Robert Hope-JonesRobert Hope-Jones (1859-1914), Father of The Theatre Organ






John Compton Collage BlueJohn Compton, Pioneer, Innovator and Organ Builder




Alhambra Collage

The Odeon Leicester Square was built on the site of the Royal Panopticon of Science & Art, an institution, in Moorish Style, for scientific exhibitions and for promoting discoveries in arts and manufactures, and built in 1854 for T. Hayter Lewis.  On the verge of bankruptcy, the building was sold and reopened as the Alhambra Palace in 1858.  The new owner, E.T. Smith, installed a circus ring and, in 1860, obtained a licence to allow music and dancing, and installed a Proscenium and stage and reopened the building as the Alhambra Palace Music Hall.  Although the The Alhambra presented a programme of variety and ballet on the stage, it was in essence a Supper Room with the ground floor given over to dining.  By 1871, rows of seats were installed and the Supper Room gave way to a more theatre-like auditorium and it became essentially, a Music Hall.

The building suffered markedly from a fire in 1882 leaving only the exterior masonry and part of the internal structure.  Reconstruction was also in Moorish Style, but on a less spectacular scale with the auditorium being given a more theatre-like appearance.  In 1897, the theatre was extended to allow a secondary frontage on Charing Cross Road, and in 1912, Frank Matcham was commissioned to make further improvements to the building.

At this time, Music Halls offered Ballet to the public since it was no longer being presented at Opera Houses.  Between 1919 and 1922, the Alhambra presented Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (1909-1929) before reverting to Variety.


In 1936, Oscar Deutsch bought the Alhambra Theatre, closed it and had it demolished.  Apparently, it was his intention to build a cinema on the site.


A collection of photographs taken by John Maltby (1910-1980) of the Odeon Leicester Square detailing its construction and appearance at its opening may be seen at the View Finder English Heritage website.  English Heritage has kindly given permission for several of these photographs to appear here. and for this I am very grateful and wish to thank them for this privilege. John Maltby was commissioned in 1935 to photograph every cinema in the Odeon Cinema Circuit.  Should the reader take time to look at the John Maltby Collection, he/she will quickly appreciate the beauty of these architectural wonders and realise the loss that society has suffered from their demolition or conversions.


The Odeon Theatre Leicester Square was built in 1937 to the design of Harry Weedon and Andrew Matheron on the site of the Alhambra Theatre and the adjoining Turkish Baths.  The site cost £550,000 and the Theatre took seven months to build at a cost of £232,755 and opened with 2,116 seats on 2nd November, 1937 with the film, The Prisoner of Zenda with Ronald Coleman.

Exterior Collage

The Theatre was built as the Flagship of Oscar Deutsch’s Odeon Theatre/Cinema Circuit, a position it maintains today despite its ownership having changed hands.  The building is imposing with a black polished granite facade and a tower of 120 feet in height.

Doors and Etchings CollageEntrance Doors with Etched Dancing Figures

The entrance doors are of glass plates with etched dancing figures by Bainbridge Copnall.  The decor of the interior is in Art-Deco style.

Reproduced by permission of English Heritage

The auditorium was spectacular with a ribbed ceiling, concealed lighting and two Bas Relief sculptures of naked golden Nymphs on the side walls.

BB87_03767Bas Relief of the Golden Nymphs

Reproduced by permission of English Heritage

In addition, there is a remarkable Safety Curtain detailed in 1930s Art-Deco motifs.

Safety CurtainReproduced by permission of English Heritage

Unfortunately, the Theatre underwent a moderisation in 1968, which destroyed most of the grandeur of the auditorium.  However, since the 1980s, a number of restoration programmes have been undertaken that have brought about the return of the Nymphs, constructed from the original designs, the ribbed ceiling and the original seating plan.

The Golden Nymphs - red. borderReconstructed 

During its early years, the Theatre screened films produced by United Artists and later introduced the films of J. Arthur Rank to the public.  The Theatre has been the venue for many film Premieres over the years and now hosts exclusively the annual Royal Film Performance.




Although it would seem that Oscar Deutsch was not overly fond of the Theatre Organ, he apparently wanted something grand for his Flagship.

Odeon Organ Collage

The Compton Theatre Organ of the Odeon Theatre Leicester Square was built with a Special Illuminated Console Case that was designed by Charles Theobalds and Andrew Mather who was one of the architects of the Theatre.  The Theatre Organ is the only Compton Organ built with 5-manuals and has 17-ranks and a Melotone Unit.

Click here  and also here to hear the Organ being played by Dudley Savage

Click here to hear the Organ being played by Donald Mackenzie

The Theatre Organ was opened by James Bell who unfortunately collapsed immediately after a Radio Broadcast on the 22nd September 1947 and died soon afterwards.  He was succeeded by John Howlett who remained as Resident Organist until October 1958 when Gerald Shaw was appointed and began his tenure in November 1958.

john-howlett-collageJohn Howlett at The Console of The Duchess

These photographs were kindly provided by Mr. Howlett’s daughter, Mrs. Marie Coleman

Mr. Shaw continued until his death, at age 63, in April 1974.  At this time, he was officially the last full-time cinema organist in Britain.  In addition, Gerald Shaw (1911-1974) was the first to refer to The Organ, as The Duchess.

Gerald Shaw & The Duchess CollageGerald Shaw & The Duchess

Click here to hear Gerald Shaw play a number of Theatre Organs

David Shepherd and Bernard Tilley were featured at the Organ during the 1970s and organist and organ builder Ronald Curtis played three times daily during its 43rd birthday week in 1980.  During the 1980s, Peter White and Victor Patterson were the organists. In 1992, Donald Mackenzie first played this Organ and was appointed Resident Organist in 1993.

Donald MacKenzie - Odeon LSDonald Mackenzie seated at The Duchess

Click here to hear Donald Mackenzie talking about and playing The Duchess

Today, although the playing of the Organ is no longer an everyday occurrence during intermissions between film screenings, concerts and special organ featured events are presented by the cinema.

Click here to hear more of Donald Mackenzie at The Duchess



I would like to thank Mr. Ian McIver for providing information and photographs.  I would also like to thank Mr. Stephen Dutfield for allowing the reproduction of some photographs from The Compton List here and for the information provided there.

Many thanks are given to Mr. Javis Gurr and English Heritage for their help and consideration by allowing permission of the photographs of the Odeon Theatre Leicester Square.

I am indebted to Mrs. Marie Coleman for providing the photographs of her father, Mr. John Howlett.

Very special thanks are given to Mr. Paul Bland for providing photographs, musical interludes and information and without whom this piece would not have been possible.


  1. K Harrison

    What happened to the two Comptons that were in the Paramount Studio Bolton…..This of course was the residence of Ron Curtis

    Also how long was Ron resident organist at the Leicester Square “Duchess”


    1. Charles Post author

      I wrote to a friend of mine and put your questions to him. Here is what he had to say:

      “As far as I know the ‘Liverpool organ’ is still in Ron’s former studio and the ‘Gatehead’ one was sold for parts.

      I don’t know how long Ron was at Leicester Square, but my guess is about five years.”

      Sorry I can not offer more information.

      Thanks for your comment.



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