- Friday, 01 June 2012
Who can recall the ‘mighty’ Wurlitzer organ during the heyday of the large cinemas?
Today, most of these instruments are no more. So what was the Wurlitzer organ, and what happened to it?
Wurlitzer was one of many manufacturers of the cinema organ in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
These were pipe organs designed for the early cinemas at the beginning of the twentieth century. Films were silent then, with pianos, and later, small orchestras, used to provide musical accompaniments and suitable sound effects.
It became more economical to use instead a cinema organ, which offered a far greater range of sounds. Over seven thousand such instruments were built in the USA alone between 1915 and 1933.
The Wurlitzer company in the USA began producing automated devices such as the coin-operated piano, and then the cinema (or theatre) organ around 1910, with large-scale production until World War II.
They built more than two thousand organs during this period, including the organ for the Trocadero cinema in London, then the largest in the UK, in 1930. The last new Wurlitzer built for the UK was that in the Opera House, Blackpool, in 1939. Wurlitzer also produced harps and violins, and later, the home electronic organ. Next to the organ, their most famous product was probably the juke-box.
The Wurlitzer organ represented a technological breakthrough. Until that time, most organs were in churches and concert halls. The console, at which the player sat, was connected to the pipes by means of wooden linkages called ‘trackers’: this had been the traditional design for centuries.
As instruments became larger, the console would be placed further away from the pipes, so the problem was how to connect them. One solution was pneumatic tubing, but this was expensive and could be difficult to install.
Robert Hope-Jones was a British electrical engineer who designed telephone exchanges – the internet of the day. A keen amateur musician, he devised another solution: the electro-pneumatic relay, which used a cable to connect the console and pipes electrically.
He set up his own company, but left for the USA in 1903, joining Wurlitzer to design cinema organs he termed the ‘unit orchestra’. With the console in front of the screen, and pipes around the proscenium arch, his electric action proved ideal.
He had little business ability, but vast inventive talent, with many patents to his name. Wurlitzer’s strength, by contrast, lay in its business acumen, developing and selling the ideas of others. The merger was not a success and Hope-Jones committed suicide shortly after.
In the UK, Compton was the main producer, installing instruments in over two hundred cinemas. Perhaps the best known remains in its original site: the Odeon, Leicester Square in London. Unlike Wurlitzer, Compton also produced many organs for churches and concert halls. Notable examples of Comptons surviving at their original sites include the Southampton Guildhall, and Pavilion theatre at Bournemouth.
Intriguingly, these can both produce classical, as well as cinema organ sounds: this versatility makes them ideal for ‘serious’ recitals and orchestral concerts, as well as entertainment.
Cinema organists were among the celebrities of their day, and included many household names: for example, there were four Reginalds: Dixon, Foort, New and Porter-Brown. Dixon began at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool in 1930, and became known as ‘Mr Blackpool’: he stayed there forty years.
You may know his signature tune, ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’, which introduced his many radio broadcasts. Foort, like Dixon, was classically trained. He began as accompanist to the silent films in 1926, and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists.
Like Dixon, he was a prolific radio broadcaster and made many recordings. He became organist at the BBC, but left the UK in 1951 to live in the USA. All the organists we have mentioned, and many others, helped spread popular music: arrangements of the classics, opera, and the great Hollywood musicals – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter being especially popular.
So what makes the cinema organ so special? It has nothing in common with the home electronic organ, or ‘plug-in’. Indeed, it is in many respects very similar to a church or concert organ: looking inside the pipe chambers, it would be hard to tell any difference. Yet they make a very different kind of sound.
By the 1950s, cinema attendances were in steep decline, due to television. But in the mid 1980s, admissions had started to rise again. By then, many old cinemas had been demolished, or converted into bingo halls or arts centres. The new multiplexes offered greater viewing choice, but were often small, and unsuitable for the organ. Public tastes had changed: pop and rock music was very different from the music enjoyed by one or two previous generations.
Many organs were simply scrapped, though the one at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, London has survived in its original venue. A number have survived, though few in their original locations.
There have been many successful organ transplants - forgive the pun. ‘New’ organs have been installed using the combined parts from the old, for example, the Wurlitzer of the Worthing assembly hall, now one of the largest Wurlitzers in Europe. Others have been restored and re-installed in private homes, museums and ice rinks.
And what of the future? There are still many cinema organists in the UK and around the world. Phil Kelsall is perhaps the best known in the UK, performing regularly at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool. Others include Richard Hills, Nigel Ogden, Len Rawle, John Mann and Simon Gledhill.
New uses have been found for the cinema organ. Used with bands and orchestras, it is very suited to much new music. The Cinema Organ Society has been very successful in promoting cinema organ concerts, as well as owning and maintaining its own instruments, for example, the ex-Trocadero Wurlitzer).
Digital storage technology has also produced very good imitations of the cinema organ, available in home and concert hall versions. A leading builder is Allen, who have marketed their instruments as ‘rocket science’. This is literally correct, for in the early 1970s they acquired this technology from the Rockwell Corporation, which had previously developed it for the US Apollo space programme!
Kindly sent in to us by Edward Mitchell