Wurlitzer with an illuminated surround
During the silent movie era a live musical accompaniment was often used to add atmosphere and drama to the film being shown. This was usually provided by a piano or, in the larger theatres of the day, a pipe organ. The organ console was mainly kept out of sight as there was little reason to do otherwise. With the advent of the talkies in the late 1920’s the role of the theatre organ changed to one of a showman’s instrument for musical entertainment. During intermission an organ console would appear from nowhere, usually from below the stage on a lift, with an enthusiastic performer milking the instrument for everything it was worth. At the end of the performance the organist would, with great bravado, sink back below the stage waving goodbye to an appreciative audience.
The Plaza Theatre, Sutton (from the Ivor Buckingham Collection)
Unfortunately a timber paneled organ console quickly becomes boring to watch – even in a coloured spotlight. Many consoles were mounted on a revolve to add a bit of movement and the organist had to become quite animated at times to maintain the attention of the audience. The personality of the organist and organ became the big draw card and the organ console itself was becoming a secondary aspect to the performance. There was a need to make it a more integral part of the performance .
The Compton organ with illuminated surround at the Odeon Theatre, Swiss Cottage (from the Ivor Buckingham Collection)
The John Compton Organ Company in England created many exciting and innovative new designs for organ consoles using exotic timbers and sculpted panels. The first major new design was a French-style console in 1930 which bore more than a passing resemblance to a Wurlitzer.
However the big innovation happened in September 1932 when “The World’s First Luminous Organ” opened at the Capital Theatre in Forest Hill. The idea took flight immediately and demand for the new illuminated surrounds soared. Many fine examples of these consoles can be found in the “Stories of London” blog. Here can be found many examples of the organs made by John Compton. The Compton List is a detailed record of the 261 theatre organs built by the John Compton Organ Company, and installed in theatres, town halls, and studios throughout the UK and overseas before and, in a few cases, just after the Second World War. It is the result of continuous research and documentation begun early in 1990 by Ivor Buckingham.
Donald MacKenzie playing “The Duchess” at the Odeon in Leicester Square.
The use of illuminated surrounds was a predominately British phenomenon which was not used in the United States or elsewhere. The most famous instrument, known as “The Duchess”, is located at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square. The surround was a special and it can be seen in this youtube video
with Donald Mackenzie playing the signature tunes of the presidents of the Cinema Organ Society (COS) at a concert on the 25th August 2014. The audience were joined by members of The Cinema Organ Society who were celebrating their 60th anniversary.
Terrence Casey with the Rainbow style surround at the Gaumont Theatre in Chelsea (from the Ivor Buckingham Collection)
As of 2015 there are only a few theatre organs still in use in Sydney. The Cremorne Orpheum on Military Road is the only theatre providing regular intermission entertainment during screenings. The Orpheum Theatre is the jewel in the crown of Art Deco theatres in Australia much to the credit of its owner, Mike Walsh. The Wurlitzer console itself is a white and silver paneled unit mounted on a revolve which rises up from under the stage floor. Many of the polished consoles were painted ivory or white to make them look better under coloured spotlights. In the city this happened to the organs of the Regent, Plaza and Capitol theatres. This treatment was also done to some of the suburban theatre organs as well. At the State the console was ivory from new.
Other theatre organs that still exist around Sydney include the following;
– Orion Theatre (Campsie) : Ex-Sydney Capitol Theatre (Wurlitzer – owner TOSA)
– Marrickville Town Hall : Ex-Prince Edward Theatre, Castlereagh Street (Wurlitzer – owner TOSA)
– Epping Baptist Church : Ex-Duke of York Theatre (later the Odeon), Eastwood (Christie)
– Anglican Church (West Ryde) : Ex-Kings Theatre, Gordon (Christie – owner TOSA)
– State Theatre ; Being restored – currently unplayable (Wurlitzer)
– Wesley Theatre, Pitt Street: Ex-Lyceum Theatre on the same site (Christie)
The Theatre Organ Society of Australia (TOSA) organise regular recitals at some of these venues so these marvelous instruments can be heard.
A few years ago Decoworks submitted a proposal to build an illuminated surround for the Orpheum Wurlitzer to give it a more Art Deco feeling in keeping with the overall theme of the theatre. The story of its design and final submission pictures can be found here.