Copyright: Friends of Beer Wurlitzer 2017
Wilfred Gregory (1907 - 1958)
Wilfred (Wilf) Gregory was an accomplished church and cinema organist. Born in July 1907 on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, Wilfred came from musical parentage. He started piano lessons at the age of just five, under the guidance of Miss G. Bailey.
It was long before Wilfred turned his attention to the pipe organ, and his tuition continued with Dr. Ernest Darby FRCO. As well as being organist and choirmaster as St. Mark’s Church in Wolverhampton, Dr. Darby also ran his own music school.
After about eight years, Wilfred became Dr. Darby’s assistant at St. Mark’s Church in the Chapel Ash area of Wolverhampton. The organ here was a Harrison and Harrison built in 1899. Over the next year, Wilfred also deputised at St. George’s Church, Wolverhampton, and the Wesley Church in Stafford.
Wilfred’s musical experience was varied as he was involved in many different musical activities. His first official church appointment came at the age of just sixteen when he became organist at Snowhill Congregational Church. Whilst here, one of the local newspapers reported: “at a recent performance of Samson, Wilfred Gregory earned high praise for his share in the performance. It set the seal for his ability, and his future career will be watched with interest”. A short while afterwards, Wilfred gave a solo recital to which the local press commented: “Mr Gregory is one of the most promising of the younger organists in Wolverhampton”.
Wilfred’s tuition transferred to George Cunningham in Birmingham, who was considered by many as the finest British organist of his day. From 1924 until his death, George was organist at Birmingham Town Hall. He was also a Professor of the organ at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Still in his teen years, Wilfred gave several recitals around the country. These included the parish church at Row in Scotland whilst on holiday there, and also St. Mary’s Church in Paignton, Devon.
As a result of Wilfred’s various recitals and musical activities, the following testimonials were made:
“One can hardly speak in too high terms of the masterly fashion in which Mr Gregory handled the instrument and brought out its fine qualities” (Rev D. Grant)
“Mr Gregory is a talented musician” (Express & Star Newspaper)
“After several years association with Mr Wilfred Gregory as a pupil, I confidently anticipate for him a brilliant future” (Dr E. Darby)
“I have pleasure in testifying to the extraordinary abilities on the organ of Mr Wilfred Gregory. He is a player of remarkable execution and taste” (Joseph Lewis - Musical Director of BBC Birmingham)
In 1930 Wilfred accepted the position of organist at Christ Church in Tettenhall Wood, where his Father was choirmaster. Interestingly, access to the organ console here was through an exterior door which was at the base of the church’s spire that was never completed. Whilst working at Christ Church, Wilfred managed to get himself listed in the yearbook “Who’s Who in Music”. He also got married at this church in 1939.
In the summer of 1944, the cinema Wilfred was working at, announced they would be opening on Sundays. This meant Wilfred had to resign from his post at Christ Church after fourteen years there.
However in the early 1950’s, the cinema chain that employed Wilfred, decided to dispose of many of their organists in the Midlands region. Wilfred went back to church work, and found himself a position at the Congregational Church in Penn where a four-rank Compton organ had recently been installed.
At the age of 18, Wilfred accepted a position at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford Street, Bilston. This came in February 1926 and it is said that there were a large number of applicants for the position, but Wilfred’s appointment was a unanimous decision.
As well as being organist and choirmaster here, Wilfred also gave several recitals on the organ which was built by Bishop & Son of Ipswich. Wilfred stayed at St. Mary’s church for about four years. Upon his resignation, his Uncle took over as organist and choirmaster here.
Christ Church, Tettenhall Wood
Following a road accident, Wilfred sadly died at the end of September 1958. He was just 51 years old. A crowded congregation paid their last respects to him at his funeral service which was held at the Penn Congregational Church.
Wilfred wasn’t just a classical organist. In the heyday of the cinema, he also found work as a cinema organist.
Wilfred’s first cinema appointment was as relief organist at The Agricultural Hall Cinema in the Snowhill area of Wolverhampton. He took on this position at about the same time as he started at Snowhill Congregational Church. It wasn’t long before Wilfred became solo organist at this cinema.
The organ at the Agricultural Hall was a “straight” orchestral organ built by Nicholson and Lord of Walsall in about 1916.
Wilfred spent about six years at the Agricultural Hall accompanying all the silent films of the day. Shortly after the “Talkies” arrived, Wilfred secured himself a position with the large cinema chain Gaumont, at their recently refurbished Picture House in Walsall.
Installed at Walsall’s Picture House was England’s very first Wurlitzer cinema organ. It was a fairly small instrument, having only six sets of pipes, but none-the-less it was powerful enough to fill the 1700 seater cinema.
Whilst working at the Picture House, Wilfred met his wife-to-be, Evelyn, who also worked there as an usherette.
CLICK HERE to read more about the Wurlitzer theatre organ at The Picture House cinema in Walsall
In 1938 well-known organist, Reginald Foort, resigned from his post as Staff Organist for the BBC. Wilfred applied for this prestigious position and made it as far as the short list. Unfortunately he was narrowly beaten by fellow organist Sandy McPherson. At about the same time, a new Civic Hall opened in Wolverhampton, complete with a large Compton concert organ. Arnold Richardson had already been appointed resident organist here, but Wilfred’s application to become his deputy was successful.
Wilfred spent ten years as resident organist at the Picture House in Walsall before briefly transferring to the Compton organ at the Gaumont Cinema in Wolverhampton.
In 1940 Wilfred left Gaumont British to take on a position with their rivals, Associated British Cinemas. His first year with ABC was spent touring the Midlands cinemas. He was posted for a few months at a time to the Central Cinema in Kidderminster, then the Pavilion Cinema in Wylde Green, followed by the Forum Cinema in Birmingham’s New Street.
The following year, Wilfred was finally given a permanent posting as resident organist at the Tower Cinema in West Bromwich.
The Tower Cinema had a three manual, ten rank Compton organ installed, which was opened by Leslie Taff in 1935. From the Tower Cinema, Wilfred introduced a “Requests” show in November 1946. Newspapers for the forces carried articles reading: “If you come from Birmingham, write to the Tower, West Bromwich, and have Wilf Gregory unite you with your relatives by playing your favourite tune on the organ”.
A couple of years later, Wilfred introduced “Melody Hour”. This was an hour of music, each Thursday morning, provided free of charge and aimed at the elderly who were often at a loose end during the day, and could not afford “paid entertainment”. It wasn’t long before there were between 100 and 150 pensioners present each week.
Tower (ABC) Cinema in West Bromwich
The series was so popular that the manager of the Pavilion in Wylde Green asked Wilfred to launch something similar there. That he did, and around 120 pensioners turned up. Due to its success, Wilfred was soon being asked to do the same at the Savoy Cinema in Wolverhampton. So, Wilfred was now entertaining the old folk of Wylde Green on a Tuesday, Wolverhampton on a Wednesday, and then West Bromwich on a Thursday morning. All this as well as providing the usual interludes and solo spots during the shows at the Tower Cinema.
In the early 1950’s Associated British Cinemas began to cut down on their number of resident organists. Instead of each cinema having its own organist, one organist was to cover a given geographical region. The ABC organists in the Midlands were among the first to go in the country. Some were made redundant, whilst others were offered positions in cinema management.
Wilfred was given a position as Assistant Manager at the ABC Cinema in Lichfield. He then went on to become a relief manager, covering the ABC cinemas in Birmingham, Darlaston, and Wylde Green.
Wilfred Gregory - Cinema Organist