Worthing Wurlitzer Organ

Monday June 9th 2014 Worthing Wurlitzer Organ
This report was held over from the August Newsletter. There were 39 members and guests present.
Summary of the presentation by Jim Buckland: Chairman of the Sussex Theatre Organ Trust.
The talk started with a series of slides showing the Wurlitzer plant in North Tonawanda, near Niagara Falls in the USA and an explanation of the evolution of Wurlitzer musical instruments. We saw the inside and outside of the factory and parts of the manufacturing process. When production of Wurlitzer Theatre Organs was at its height in the 1920’s, the factory was producing one complete pipe organ every day.
The theatre pipe organ provided sound for silent films before the first talkie appeared in 1929 and substituted for the large orchestras that were used in the massive cinemas. The inventor of the Wurlitzer Organ was an Englishman called Robert Hope Jones who was an organist and choirmaster in Birkenhead and a telephone engineer with The Lancashire and Cheshire Telephone Company. At that time pipe organs were controlled by pneumatic systems or direct mechanical actions and he pioneered the use of an electrical system to control the air flow into the pipes which enabled the console to be positioned away from the organ itself.
Hope Jones believed that the organ should be able to imitate the instruments of an orchestra and that the console should be detachable from the organ. The traditional pipe organ industry was hostile to his evolutionary ideas and he experienced considerable difficulty in the acceptance of his innovations. For a while he worked with some of the established organ builders but he was dissatisfied and Hope Jones emigrated to the USA. He was not successful in his business ventures and joined the Wurlitzer Company where he made many significant innovations which set the cinema organ apart from its church counterpart. Because of the excellent tonal quality of the Wurlitzers it was extremely popular and was a great success. By his nature Hope Jones was always seeking to improve the various aspects of the organ construction and was consistently interfering with production until the Wurlitzer management barred him from the factory. This had a profound effect on him and on 13th September 1914 he committed suicide.
The sound of the Wurlitzer organ is produced by air flowing through pipes. There are two basic types of pipe, flue and reed. Flue pipes contain no moving parts, whereas reed pipes include a piece of metal (the reed) which vibrates when air flows over it, much like a clarinet. Reeds generally make a sharper, louder sound. The exact tone of both flues and reeds is a function of the shape and size of the pipe and the structure of the reed. In the theatre organ the air to each pipe is controlled by a two-stage electro-pneumatic valve which was described in detail. To this day the design has remained the same because of its excellent action and speed of operation.
The original Worthing Wurlitzer came from the Troxy Cinema in Stepney where it was opened in 1934 by a famous organist Bobby Pagan. It had ten ranks of pipes (distinct tone colours) as well as tuned percussion instruments such as a xylophone and “traps”, which were extra effects such as cymbals, car hooter and sirens which were for use with silent movies. The organ was removed from the Troxy in the 1950’s when it was no longer required and installed in Buckingham Town Hall. It was the first attempt to transplant a theatre organ in the UK and was a very poor result. As an aside, the Troxy Cinema is still in existence and has been restored to a magnificent state as a multi entertainments centre. It is in the process of being refitted with another Wurlitzer organ from the sister theatre of the Troxy the Trocadero at the Elephant and Castle by the Cinema Organ Society. In 1976 Jim Buckland purchased the organ from Buckingham Town Hall because the building had been condemned. It was by then in very poor condition and the Sussex Theatre Organ Trust team spent six years restoring every part of the organ to a very high standard before installing it in the Assembly Hall, where it was opened in 1982, once again by Bobby Pagan who now lived near Worthing. An important part of the job was the installation of a console lift which was obtained from the Granada Cinema, Woolwich. The lift had to be considerably modified to enable the concert Steinway piano together with the orchestra music stands and chairs to be stored under the stage when not in use. The lift enables the console to rise whilst being played in the authentic cinema fashion. It is lowered and stored away in an under-stage enclosed area between concerts. The Troxy Wurlitzer sounded excellent in the Worthing Assembly Hall because of its superb acoustics but Jim was not content and wanted to emulate the big Wurlitzer sound that one could only hear in the large American cinemas. He took the Wurlitzer in the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, California as his model because of its excellent quality and decided to enlarge the Worthing Wurlitzer and try to get as close as possible to the sound of the Paramount Organ. At about this time the BBC decided to dispose of BBC Theatre Organ number 4 which was a Wurlitzer organ which had originally played in the Empress Ballroom Blackpool and had subsequently been moved to the Playhouse Theatre, Manchester as the BBC theatre organ which was where most of the prestige BBC musical shows were performed and broadcast. The organ was purchased from the BBC and a second chamber was built on the left side of the stage in the Assembly Hall to house the additional ranks of pipes from for the new enlarged organ. The pipe work was completed with the addition of some very historic and beautiful sounding pipe work purchased from the USA from the estate of George Wright, perhaps the greatest and most influential theatre organist that ever lived. The final part of the enhancement was to bring three American theatre organ consultants over to England who spent considerable time regulating all of the pipe work so that the organ speaks into the magnificent acoustics of the Assembly Hall in a balanced and musical manner. This process, called tonal finishing, is essential for the organ to sound like an authentic Wurlitzer such as installed in the Paramount Theatre, Oakland. The newly enlarged Worthing organ, by now the largest Wurlitzer Organ in Europe was opened by four famous organists in February 1997.
As well as building a second chamber to accommodate the extra ranks of pipes, the organ console, from where the organ is played, needed considerable enlargement to make room for the additional stop tabs, or switches, which control the selection of the pipes to be played. The construction of the new top to the organ console was a very involved job and we were shown slides of the complicated jigs required to build the new console as well as pictures of the various assembly stages.
To end the presentation Jim Buckland showed some slides of memorable moments in the life of the Worthing Wurlitzer installed in the Assembly Hall. These included the presentation of the Worthing Award to Jim and his team in 1981 for their significant contribution to the cultural life of the town and the presentation to Jim of a further award by the Council in 2001. In 1987 Bobby Pagan played his last ever public performance, whilst in 1992 a young Richard Hills played his first ever Wurlitzer concert. He of course has gone on to greater things. He was the Organ Scholar at many of the famous installations and his popularity capped last year with his own Promenade Concert playing the great Willis organ in the Royal Albert Hall.
The afternoon concluded with Richard Hills demonstrating the organ as only he can play it. Richard was awarded the Organ Scholarship at King’s School Rochester in 1994 and studied at the Cathedral. He then became the Organ Scholar at Exeter College Oxford after which he became Organ Scholar at Portsmouth Cathedral following which he became Organ Scholar at Westminster Abbey from where he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. He is now Director of Music at St. Mary’s Bourne Street London which is a very prestigious appointment at one of London’s prominent Anglo-Catholic churches. He does many international tours and is very well known for his concert performances in the USA. He has to his credit many CD recordings of famous international instruments. He has earned outstanding acclaim for his ability to excel at classical, liturgical and light popular music.