History of the Beer Wurlitzer
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The Picture House - 1920’s
Wilfred Gregory at the Picture House Wurlitzer
The Picture House - 1940’s
Wurlitzer Opus number 956 was dispatched from the factory on the 1st December 1924 and shipped to Southampton, destined for its new home at The Picture House in Walsall, West Midlands. It was the first Wurlitzer Unit Orchestra to arrive in England.
After its arrival at Walsall, the Style-D Wurlitzer was unpacked and installed into the Picture House over the coming weeks. It was installed in a large wooden swell box type chamber.
By the end of January 1925 the organ was fully operational. It was opened by the organist Jack Courtnay on the 26th January 1925. On its opening night it accompanied the film “Claude Duval” starring Fay Compton and Nigel Barrie.
Between 1925 an 1929 the Wurlitzer was used to accompany all the silent films of the day, including the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. When the “talkies” arrived, the Wurlitzer went on to be used for solo spots and to provide music during the interval. At about the same time, Wilfred Gregory became resident organist at The Picture House.
During the days of World War 2 the Wurlitzer, at the hands of Wilfred, was a great morale booster to the people of Walsall. After the war, with television gaining in popularity, cinemas began to see the size of their audiences dwindle.
Due to a lack of use, as Wilfred had now moved on to the Tower Cinema in West Bromwich, the management at the Picture House decided there was no longer a need for the Wurlitzer in Walsall after 30 years of use there.
The Console at Dormston House
Allan Hickling at the Console
Allan Hickling removing the
Wurlitzer from Walsall
The organ was sold to a local enthusiast, Cllr. Allan Hickling, who installed it at his home: Dormston House in Sedgley. Installation of the Wurlitzer here was complete in time for Christmas 1955. Many notable organists of the day played the Wurlitzer whilst it was in Allan’s home.
However just a couple of years later, Allan decided he wanted something a bit bigger. He proceeded to purchase the Wurlitzer organ from the City Cinema in Leicester. The ex-Walsall Wurlitzer was put on the market and sold to fellow enthusiast, Arthur Thorn of Beer in Devon.
The Wurlitzer left Dormston House in April 1957. Arthur Thorn’s plans were to have it installed at the Congregational Church in Beer. As it was intended that the organ was to be for church use, all of its percussion items, special effects, and second touch feature were removed by Ronald Guy Clease. The organ was installed in Beer by the Sweetland Organ Company of Bath.
Over the years the Wurlitzer provided good service at the Church, but by 1987 it had fallen into a state of disrepair. Although it had been in receipt of regular attention, this proved to not be enough. A couple of members of the Cinema Organ Society came forward and carried out what repairs they could to keep the organ playing.
But, by the end of 1998 the organ was again becoming unreliable, and the Church considered selling the instrument. For one reason and another, the Wurlitzer never did sell. Local organ builder Michael Farley was contracted to look after the organ for the next few years.
In 2008 it was decided to return the historic instrument to its former glory. A society was formed to raise funds to be able to achieve this.
The Wurlitzer was soon in receipt of some of its missing percussion items. Admittedly some of these are Compton units, but they will be replaced with Wurlitzer ones as and when they become available at a sensible price. At the end of 2010 a replacement Wurlitzer toy counter and toe pistons were installed.
Since then a Wurlitzer shutter action has been installed to replace the mechanical system originally put into the church, the Second Touch facility has been reinstated, and most of the instrument has been rewired to replace the aged and failing original wiring.
Maintenance and improvements to this historic organ are on-going as funds allow.
The Wurlitzer continues to entertain the public on a monthly basis in Beer, as well as being used to accompany the Church services on a Sunday.
Arthur Thorn at the Wurlitzer
upon its arrival in Beer
The Congregational Church
CLICK HERE to read more about the Gaumont Picture House in Walsall, from the Cinema Treasures website.
CLICK HERE to discover more about theatre organ history in the UK plus other notable installations from the Stories of London website.
Anyone with an interest in the history and development of the theatre pipe organ ... ...
CLICK on the image to check out the superb ‘Theatre Organ Series’ on the Stories of London website.