THE THEATRE ORGAN
Click here to hear Reginald Dixon M.B.E. play his signature tune and other seaside tunes
BUILDERS OF THE THEATRE ORGANS
THIS PAGE IS WRITTEN IN CONJUNCTION WITH
GLEN TWAMLEY (FRIENDS OF BEER WURLITZER)
WURLITZER THEATRE ORGANS
THE WINTER GARDENS BLACKPOOL
The Winter Gardens in Blackpool is a large entertainment complex and is a Grade II* listed building. The complex consists of twelve different venues including the Opera House Theatre, The Empress Ballroom and a number of restaurants, banquet and conference facilities.
The Winter Gardens was opened in 1878 with various parts built between 1875 and 1939. Since its opening, a number of the facilities have undergone changes and have seen their uses changed.
The Winter Gardens has hosted the main annual conferences for all three major British political parties as well as a number of trade unions. It has also been the venue of the Blackpool Dance Festival since its inception in 1920, the World Matchplay Darts tournament every July since 1994 and the annual Rebellion Punk Festival.
THE OPERA HOUSE WURLITZER THEATRE ORGAN
The Auditorium of the Opera House – known as The Purple Palace
The Opera House is one of the largest theatres in the U.K. with a seating capacity of 2,813 and is the third theatre to be constructed on this site. It originally opened in 1889 and has been rebuilt in 1910 and 1939. The Opera House has been the venue of the Royal Variety Performance on several occasions and was the first venue outside of London to host this event in 1955. Today, the theatre is used for the presentations of theatrical performances, variety shows and concerts.
The last new Wurlitzer Theatre Organ destined for the U.K. was exported in 1939 and was installed in the Blackpool Opera House. The organ, with 3 manuals and 13-ranks, was designed by Horace Finch (1906-1980) who was soloist and orchestral pianist at the Blackpool Tower Orchestra and was also the first English pianist to perform Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin without the aid of sheet music.
The Organ was opened to the public by both Reginald Dixon and Horace Finch who became the resident organist.
The Keyboard of The Opera House Wurlitzer Theatre Organ
It is of interest to note that although the Granada Theatre Kingston-Upon-Thames received its Wurlitzer Theatre Organ later in 1939, this Theatre Organ was made mostly from parts of an earlier installation in Edinburgh. This Theatre Organ also has the distinction of being the last to be opened by Reginald Dixon.
THE EMPRESS BALLROOM WURLITZER THEATRE ORGAN
Postcard of The Empress Ballroom of The Winter Gardens
After the removal of the original Tower Ballroom Theatre Organ (Opus 2037; 2 manuals, 10 ranks), it was installed in the Empress Ballroom Blackpool, which is within the Winter Garden-Opera House complex.
Horace Finch became the organist at the Empress Ballroom when the Organ was opened here in April 1935 and remained in this position until 1962. Sadly he resigned his position and retired following an injury to his left hand. Mr. Finch was followed by Watson Holmes (1901-1970), who had been the organist at the Palace Ballroom Blackpool. Mr. Holmes continued at the Empress Ballroom until 1966 when his position was taken over by Ernest Broadbent (1910-1994) who remained until the Ballroom was turned into a nightclub, which signaled the removed of the Organ.
Click here to hear Horace Finch play the Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer Theatre Organ in the 1950s
Click here to hear more of Horace Finch at the Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer Theatre Organ
In late 1969, the Empress Ballroom Theatre Organ was removed and installed at the BBC Playhouse Theatre in Manchester, as BBC Theatre Organ No 3.
Note that BBC Theatre Organ No 1 was the Compton Theatre Organ installed in St George’s Hall in 1936 and which was destroyed during the Second World War. Following this, the BBC acquired Reginald Foort’s Travelling Moller Organ, which was initially on loan until the BBC bought it outright. The Travelling Moller Organ was eventually sold by the BBC in 1963 to Radio Hilversum in The Netherlands.
The erstwhile Express Ballroom Theatre Organ and now BBC Theatre Organ No. 3 was eventually removed from the Playhouse Theatre in 1985 following a change in BBC policy regarding the Theatre Organ and sold to Mr. Jim Buckland who dismantled it and used some of its parts to augment other organs:
- the main Tibia Clausa and a couple of tremulants were installed in the Theatre Organ of the Wolverhampton Civic Hall;
- its 3-manual Console was purchased by Mr. Steve Tovey, Wolverhampton Civic Organist and member of the Cannock Chase Organ Club; and
- eight ranks of pipes were used to enlarge the erstwhile Wurlitzer Theatre Organ Worthing, now installed at the Assembly Hall Worthing. The ranks used included the Tuba Mirabilis, English Horn, Solo Tibia Clausa, Kinura, Orchestral Oboe, Viol d’Orchesta, Viol d’Orchestra Celeste, Krumet, Concert Flute Celeste and Solo Vox Humana. Note that the Console of the Worthing Theatre Organ was that originally installed at the Troxy Cinema Stepney.
There may well be other parts of the Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer Theatre Organ in existence, however their whereabouts are not known at this time.
From late 1969, there was no Theatre Organ present at the Empress Ballroom of the Blackpool Tower. However, this position was not to continue! In 2012, The Cannock Chase Organ Club was given permission to install another Theatre Organ in the Empress Ballroom, which it did, and which was set to open to the public in December 2014.
A Friend of the Beer Wurlitzer
Click here to hear another medley played by Horace Finch on
the Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer Organ
According to the Cannock Chase Organ Club, the new Organ consists of components collected from various parts of the world where the Theatre Organ was and still is popular. The Cannock Chase Organ Club state that the majority of pipework was produced by The Wurlitzer Company while the majority of chests being made by The John Compton Organ Company. The Tibia Clausa installed came from the erstwhile Express Ballroom Theatre Organ. The Console currently installed with the Organ is a restored one produced by The John Compton Organ Company.
The installation process at the Ballroom required a great deal of physical work on the part of The Club’s dedicated members and the progression may be followed pictorially on the Cannock Chase Organ Club’s Facebook page.
The new Express Ballroom Theatre Organ was played at its opening by Cameron John Lloyd and David Lobban.
Left: Cameron John Lloyd; Right: David Lobban
Click here to see and hear Cameron John Lloyd play the Organ on Opening Day
Click here to see and hear David Lobban play the Organ also on Opening Day
The Console of the new Express Ballroom Theatre Organ is not on a lift, as the earlier one was, since the Ballroom no longer has a permanent stage. The former stage was removed in the 1970s when the original Wurlitzer Theatre Organ was removed and sold to the BBC. During the removal of the stage, the lift shaft used to raise and lower the Organ was filled with concrete.
I would like to thank the members of the Cannock Chase Organ Club for bringing the Theatre Organ back to the Empress Ballroom Blackpool.
THE WURLITZER THEATRE ORGAN
OF THE EMPRESS & PALACE BALLROOMS BLACKPOOL
FROM MR. PAUL KIRNER
Both the Empress and the Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer Theatre Organs of 1935 were supplied with Wurlitzer Upright Pianos and installed in the chambers. After the fire in the Tower in 1956, the Grand Piano from the Opera House Theatre Organ was transferred to the Tower Ballroom.
Unfortunately this piano is no longer operative and is in need of a complete overhaul. The Tower Ballroom Upright Piano remains in situ, but is not used.
The Upright Piano of the Empress Wurlitzer Theatre Organ has been installed at Compton Lodge where it has been connected to the Compton/Wurlitzer 4/20 instrument for some years.
Click here to hear Paul Kirner play the COMPTON/WURLITZER Hybrid Instrument
This Hybrid Instrument has 4-Manuals, 20-Ranks of which 13 are Wurlitzer; 1 Marr & Colton; 1 Gottfried; 3 Compton; 1 Laukauf (ex-Odeon Leicester Square, London); and 1 (The Kinura) Willis/Booth/Pawlyn) at Compton Lodge Sapcote, Leicestershire.
THE PALACE BALLROOM WURLITZER THEATRE ORGAN
Postcard of The Alhambra Ballroom, 1899
The Alhambra offered the public a 3,000-seat Theatre, a Ballroom capable of holding 3,000 spectators and dancers and a 2,000-seat Circus together with a Winter Roof Garden and a number of restaurants. Its location next to The Tower Complex, brought it into direct competition for patrons. In 1902, The Alhambra closed, as a result of financial difficulties.
In 1904, The Blackpool Tower Company purchased the Alhambra complex and employed Frank Matcham to redesign the interior and re-opened it as The Palace and advertised it as The People’s Palace of Pleasure.
The Ballroom was converted into a Panopticon at this time and renamed The Panopticum, which was used for exhibitions with the showing of films as part of the programme. In 1909, a Bioscope was installed and the building was renamed Palace Pictures and operated as a cinema until 1911 when it was returned to being a Ballroom. At this time, a new cinema replaced the Circus installed in the building.
The Palace proved to be more successful than its predecessor. The Blackpool Tower Company had installed one of the first Escalators or moving staircase in the world in The Palace and also had built an underground passageway to connect the building to their other properties at The Tower Complex.
Postcard of The Palace Ballroom, 1910
Despite being a success for a number of years, the magnificent Palace building closed in 1962 and was demolished. A branch of the department store chain, John Lewis, was built on the site and opened in 1964. However, this closed in 1993 and the building was taken over by F.W. Woolworth & Company, which in turn closed in 2008. Today, the building is now a pub in the J.D. Wetherspoon chain.
The Former F.W. Woolworth & Company Building
In 1952, a Wurlitzer Theatre Organ was installed at the Palace Ballroom. The Theatre Organ, which was basically the earlier built Organ Opus 1716, had originally been installed at the Tussaud’s Cinema in London. This cinema had been built on the site of an earlier Madame Tussaud’s Cinema that was destroyed by fire in 1925. Tussaud’s Cinema itself suffered severe damage from bombing in September 1940. Later, The London Planetarium was built on the site and was opened in 1958. In 2006, the Planetarium was renamed The Star Dome and became part of Madame Tussaud’s.
Mr. John Wright of The British Dance Band website sent me a Dance Band recording of The Harry Bidgood Band playing When The Moon Comes Over the Mountain, and featuring the Theatre Organ of Tussaud’s Cinema played by Edward O’Henry, and recorded on the 15th July, 1931.
The Wurlitzer Theatre Organ of the Palace Ballroom was originally a 2-manual Model F Organ (Opus 1716) which was equipped with a Console that had proportions that were slightly different from the standard model. The Organ was damaged by the bombing and necessitated the rebuilding of the Console and repair of the Organ. This was achieved at the London factory of the Wurlitzer Organ Company.
The rebuilt Organ now had 3-manuals and 9-ranks and was installed as a demonstration model at the London factory in 1949. In 1952, the Organ was sold to the Blackpool Tower Company and installed at the Palace Ballroom where it had an extra two-rank chest with an English Horn with the other side of the chest being left empty so that a further rank might be added if required.
Watson Holmes (1901-1970) at The Wurlitzer Theatre Organ of the Palace Ballroom
Click here to hear Watson Holmes play The Wurlitzer Theatre Organ of the Palace Ballroom
The Theatre Organ of the Palace Ballroom was removed at the last minute prior to its demolition of the building and was sold, without the English Horn rank, and installed in a residence in Yeovil, where it remained until 1975, when it was exported to St. Michael’s Collegiate School in Hobart, Tasmania. Here, an Orchestral Oboe rank was added to the chest that once housed the English Horn rank.
I have visited the website of St. Michael’s Collegiate School, but can find no mention of the Organ. Whether it is still installed there or not is unclear.
I am indebted to Mr. Paul Kirner for providing information on the Wurlitzer Theatre Organs of Blackpool. Many thanks.
I would especially like to thank Mr. John Wright of The British Dance Band Show for allowing the recording featuring the Theatre Organ of the Tussauds Cinema to appear here.