identifier: AOIAL-ATOC-RG0006
This collection contains many of Jesse Crawford's manuscripts and published arrangements spanning almost his entire career.  Much of the collection document's Crawford's career as a performer, arranger and music theorist.  A major part of this collection is devoted to published and unpublished arrangements of popular tunes as well as some cue sheets Crawford used in radio broadcasts.  However, this collection also contains many of Crawford's personal Schillinger theory worksheets as well as a significant amount of his personal Hammond registrations.  While many of the documents found in this collection shed light on Crawford as a performer, it contains no information regarding his personal life.


  • circa 1944-1954
  • Majority of material found in 1950

Language of Materials



Conditions Governing Access:

The collection is open for research use.

Conditions Governing Use:

Any use of archival materials outside of the scope of education and/or research must be approved by the American Organ Institute Archives and Library staff and may be subject to copyright.


2.00 cubic feet

Administrative History:

Jesse Crawford, the renowned "poet of the organ" was born on December 2, 1895 near Woodland, California.  Due to his father's death when Jesse was twelve months old, his mother moved to Seattle, Washington and placed young Jesse in the Our Lady of Lourdes orphanage.  There Jesse taught himself music and when he was nine he joined the orphanage band playing the cornet.  He would later leave the orphanage at the age of thirteen to take a job playing piano at a ten cent silent film house, gradually progressing to organ.  It was soon discovered that he had a keen ability to evoke an emotional response on the part of his listeners, thus earning him the title "The Poet of the Organ" - a title that would define the rest of his career.  It was during these early years that he and his wife Olga had two children - Howard and Jeannine.  In 1916 he was hired by Sid Grauman to be the feature organist at his new "Million Dollar Theatre" in Los Angeles.  It was here where Jesse learned a great deal about showmanship and putting a show "over".

Jesse's stardom quickly rose and in 1921 he was offered the post of organist at Balaban & Katz' new Tivoli Theatre on Chicago's south side.  Due to his immediate success at the Tivoli, Crawford was offered the post at B & K's new Chicago Theatre - billed "The Wonder Theatre of the World".  Jesse also played a vital role in designing and directing the voicing for the 4 manual, 26 rank WurliTzer that was installed.  While Olga and his two children followed him to Chicago, in 1923 he met and fell in love with a young female theatre organist named Helen Anderson who was playing at B & K's Roosevelt Theatre on Chicago's west side.  In the divorce, Olga received custody of their two children and they returned to California.  Jesse's marriage to Helen would result in one of the most famous musical partnerships of the silent era as they were to share the spotlight at the Chicago Theatre.  In 1926 Balaban & Katz moved Jesse and Helen to New York where they played at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square. Again, Jesse played an important role in designing the WurliTzer there -- dubbed the "Crawford Special."  Jesse was enthralled by the work of the WurliTzer company and throughout his career he championed the company almost exclusively.  It was during his time at the Paramount that Jesse and Helen gave birth to their daughter, Jessica or "Jessie" who soon became her father's most ardent fan and an organist of her own accord.

By 1932 the Paramount chain was in dire financial straits and in order to stay solvent, the regular staff was asked to take a cut in pay.  Knowing that he was a major draw for the theatre, Jesse refused.  After repeated arguments with the staff, Jesse resigned in early 1933, never to set foot in the Paramount again.  Following his departure he headed to England for an extensive tour where he was enthusiastically received.

Despite losing his job at the Paramount, thanks to lucrative recording contracts and radio broadcasts, Jesse's career did not take as much of a hit as many of his colleagues did with the advent of "talkies".  In fact Jesse landed a lucrative position with NBC radio in Chicago where they had a new WurliTzer installed specifically for him.  Additionally, while Jesse was initially turned off by the sound of the Hammond organ, he quickly realized its usefulness in touring, and eventually purchased two of them -- one for himself and one for Helen.  Thus, he was an early pioneer in exploring the tonal and percussive possibilities available on the Hammond organ.  In the face of a rocky marriage and bankruptcy, the Crawfords moved back to New York City where Jesse became the organist for the NBC radio affiliate there.  While the position did provide financial stability, it frustrated Jesse since his music was often used only to "cover" the programs.  Nevertheless, he used this time to aggressively study music theory and strive for perfection.

In 1943 Helen died as a result of an automobile accident which deeply affected Jesse's work.  Ultimately, Jesse remarried late in 1944 to Lucy Peace - an acquaintance of theatre organist Rosa Rio.  By 1949 Jesse was teaching organ classes at Steinway Hall and in 1950 he assumed a post at New York University teaching the Shillinger method of music theory.

By 1952 Jesse developed a desire to move back to his "home" of California where he was promptly offered a job teaching organ at the Penny-Owsley music store on Wilshire Blvd.  While in Los Angeles he again started recording on theatre pipe organs and was instated as the first honorary member of the newly formed American Theatre Organ Enthusiasts.  While he was reluctant to perform in public, he did agree to play for the first national convention of the ATOE to be held in July of 1962, however on 26 May 1962, Jesse Crawford died of a heart attack.    

Landon, J. W. 1972.  A BIOGRAPHY OF JESSE CRAWFORD, THE POET OF THE THEATRE PIPE ORGAN. (Order No. 7231611, Ball State University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 629-629 p. Retrieved from (302580523).

Arrangement of Materials:

All of this collection is arranged alphabetically as very few dates were provided.  Exceptions have also been made for oversized materials that require seperate housing.

Acquisition Information:


Separated Materials:

Some items in the collection were separated from their original locations due to size or format.  Oversized manuscripts from the "Radio Themes" folder were transferred to an oversized box.  35mm negatives originally grouped with "Song Dex, 'Mimed Masters'" were separated and placed into another folder due to format and preservation concerns.
Guide to the Jesse Crawford Papers AOIAL.ATOC.RG0006
Finding Aid Authors: Andrew Schaeffer and Michelle Merriman.
Language of description
The collection description/finding aid is written in English

Repository Details

Part of the The American Organ Institute Archives and Library Repository

2101 W. Tecumseh Rd
Suite C
Norman Oklahoma 73069 United States