THE THEATRE ORGAN
BUILDERS OF THE THEATRE ORGANS
THE CONACHER THEATRE ORGAN SERIES
WRITTEN BY PAUL BLAND
FROM COVENTRY TO NORTHAMPTON:
THE STORY OF THE NORTHAMPTON
CONACHER THEATRE ORGAN
REMOVAL FROM COVENTRY
I never heard The Conacher Theatre Organ of the Forum Cinema Coventry being played when it was installed in the cinema. The Organ was removed from the cinema the year before I joined the school, aged 11, in 1962. However, I have enjoyed listening to the playing of the Theatre Organ and, once I began to attend the Northampton Grammar School, I quickly developed a keen interest in its upkeep.
Today, the travel time from Coventry to Northampton, just over 30 miles, would take about 50 minutes, if the road is without traffic. Back in 1962, travel between these two places would have taken longer, as the roads were not as wide and the motorways had not been built and drivers had to struggle along the narrower A-roads. In addition, there was always the chance that you have to sit behind slower drivers who insisted on crawling along at speeds well below the speed limit.
The Original School Sign on the Facade of the Building
Mr. Chris King taught Physics at Northampton Grammar School in the 1960s. Prior to teaching, Mr. King held a position at British Thompson-Houston at Rugby. Either as a hobby or perhaps as a second job, he played the Christie Theatre Organ (3 mauals & 8 ranks; the organ was also designed by Reginald Foort), as the matinee organist at the Granada Theatre Rugby.
The School, as seen from Billings Road
Mr. King took up his position as Physics Master at Northampton Grammar School at the time when the new Assembly Hall was in the planning stage.
Apparently the Governing Body of the School felt that the school would benefit from the presence of a Pipe Organ, and someone, possibly Mr. King, advocated a Theatre Organ as a possible choice, knowing that these instruments were now coming onto the market for a nominal sum, as cinemas were having them removed from their auditoria as a result of changing tastes.
It seems that the school attempted to purchase the Theatre Organ that was installed at the Palace Ballroom Blackpool. However, the school was unable to complete a deal with the sellers. Undaunted by disappointment, the school authorities turned its attention to the Midlands area in the hope of securing a Theatre Organ.
The news that the Forum Cinema Coventry was to close was brought to the attention of the school authorities sometime in 1962. It was known that there was a Theatre Organ – a Conacher Theatre Organ – installed there.
Quickly, a small group of motivated staff member-enthusiasts were brought together and charged with the task of going to Coventry to see if the Theatre Organ of the Forum Cinema was available for sale.
Click here for a musical interlude
The Forum Cinema Coventry was built in 1934 and was part of the Philpot Cinema Circuit, and remained so throughout its usage. The Philpot Cinema Circuit was not a large cinema circuit compared to the national circuits, far from it, and consisted of cinemas in the area.
The Forum Coventry – reproduced from Cinema Treausres
The Forum Cinema was slatted to close on the 26th May, 1962 and was to be demolished immediately. Obviously there was no time to waste! Dashing over to Coventry, it was found the cinema had already been handed over to Demolition Contractors who had been offered £50 for The Conacher Theatre Organ as scrap!
Dennis Mathew, Editor & Organist & associated with the Trocadero Wurlitzer Theatre Organ, seen
here at The Conacher Theatre Organ of the Forum Cinema Coventry during the 1960s
Apparently with only two weeks remaining before the closure of the Forum Cinema, the school authorities sanctioned a bid of £100 for the Theatre Organ. Happily, the school’s bid was accepted by the Demolition Contractors, however, there was a proviso, which required that the Theatre Organ be removed at the time of closure!
The Conacher Theatre Organ of the Forum Cinema Coventry just prior to removal with its
Halophane Illuminated Surround still present,
which eventually when for scrap
Note the presence of the folded back dust cover in the photograph, which suggests the Organ was well cared for. This photograph comes from my collection, but was not taken by me, but is one of a set used for reference purposes to assist in the re-installation of the Organ in the New Hall at Northampton Grammar School.
The Forum Cinema Conacher Theatre Organ during its Hey Day with Miss Betty Mitchell at
the Console complete with its Illuminated Surround
Unfortunately, I have no information about the fate of the Illuminated Surrounds
that were installed with the other eight Conacher Theatre Organs.
During the last years of its time at the Forum Cinema, the Organ was played by the manager who took great pride in seeing that it was maintained in good playing condition. The Organ had been installed under the cinema stage and rose up on a lift prior to being played. Apparently at some time, the Organ suffered damage during a flood. The manager and the Organ’s regular tuner set about repairing the damage and quickly returned it to its former condition. As a result, at the time of its sale and subsequent removal from the cinema during May 1962, the Organ was in good playing condition.
As a result for the need for speed, a team from the school was quickly brought together and requested to travel to the cinema, Poste Haste, and undertake the Theatre Organ removal.
As it happened, the cinema was still screening films and the team were required to complete the de-installation process during the séances. Mr. King told me if something noisy had to be removed, or when a stubborn nut or bolt needed a clout, they had to wait for a noisy part of the soundtrack before administering the necessary brute force!
Perhaps not quite the Caravan involved in the transportation process …….
Click here to hear Duke Ellington’s Caravan
Click here for a musical interlude
INSTALLATION AT THE SCHOOL
Little by little, the Theatre Organ was removed and transported to Northampton Grammar School. Transportation was achieved via a caravan consisting of a variety of conveyances including cars, borrowed vans, and, allegedly, a milk float!
A Caravan of Milk Floats
I was told later by Mr. King that the lift which served to raise the Organ up from its place of storage under the cinema stage was still present at the time of the Organ’s removal. Apparently when Mr. King asked the School’s Governing Body if they might bring the lift to the school, he said that he was given a firm no!
Following the removal of the Theatre Organ and its transportation to the school, the various parts were stored in every available spare space. I was told that, on one occasion, part of the Percussion – the Tom-Tom to be exact – was accidentally sold at one of the School Boy Scout Troop Jumble Sales! The Tom-Tom raised half-a-crown (2/6), and had to be bought back for five shillings!
As I said earlier, the Organ had been well-maintained by the cinema manager and its tuner and was in a reasonably good playing condition at the time of sale. Although this was so, an organ needs to have some work done when re-installed at a new locale. However, essentially the Theatre Organ was re-installed As Was and, unfortunately, no remedial work was done on it.
The Theatre Organ following installation at the Northampton Grammar School
Whilst in the cinema, the Console was painted cream, with a green colour used to pick out the raised horizontal bars and edging. To be honest, these colours did not blend well and were not attractive. This probably influenced the decision to re-clad the Console in a mahogany veneer, although much duller, but more in keeping with the décor of The Hall. (I always thought that the mahogany veneer gave the Console a rather spartan look!)
Following the Organ’s installation at the School, a new and matching mahogany organ bench was made and donated by a parent. The original cream-painted bench found its way to the Caretaker, who used it to stand on to cut his hedges!
This is not quite the end of the story of the bench: the new bench was prone to warping and paid frequent visits to the woodwork shop for adjustment. During these periods, the original would re-appear! It may still be lurking in the depths of the school basement – who knows? Perhaps one day I may return to my old school to enquire if it is still there.
Oftentimes when such an instrument is re-located to a new home, the various parts would have been cleaned, re-voiced and regulated to ensure that all the pipes spoke clearly. Although the Organ sounded reasonably well, no doubt, it It could have sounded much better. During the duration of the Organ’s life at the school, the authorities were only to pay for occasional tuning and many wiring/mechanical faults were simply left without repair. As a result, the Organ suffered from the presence of Dud Notes and others things that no longer worked.
The re-installation of the erstwhile Forum Coventry Conacher Theatre Organ was undertaken by two or three of the teachers with the assistance of several of the pupils. Unfortunately, I was not involved in the process. To help pay for incidentals required, the school allowed an additional £100 to complete the job.
Some of the Organ’s Pipes following their installation at the school
At the Forum Cinema Coventry, The Conacher Theatre Organ was installed in two chambers beneath the stage. These were fairly close together and free from temperature variation caused by external weather conditions. Upon its removal Northampton, the Organ remained divided as before, although the chambers were built on either side of the stage at first-floor level and were some distance apart. Looking towards the stage:
- the Left-Hand (Solo) Chamber contained Tuba, Trumpet, Vox Humana and Tibia Clausa, plus the majority of the traps and percussions; and
- the Right-Hand (Accompaniment) Chamber housed Diapason, Violin, Celeste and Flute plus the Chrysoglott/Vibraphone.
- The Relays were located at the rear of the Right-Hand Chamber.
The Accompaniment Chamber was shaded from direct sunlight by part of the original school building and usually remained at a constant temperature. However, the Solo Chamber was not as fortunate and was frequently bathed in sunlight.
Owing to poor design, the roof of the New Hall was of thin metal, with no insulation. It also abutted the original school building with glass panels to allow light in. The panels also extended above the Solo Chamber, so that on really hot days, the Tibia and Reeds were, in effect, encased in a greenhouse. The excess heat also caused problems with the wind trunking and the actual windchests, as any warping tended to result in wind leaks, making the Organ much noisier and affecting the responsiveness of the action.
On one occasion, while a meeting organised by The Cinema Organ Society (COS) was being held, we measured a temperature difference of almost thirty degrees between the Chambers. The effect of this was to send the reeds (Tuba, Trumpet, Vox) screaming out of tune, as the heat forced them to be several tones sharper. As a Reed Pipe is constructed of several types of metal, it does not return to tune as it cools, and so the whole rank has to be re-tuned from scratch. Effectively this ruined the afternoon’s programme and was, I am sure, the key reason why the ex-Forum Conacher Organ was regarded as somewhat of a failure by visiting organists during its time at the school.
It would be fair to say that although the Organ mis-behaved on a number of such occasions, it remained fairly good-natured for much of its day-to-day duties when accompanying the hymns for Morning Assembly or when providing a practice facility for a number of students who were being taught to play by the Music staff.
The Theatre Organ had originally been installed at the Forum Cinema Coventry with an accompanying Grand Piano. The Grand Piano had been made by Marshall & Rose and was included in the sale of the Organ to the school.
The Theatre Organ with accompanying Grand Piano at the School
The picture is of an Assembly and is reproduced from the school magazine, The Northamptonian;
the arrow points to the Organ Console on the stage
The New Hall was not the greatest success, in my opinion. I regarded the architectural style as 1960s Bus Station at best! The flat roof leaked and caused major problems of temperature difference between the Organ Chambers. It also doubled as a Dining Hall. As this photograph of a Morning Assembly shows, the stage and Organ Console were actually to the left of the body of pupils. The Headmaster and Senior Staff may be seen sitting on a removable platform – effectively a second stage – which had been installed as it was necessary to seat the entire First Form (around 150 pupils) on the Main Stage in order to accommodate everyone. Had the building been better-designed, and a little larger so that everyone could be accommodated FACING the stage, I think it possible the building could have survived, and the Organ with it.
In 2006 the decision was taken both to replace the New Hall with a brand-new building and to discard the Organ. At this time, the School also had built a new Music and Drama facility where all productions are now staged.
The Conacher Theatre Organ became yet another victim of circumstance, as it was thought that the then-Headmaster had liked it and wanted to have it installed in this new building, however, since he had moved on to pastures new, he was not present to offer any objections. As a result, the Organ also headed off to pastures new!
Michael Nicholas FRCO, Senior Music Master
This photograph is reproduced from The Independent, a local magazine
that did a feature on the school in the late 1960’s
The Organ was played each morning at Assembly by Mr. Michael Nicholas, Senior Music Master and the Head of Music. Each morning, it was his custom to improvise a piece of music while we waited for the Head Master to enter and take his place on the stage. He would then accompany the hymn. He was an excellent organist and has had an illustrious career including Organist and Master of Choristers at Norwich Cathedral (1974-1991) and Chief Executive of the Royal College of Organists (RCO).
I became involved with the maintenance of the Organ when I was about 15 years of age. I used to spend hours working on it including tracing faults, re-wiring, putting in replacement magnets and so on. My parents were never sure when I’d get home from school!
I remember that at one time I even managed to track down the last spare magnets from the Conacher Theatre Organ once installed at the Regal/Odeon Theatre Wimbledon, which had been removed by a Northampton organ builder. He gave me a couple of boxes of the magnets, which were all, sadly, that remained of this huge organ (i.e. 4-manuals, 22 ranks).
Programme of a School Concert Sponsored by the Cinema Organ Society (COS)
Armsbee Bancroft at The School Conacher Theatre Organ playing a section of tunes by Ivor Novello
When I left school in June 1971, the Organ was in good playing order and was being used at School Assemblies. The Organ produced a decent church sound thanks to its Diapason/Flute/Violin ranks. To ensure that it was maintained, I had arranged for a tuning contract to be taken out with a local organ builder. However, I think that this was discontinued after a couple of years and, without the continued attention that had been given to it, the Organ fell into disrepair. Soon, it became unreliable and gradually fell into disuse.
After I had left the school, the Music Inspector for Northamptonshire Schools had the Grand Piano removed from the Organ and had it moved to another location from where, apparently, it was scrapped. When the school sold the Organ to F.H. Browne & Sons, Organ Builders, it therefore did so without a piano.
The Organ remained at the school until 2006 when it was sold to F.H. Browne & Sons, Organ Builders, Ash near Canterbury for £350. It is believed the Organ is currently in storage. When I last heard from Browne & Sons, I was told that it was their intention to restore the Organ and arrange for its installation at a suitable site.
We can always live in hope, no?
I would like to thank those that have contributed comments and photographs to the writing of this piece.