Oscar Deutsch commissioned the building of a Flagship Theatre for The Odeon Theatre Chain.  For this, he had chosen the site of the Alhambra Theatre, a former Music Hall and the adjoining Turkish Baths on the east side of Leicester Square in the heart of London’s West End.  The Odeon Leicester Square took an amazing seven months to build.

Alhambra Theatre Leicester Square

The Odeon Theatre Leicester Square was opened in September 1937 and had been designed by Harry Weedon (1887-1970) and Andrew Mather and completed by the construction company, Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons Limited. Seating is available in both stalls and circle with a total capacity for 1,679 patrons.

The Odeon Theatre Leicester Square

Click here to watch a video about the building and opening of the Odeon Leicester Square


Oscar Deutsch, like entrepreneurs in the U.S.A. and The Bernsteins (Sidney and Cecil) with their Granada Theatre Circuit, preferred to call their Picture Houses, Theatres, and not Cinemas.  Certainly the Odeons that I knew as a child were, to my eye, grand affairs.  I remember going to the Odeon Theatre Hackney Road and feeling, even though I was very young at the time, that I was entering into a very special building.  I recall the chocolate brown and yellow décor, the flowers in the foyer and the immaculately dressed usherettes in white blouses and chocolate brown costumes.  What luxury, I thought!

I also remember the first time that I was taken to the Odeon Theatre Leicester Square in 1953 where I saw the first film presented in CinemaScope, The Robe, and being totally and utterly bowled over by the whole experience.  Sadly, I have no memory of the Theatre Organ being played during that visit.

Since them I have been to a number of Theatres/Cinemas/Concert Halls in a number of countries, some of which were magnificent in architecture and decoration, yet, none has given me the same feeling, and this includes Radio City Music Hall in New York City, which began when my foot first trod into the deep pile of the carpet of the Odeon Theatre Leicester Square over sixty years ago.



Although Mr. Deutsch was said not to be fond of the Theatre Organ, he apparently commissioned The Compton Theatre Organ Company to provide him with a very grand instrument for his Flagship Theatre.  The Theatre Organ was built with five manuals and seventeen ranks together with a grand piano and a Melotone Unit The Melotone Unit was an invention of The Compton Theatre Organ Company and produced sound by electronic tone production and not by pipes and was capable of producing a variety of sounds.  In addition, the Theatre Organ was installed with an Illuminated Console Case, which was designed by Charles Theobalds and Andrew Mather who was one of the architects of the Theatre.


Click here  to watch an almost soundless video showing the air conditioning system and
Organ Chamber Number 2 of the Odeon Theatre Leicester Square.
John Howlett may be seen at 3:02 minutes adjusting an Organ Pipe.

Click here to hear the Organ being played by Donald Mackenzie


The Theatre Organ was opened by James Bell.  Unfortunately Mr. Bell collapsed immediately after giving a BBC Radio Broadcast on the 22nd September, 1947 and died soon afterwards.

James Bell at the console of the Theatre Organ of the Odeon Leicester Square

At the time of the death of Mr. Bell, John was the Resident Organist at the Odeon Theatre Swiss Cottage.  Mr Howlett said that the two Theatre Organists senior to him employed by Odeon Theatres were both out of the country at this time: Mr. Gerald Shaw was in Cairo and Mr. Al Bollington was in Dublin.

As a result of this tragedy, Mr. Howlett was sent to be the Resident Organist at Odeon Theatres most prestigious venue and where he would remain until 1958.

John Howlett at the console of the Theatre Organ of the Odeon Leicester Square

Mr. Howlett also said that his new position allowed him an increase in salary of eleven shillings and four pence per week, which is approximately fifty-six pence in New Money.


David Hamilton playing John Howlett’s composition entitled, Leicester Square Looks Round



I would like to thank Mr. John Leeming for his invaluable help in the preparation of this piece and for uploading the musical pieces to digital format.

Special thanks are offered to the family of Mr. Howlett, and in particular to Ms Amanda Ratcliffe and Ms Emma Coleman, for providing photographs and information on his life.

I would like to thank Mr. Paul Bland for providing a number of photographs and links.

Many thanks for allowing the reproduction of photographs, drawings and information are also due to: Mr. Gavin Jones of the Black Country Bugle; Mr. Adam Phillips of the Express & Star, Wolverhampton; Ms Emily Randall, Senior Membership Development Officer at the Historical Association, Bournemouth; Mr. Michael Stead, Heritage Team at Bournemouth Library, Bournemouth; Mr. Matthew Lloyd for allowing the drawing of the Putney Palace that is reproduced from his website; and Mr. Nick Smith.

Special thanks are offered to Mr. Anton Stromlund for providing a copy of his playing of a Danish children’s song.