Friday, 11 September 2009

Wurlitzer Jukebox: The Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust, Eccles (open for Heritage Open Days this weekend!)

Entering into the Lancastrian Theatre Organ trust’s headquarters in Eccles is, in many ways, like stepping back in time. The main room is a replica of a 1920s movie theatre, complete with a rows of wooden, curved-backed cinema seats in faded, itchy velvet with cramped armrests. Anyone who has ever been in an Art Deco cinema will feel a sense of déjà vu, recognising the décor (a distinctive shade of rose-pink with gold trimming), chandeliers, bowl lights and pictures of silent film stars that line the walls, as well as the plush red curtains that open and close mechanically at the start and finish of a film.

It’s also home to one of the most charming museums you could hope to visit - the type where ladies serve hot drinks and biscuits, you’re entered into a raffle on arrival and the gift shop sells second hand cassette tapes, VHS videos, sheet organ music and 78 and 33 inch records (divided into categories such as ‘musicals/ opera’ and ‘fairground’). Staff are smartly uniformed like cinema ushers, with name badges, matching shirts and even striped ties featuring a picture of a Wurlitzer.

The Lancastrian Theatre Trust was formed in 1968 to save the Wurlitzer from the old Odeon cinema (now derelict) on Oxford Street in Manchester. Across the country, the Wurlitzer theatre organ, a perfect accompaniment to silent films before the war, and used later to entertain patrons before screenings, had been a victim of the process of modernisation and, as with many other cinemas, there was no longer room for it in the Odeon. The Trust ensured the organ found a new home, first at the Free Trade Hall, and then at Stockport Town Hall, where it is still in use.

Since then, the trust has rescued and found new uses for a number of other Wurlitzers, and created a musuem dedicated to Cheshire inventor Robert Hope-Jones, the ‘founder of the cinema organ’, who came up with the design that was later popularised by the Wurlitzer company in America. In 2002, it acquired a 1927 Wurlitzer from a cinema in Liverpool, which now takes pride of place at the front of the cinema, rising from a console on the stage.
The trust has around 20 volunteers, who use their expertise, whether in woodwork or IT, to restore the instruments. Volunteer and organist Alan Crossland said: “It takes a month to disconnect a theatre organ - you can’t just turn up in a van and move it. It took two and a half to three years to restore this organ.”

The organ now entertains visitors with weekly Wednesday lunchtime concerts from visiting professional organists. Crossland said: “The cinema seats 80 and we get 40 to 80 people a week. Some travel from as far away as Crewe on a weekly basis for the concerts.” The organ can also be hired by individuals or groups for tuition.

For many, it’s like a trip down memory lane. Crossland explained: “We put the words up and people sing along - they can’t say they can’t join in as they don’t know the words then!”

For the Heritage Open Days, the trust is screening old films of Eccles as well as a documentary about the formation of the museum, which is housed in an old Sunday school, and Laurel and Hardy silent pictures, accompanied by members of the trust on organ.
Crossland, whose fingers and feet whiz across the rows of keys, stops and pedals, explained: “I've been playing organ for years, although I started on the piano. I’m a church organist, but I prefer playing the Wurlitzer (don’t tell the vicar I said that!). There’s more to a Wurlitzer - the church organ has no cymbals and drums!” He also seems excited that, as well as more conventional instrument sounds like trumpets and flutes, it has an inbuilt doorbell button.

The building rings with the distinctive, seasidey vibrato tremble of the Wurlitzer, whirling its way through everything from hymns like Morning is Broken and the jaunty tune of Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head to the old musical favourites Edelweiss and As Time Goes By.

Crossland explained: “I like to start with a march as I can do a drum roll and use a crash symbol, then do a waltz. I always finish with the National Anthem - that’s what they used to do in the old days. Everyone in the cinema would stand still. You don’t get that anymore.”

He added: “I also take a portion from The Two Tars, a Laurel and Hardy film. The film is about 50 minutes long, but we just use 10 minutes. I memorise the film so I know what’s coming up and then improvise, quiet, tender music if it’s a love scene, for example, or fast music for a busy scene where they’re rushing around. We show Charlie Chaplin films too.”

Hearing sound effects fly about above, seemingly coming from random directions at the side of the stage, is almost as funny as watching Laurel and Hardy bumble around themselves. Notes fall from the sky. Trumpets parp. As the slapstick duo roll and writhe around in incompetence, the organ mimics with rolls and flourishes.

One of the most exciting things the trust is offering for the Heritage Open Days (as well as talking members of staff into letting you have a play on the organ itself!) is a tour of the organ chamber, beneath the theatre, which isn’t usually open to the public (though there are viewing windows which explain the inner workings of the organ).

Crossland said: “People think the sound comes from the keyboard, but it doesn’t - it comes from real instruments.” The organ sounds like a whole orchestra, and beneath it is a complicated contraption of instruments based around a wooden framework, including sleigh bells, xylophone, glockenspiel, castanets, bass drum, church chimes, triangle, cymbal, car horn, tambourine, and Chinese glockenspiel - as well as a noisy motor which provides the wind. Watch the workings while the organ is being played and metal pipes vibrate, hammers hit chimes and cymbals seem to hit themselves.Crossland explained: “It has to be kept warm down there to keep the pipes in tune. We tune them once every five weeks and test every bell.”

The museum also houses journals produced by the trust, models of Wurlitzers, magnets manufactured by Royce (later of Rolls-Royce fame) that were used in Hope-Jones‘ organ designs, examples of later electric Wurlitzers and reed organs and a couple of Hope-Jones’ church organs (the trust has a rotating display of ‘organ of the month’, drawn from instruments nationwide).

I also found it fascinating as a snapshot of the golden age of cinema, with mini overviews of the history of ABC and Gaumont chains. I particularly liked one description of the distinctive architecture of old Odeons, many of which were bombed during the war, or are currently in the process of being knocked down and replaced by multiplexes: ‘cream or batter-yellow faience tiles, rounded corners, slab towers, neon outlining by night and, of course, the distinctive style of the Odeon lettering.’

A sign for a ‘Ballroom lounge-bar upstairs’ is a reminder of the first days of mass entertainment, when super cinemas were built as sumptuous picture palaces where people could go and marvel at the new phenomenon of film. Nowadays, sadly, this notion of going to the cinema as a special, luxury event seems almost as old-fashioned as the old motorcars and dated attire seen in the Laurel and Hardy films.

The Theatre Organ Heritage Centre
Alexandra Road
Peel Green
M30 7HJ

The Heritage Centre and Museum is open as part of the nationwide Heritage Open Days ( on September 12, with special screenings and tours.

The Heritage Centre and Museum is usually open every Friday and Saturday from 11.00am until 3.00pm. For visits at other times, call 0161 792 1836.

Entrance is free (donations welcomed).

Trains go from Manchester Victoria to Patricroft station (from which the musuem is a short walk) every hour at 39 minutes past.

Lunchtime concerts are held every Wednesday at 1pm (doors open at 12pm).

There will also be lunchtime concerts at Stockport Town Hall on September 7, October 5, November 2 and December 7 at 12pm, costing £1.50, as well as Sunday concerts on October 11 and November 29 at 2.30pm.