THE THEATRE ORGAN
BUILDERS OF THE THEATRE ORGANS
THIS PAGE IS WRITTEN IN CONJUNCTION WITH
GLEN TWAMLEY (FRIENDS OF BEER WURLITZER)
THE WURLITZER THEATRE ORGAN OF
THE REX CINEMA STRATFORD
EAST END CINEMAS WITH THEATRE ORGANS
I was born in the East End of London, in Bethnal Green to be precise. Bethnal Green did not have a grand Picture Palace: we had no glorious ABC, no elegant Odeon and no sumptuous Gaumont. We did have, however, two of the most dreadful looking cinemas that one thought twice about going into! Despite Bethnal Green being deprived, we did have two what were no doubt considered by others to be lesser cinemas, the Excelsior Kino and the Essoldo Bethnal Green Road, but which had great charm and, to my way of thinking, more than made up for our being so badly treated by the major cinema circuits.
Sadly, none of the cinemas of the Borough of Bethnal Green had a Theatre Organ – or at least none that were played when I knew them. Any Theatre Organs that I saw and heard were elsewhere.
Despite my complaints of there being no Theatre Organ in the Borough of Bethnal Green when I was a child, there were Theatre Organs in some of the cinemas present in the surrounding Boroughs:
- Broadway Cinema, Stratford – Wurlitzer Organ 2/8 (i.e. two manuals; 8 ranks);
- Rex Cinema, Stratford High Street – Wurlitzer Organ 2/7;
- Empire/Kinema, East Ham – Christie Organ 2/5; the cinema was demolished in 1936 and the Granada Theatre built on the site;
- Granada Theatre, East Ham – Wurlitzer Organ 3/8;
- Empire/Kinema/Century, West Ham/Stratford – Christie Organ 2/7 when originally installed in 1927 and then enlarged to 3/9 in 1935 when it was operated by Granada Theatres Ltd.;
- Troxy Cinema, Stepney – Wurlitzer Organ 3/10;
- Electric Kinama/Pavilion/New Pavilion/Essoldo Cinema, Poplar – Christie Organ 2/6 (replacing an earlier straight organ;
- Palladium Cinema, Mile End Road – Christie Organ 2/6;
- Rivoli Cinema, Whitechapel – 3-manual Henry Willis Organ (classical organ);
- Olympia Cinema, Shoreditch – Christie Organ 2/8; and
- Empress/Essoldo Cinema, Hackney – Compton Organ 3/5.
Most of these cinemas have been closed and demolished for a number of years now. Only the Troxy Cinema was closed and later restored for other functions and now has the Wurlitzer Theatre Organ once present, and now restored, of the Trocadero Elephant & Castle.
Many of these cinemas were too far from my home when I knew of them and so I never got a chance to see and hear their Theatre Organs. Of all of these cinemas, I had only gone inside three: the Rex Cinema Stratford, the Empress/Essoldo Cinema on Mare Street in Hackney and the Century Cinema Stratford/West Ham.
I have written extensively about the Empress Cinema Hackney elsewhere. Although I went there a number of times, I never once heard, saw or heard-talk-of its Theatre Organ. I have not been able to find out when the Organ was removed from the cinema and what became of it. The Empress Cinema was taken over in 1955 by The Essoldo Cinema Circuit, which was owned by Sol Sheckman, who was not, apparently, fond of Theatre Organs.
I will be discussing the Century Cinema Stratford/West Ham elsewhere in the section devoted to The Christie Theatre Organ section. The owner of this organ is Mr. Anton Stromlund who has kindly allowed the following photograph of the Theatre Organ to appear here.
THE REX CINEMA STRATFORD
AND ITS WULITZER THEATRE ORGAN
The Rex Cinema Stratford was originally built as the Borough Theatre & Opera House in 1896 and was designed by Frank Matcham. The theatre became known as Drury Lane of the East, but was closed in 1933 and converted into a cinema. The entrance exterior was remodeled and the interior was redesigned in an Art Deco style by George Coles.
The Wurlitzer Theatre Organ at the Rex Cinema Stratford was installed in 1933 and had 2-manuals and 7-ranks and was opened by Sandy Macpherson (1897-1975) in November 1934. This Theatre Organ had originally been installed at the Almira Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. in 1927.
In 1935, the Rex Cinema was taken over by the ABC Cinema Circuit who operated it until 1969 when it was converted into a Bingo Club. In 1974, the Club closed and the building briefly became a cinema once more.
I remember going to the Rex Cinema sometime in 1953 and seeing The Beggar’s Opera. Sadly, I don’t believe that the Theatre Organ was played during my one and only visit.
The Wurlitzer Theatre Organ at the Rex Cinema Stratford was not played between the mid-1950s and 1969 since it was inaccessible as a result of the new panoramic screen that had been installed over the orchestra pit in the mid 1950s to allow films produced in CinemaScope to be screened.
Between 1969 and 1974, the Rex Cinema functioned as a Bingo Club. Apparently, the Theatre Organ was restored and was then played before sessions during this time.
The Theatre Organ was removed in 1974 and it was hoped that it would be installed in a suitable venue. Unfortunately, none was found and it was put into storage.
Contributed by Mr. Paul Bland
I learned from Mr. Paul Bland the following:
I took up a teaching post at Moulton School, Northampton in September 1975. The Head had said he would have liked a pipe organ at the school and I mentioned my experience with the Conacher at the Grammar School, so he sanctioned my making some enquiries.
I only made one, as I married the next year and time would have been impossible. That ONE enquiry was to EMI Cinemas regarding the Wurlitzer Theatre Organ in the Rex Cinema Stratford. Knowing it was incomplete, I thought it might be for sale. The reply I got (sadly, I lost the letter years ago) was that, owing to the complicated leasing arrangements involving the Rex, EMI would be unable to enter into any negotiations – so that was the end of the initiative.
Obviously it was later removed, restored once more and now has a new home.
The erstwhile Rex Cinema lay empty until 1996 when it was restored and operated as an entertainments venue until the company went bankrupt in 2007. It was next run as the Rex Music Arena until 2009. In 2012, the building was renamed, Sync, and once more is operated as an entertainments venue.
I learned recently that The Sync did not do well and, as of 2016, the building is closed with doors shuttered.
Photographs of the now-closed Sync by Paul Bland
THE ROYALITY CINEMA
AND ITS WURLITZER THEATRE ORGAN
In 2010, the Organ was acquired by The Furness Theatre Organ Project led by Mr. Mark Latimer and after restoration is now installed at the Royalty Cinema in Bowness-on-Windermere. It now holds the distinction of being Europe’s only functioning Theatre Organ in a functioning cinema. The Organ was opened to the public in October 2012 with a Gala Concert and can now be heard before selected film performances and at occasional concerts.
I was very young when I heard a Theatre Organ being played for the first time. I used to listen each week, without fail to Sandy Macpherson’s organ requests programme on the Light Programme. This programme, along with Dick Barton, Special Agent, quickly became my favourite programmes. I even sent him two postcards with a request to the BBC, which I don’t believe were ever played for me.
Click here to hear Sandy Macpherson play a medley FROM MY POSTBAG
The first time I heard a Theatre Organ played live was again when I was very young and I am unsure where I heard it. However, I do remember being totally mesmerised at seeing this majestic instrument. The first Theatre Organ that I ever heard played live was either the Mighty Wurlitzer of the Empire Leicester Square or the Christie Theatre Organ installed at the Regal/Odeon Cinema Marble Arch or perhaps the Compton Theatre Organ at the Dreamland Cinema in Margate. Wherever it was, I am grateful to my parents for taking me the cinema so that I could hear and see such a magnificent instrument being played.
I would like to thank especially Mr. Anton Stromlund, the Danish organist and owner of the Christie Organ formally installed at the first Granada Theatre (the Century Cinema Stratford) that I went to.
I would like to thank Mr. Paul Bland for his help and for providing a number of photographs.