Oh they do like to be beside the seaside
There is nothing quite like the sound of a Wurlitzer to stir up happy memories of good old British beach holidays, and here at the Winter Gardens we are proud to be keeping the tradition alive.
The current Empress Ballroom console
Wurlitzers, the most famous brand of pipe organs, first became popular in early 1920s when they accompanied silent movies, and at one point the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company was shipping one every day from the US. It was cheaper in the long run for venues such as the Opera House or Empress Ballroom to purchase a theatre organ and pay one musician rather than a whole orchestra.
Our very own Opera House made its mark in Wurlitzer history on the 24th September 1938 by being the last UK recipient of one of the mighty organs shipped from the Wurlitzer Factory in Tonawanda, New York. It was also the third last new theatre pipe organ installed by the company anywhere in the world.
The only original theatre organ in a UK Theatre
In fact the Opera House is now home to the only original Wurlitzer theatre organ in a UK theatre, which makes it an instrument of national and historic significance. Having 3 manuals (keyboards) and 13 ranks (sets of pipes) including the only example of an original Wurlitzer Tibia Plena rank makes its specification unique to the UK.
The Solo Chamber of the Opera House Wurlitzer
It was designed by Empress Ballroom organist Horace Finch. He and Reginald Dixon were household names back in the heyday of the Wurlitzer in the 1930s-1960s, when their recordings were sold and broadcast more than those of any other organist, with millions of people all over the world enjoying their work.
Celebrity organists Horace Finch and Reginald Dixon
This very special Wurlitzer was unveiled on the 14th of July 1939, the night the Opera House theatre opened, with celebrity organists Horace and Reginald at the console. Since then the organ has featured in many shows over the years, including a Royal Variety Performance in 1955, along with cinema interludes and radio broadcasts.
Reginald Dixon meets the Queen and Prince Phillip after his 1955 Royal Variety Performance
During this time it received some maintenance work, but after lingering unused between 2001 and 2007 the organ slipped into a state of disrepair and become unsuitable for serious playing. Plans were discussed for it be removed from the Opera House and used as spare parts for the Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer.
As luck would have it, Wolverhampton City Organist, and President of Cannock Chase Organ Club, the late Steve Tovey heard of its impending fate, and approached the Winter Gardens management to see if it could be rescued. And so began the journey to see whether the organ could be restored back to a playing condition deserving of public presentation.
A sound you’ll remember forever
Ross McNeillie, Management Team Associate at the club, told us: “The Wurlitzer was developed from the typical pipe organ although each set of pipes, known as a rank, and voiced to sound as close as possible to the instruments in an orchestra as possible. Along with all the pipes - which range from 16ft long all the way down to the size of a pencil - there are real percussions such as xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, cymbals, bass drums, and special effects like the car horn, horses hooves, sirens and bird whistles. Once you have heard one of these instruments in the flesh, you will remember it forever!”
Experts from the Cannock Chase Organ Club and Winter Gardens, spent many winter weeks under the Opera House stage, where the pipe chambers and mechanisms for the organ are situated, undertaking restoration work, repairing wind leaks, completing repairs to wind lines, pipes, regulators, and tremulants. The organ remained on its original 1939 starter motor, which had to be meticulously examined, restored and greased by electrical engineers, as did the blower. Repair and service work was also carried out to the lift which brings the console up into view.
The mighty organ’s Royal Variety Performance
Restoration works proved a success and in 2008 a concert programme was created. In 2009 the mighty organ once again featured in a Royal Variety performance.
Restoration work still carries on today, with recent work including the re-leathering of the Tuba Mirabillis and Percussions regulators.
The Empress Ballroom’s history of pipe organs spans over one hundred years, right back to 1913 when celebrated organist David Clegg installed one on the upper east balcony. This was a 3 manual 54 stop orchestral concert organ, and besides being used for concerts it was also used for the accompaniment of silent pictures and dances. After David Clegg's death in 1923, organist G.T Pattman took over the reins, alongside organists such as James Hodgetts FRCO, who later went on to become the second Tower Ballroom organist in 1929. The pipe organ remained in the ballroom Ballroom right up until the winter of 1934 when it was removed and disposed of.
The 1913 Concert Organ can be seen dominating the entire upper east balcony in this 1920s photograph
That same year, Reginald Dixon persuaded the management of the Blackpool Tower Company to install a larger Wurlitzer organ in the Tower Ballroom. The 2 manual 10 rank Wurlitzer that had been there since 1929 could barely be heard above the throng of thousands of dancers. So it was determined that a new Wurlitzer of 3 manuals and 13 ranks would be installed in the Tower Ballroom, and that the Empress Ballroom would inherit the Tower’s old Wurlitzer of 2 manuals 10 ranks.
Grand designs for the Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer
But much grander plans were in store for the 2/10 Wurlitzer when it was relocated to the Empress Ballroom. For it was enlarged to match Reginald Dixon’s specification for the new Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer, and the organist elected to play in the Empress Ballroom was none other than Horace Finch, the pianist, accordionist, and organist in Bertini's dance band. Horace swiftly became very popular and was soon broadcasting for the BBC.
Following an injury to his hand in 1962, Horace Finch retired from public playing, and his position at the Winter Gardens was taken over by Ernest Broadbent and Watson Holmes, who continued to perform for broadcasts, concerts and dancing up till 1970 when, as part of a modernisation of the ballroom, the organ was sold to the BBC. It was installed in their Manchester Playhouse Studios in Hulme, and used by Reginald Dixon for broadcasts and recordings, as well as being used by other organists broadcasting on the BBC. In 1988 BBC decided to sell the organ and it was purchased by the Sussex Theatre Organ Trust, who subsequently broke the organ up for parts to create a larger instrument in the Assembly Hall, Worthing.
Steve Tovey’s second rescue operation
Just over 40 years later in 2011, having maintained the Opera House Wurlitzer since 2007, the late Steve Tovey again came to the rescue, and persuaded the Winter Gardens management to install a new organ in the Empress Ballroom. Work to build a Wurlitzer began on the 27th of March 2012.
The 1934 Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer Console awaiting restoration
Over the years, Steve obtained particular ranks of reclaimed pipe work from other instruments which had been parted out, one of which is the Tibia Clausa from the first Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer, later the Main Tibia Clausa on the Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer. New ranks were also manufactured by Booths pipe makers of Leeds, those ranks being the Krumet and English Horn. Steve also successfully rescued the original Wurlitzer organ console (with the aid of Wolverhampton Civic Council) where the instrument is played from. This has recently been purchased by the Winter Gardens Trust, and following restoration work will be connected to the new organ at a future date.
The Empress Ballroom’s new Wurlitzer organ was opened by the Mayor of Blackpool and Mrs Jill Steel, Daughter of Reginald Dixon, on the 17th of December 2014, with guests dancing to music played by organists Cameron Lloyd and David Lobban at the console.
The Original Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer Console arrives back at the Winter Gardens after a 46 year absence
At the height of their glory days, the Winter Gardens Wurlitzers provided entertainment for a host of sparkling occasions and special guests, from the Queen to Winston Churchill.
“I'm afraid these days, they don't quite hold the same fame as they did back then,” said Ross. But they still have their moments. “Probably the most famous organist we've had play at the Opera House since we began looking after the Wurlitzers is Phil Kelsall MBE, and of course, Peter Kay rose up on the Opera House Wurlitzer as part of the Royal Variety Performance in 2009.”
Ross and his colleagues are extremely proud to have been involved in this magical part of the Winter Gardens heritage: “I have been involved in the maintenance of the Opera House Wurlitzer since 2009, and of course the installation of the new Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer. I travel down from Ayrshire in Scotland, and our team leader, Cameron Lloyd travels up from Wolverhampton. Our team are dotted all over the UK so we come from far and wide. I know Steve Tovey was immensely proud of both instruments, and to think ten or so years ago, if Steve hadn't made the phone call and arranged what he did, it may not all have been around today is unthinkable now.
Bringing joy to generations
“I think I can speak for all of us here at Cannock Chase Organ Club in saying what an honour, and privilege it is to look after the Opera House Wurlitzer, and of course the installation of the Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer is something at one time, we could only ever have dreamed of. To be able to carry these instruments into the future, for other generations to enjoy, is very gratifying and being able to present them to the public, and get the feedback we receive from around the world, from folks young and old, makes it all worthwhile.”
Thanks to Steve Tovey and the Cannock Chase Organ Club, the Winter Gardens’ wonderful Wurlitzers will be striking a chord beside the seaside for many more years to come.