Thursday, 23 March 2017

At last: The Saltaire Wurlitzer

A terrible photo, but mine own. Many better ones are on the COS website (link below)
You probably wondered where I was going with that flight of fancy. Of course I was leading up to the high point of my trip to Saltaire: the organ concert. Saltaire's Victoria Hall has, since 2009 been home to the Wurlitzer cinema organ first installed in Oldham's Gaumont cinema in 1937 (that most significant of years) and owned, since the cinema's closure in 1961, by the Cinema Organ Society, who found it a number of different - and more or less successful - foster homes over the years. All the details, and some super photos of it in its original home, are on their website here.

I was extremely fortunate in that fellow historic boater David Lowe (Swallow and Apollo) is also a cinema organist, leading light of the Cinema Organ Society, and currently tuner of the Saltaire Wurlitzer. David wasn't playing the concert this month (although he is doing the April one) so in between operating the spotlight and checking on the organ, was able to give me a tour of its hidden workings in the interval. I am going to squeeze one more post out of this, so I'll say more about that next time :-)

In the meantime, here is a potted history of the cinema organ that David very kindly sent me when I first revealed my both unformed and uninformed fascination with this most extraordinary of instruments:

The great town hall organs became very orchestrally biased with many imitative stops.  Eccentric English organist and organ builder Robert Hope-Jones took the idea further at the turn of the last century with his organs which also had electric action (so the console could be detached from the organ itself), and even more percussions and effects.  He also advocated the unit system where one rank of pipes serves many purposes so a smaller number of pipes gives greater versatility.  His ideas were not well received in the UK so he emigrated to the USA and after some false starts ended up in partnership with the Wurlitzer company – a well established builder of high quality musical instruments.  Although intended for ballrooms, skating rinks, bars, hotels, town halls, residences, etc., an early Wurlitzer was installed in an early cinema in Chicago in 1910 and this was so successful that most Wurlitzer organs were installed in cinemas thereafter.  Though not designed (as some claim)  to accompany silent films the Wurlitzer (and other similar makes) were ideal for the purpose, far better than the church or concert type pipe organs (or harmoniums or automatic instruments, or a pianist; and cheaper than an orchestra).  With the coming of talkies only the larger  USA cinemas continued using the organs, but in the UK most unit type cinema organs were installed after the coming of talkies (i.e. post 1929), providing interval music, organ interludes etc., though it maybe that some accompanied silent films in the early 30s.  Another important use was for radio broadcasting.  Three Wurlitzer organs were installed in ballrooms in Blackpool (one post-World War 2).  Cinema organ use declined for a number of reasons;  post 1948 cinema audiences were falling off and many full time organists were dispensed with (but ABC Cinemas carried on with a reduced number), and some continued part time.  In the 1960s there was a bit of a revival until removal of organs began in earnest as cinemas closed or were twinned etc.  In the USA the revival was prompted by the early 1950 s ‘hi-fi’ stereo LP records by organists such as George Wright, and by the late 1950s and 60s organs were being re-installed in pizza restaurants, public halls and private residences  or restored in situ – similar over here but not, regrettably, the restaurants – not sure why. The Blackpool Tower ballroom Wurlitzer carried on but with the massive decline in ballroom dancing (now only for aficionados rather than the general public) its use is very much less and numbers on the dance floor very small.  

No comments:

Post a Comment