The birth of the Mechanical Orchestra
By the early nineteen twenties silent movies had become the main form of entertainment for the masses. Large picture houses had been built in all major towns and cities throughout the world and picturegoers thronged one or more times weekly to their local 'picture palace' to be enthralled and entertained.
The larger cinemas, belonging to growing companies of distributors, hired musicians to play along with the films to heighten the drama and bring pathos to the stories unfolding on the 'silver screen'. Some comprised full orchestras while others, in poorer districts, relied upon a single pianist. But, the effect was the same as more and more pianists developed a style of accompaniment that gave them almost as much notoriety as the 'stars' on the screens high above them.
Soon, many medium-sized picture houses hankered for greater music and sound effects without the cost of large orchestras and the concept of the Cinema Organ became a reality. Various companies developed instruments that would fit the bill and installations began in earnest throughout the world. Great names like Wurlitzer and Compton were soon being heard everywhere and people flocked to hear these mighty instruments almost as much as to see the 'flickers'.
The basic setup of these organs was constantly changing as new sound effects became necessary for the films they accompanied and the organ building industry enjoyed a heyday not unlike a second industrial revolution. By using new techniques to control wind power and by coupling sounds, these great 'musical engineers' produced mechanical orchestras that bedazzled the public and helped to make the film industry into an entertainment giant that thrives to this day.
The magnificence of these instruments is best illustrated by the fact that so many of the greatest still survive today. Loved by many and still enjoyed in concert, they thrill and move us as much as they did in their prime. Thanks to the dedication of growing numbers of enthusiasts the names of Compton, Wurlitzer, Christie and others live on in the magic of their performance.
The Wizard Compton
1927. This was the year that Sidney Bernstein ordered the installation of an organ built by Compton for one of his five cinemas being refurbished at that time.
The cinema in question was the Rialto Leytonstone which re-opened on 6th January 1927 and the organ was introduced in May of that year by the organist Bruce 'Wendell' James.
The installation was not a great success, nor did it appeal to Sidney Bernstein. Being only the eighth Compton 'Kinestra' to be manufactured and relatively untested it may have been felt that the fault lay with the design of the organ but it was more likely due to the poor acoustics considering the unusual arrangement of the chambers. Before being a cinema the Rialto had been a skating rink which may go a long way in explaining the problems faced by the organ installers.
There is some controversy about the actual specifications of the Rialto Compton at the time of installation but it was definitely a two-manual with between seven and ten ranks of pipes.
The first console followed Bernstein's taste in being gaudily decorated with red dragons in Japanese lacquer. There was no lift for the organ at this time, however, so the decoration was mainly unseen.
1931. Improvements were made to the Compton during a re-build in 1931 with the provision of a new two-manual console, on a lift. A third (coupler) manual was added later. It is quite likely that attempts to improve the sound quality prompted position changes in the chambers that only led to further acoustic problems.
The new console was closely modelled on the 'French' style favoured by Wurlitzer and was probably finished in varnished walnut. We know that it was later painted in cream and salmon pink as the pictures below.
Organists known to have played the Compton included:
1927 – Bruce 'Wendell' James (opened the organ)
1927 on – Dr Westlake Morgan
1931/2 – Alex Taylor (guest)
1932 – Derek Ronald (re-opened the organ)
1932 – Stanley Hemery (guest)
1933/4 – Harold Ramsey (guest)
1934/6 – Harold Betts
1936 – Watson Holmes
1937/8 – John D Sharp*
1939 – Ronald Hammer & Cyril Gell (organ & piano)
During the 1940s and up to 1956, the Rialto/Granada would have been visited by the Granada touring team.
1956 – Bernard Worster (last time featured)
1973. Despite seeming the worse for wear, the organ's virtues were recognised by a devoted Compton fan, Father Gerard Kerr, advised by Dennis Hunt. Father Kerr, a parish priest in South West Essex, was determined to install the Compton into St Mary's Church, Hornchurch and, with the assistance of Les Rawle and others removed the organ from the Rialto prior to demolition and stored it in the church.
Dennis Hunt designed two new chambers alongside the church where two windows had been removed and where the organ could be reconstructed as it was installed. With the technical skills of Dennis and the assistance of ATOS London Chapter Chairman, George Harrison and others, the Compton was carefully rebuilt, revoiced and regulated. The console was stripped and returned to its beautiful, original walnut wood finish.
1976. The opening recital, attended by parishioners and a safari of 200 ATOS members from America, was given by Andrew Fenner on August 1, 1976, three years after the organ was rescued from the Rialto. From then on there were regular concerts by popular organists on the Compton, organised by Father Kerr until he died.
1999. After the passing of Father Kerr the organ became an expensive liability for the church and plans were made to replace the Compton with a modern electronic instrument. Byron Jones heard of the organ's possible breakup and shipment to Australia and was determined to keep it in Britain and bring it back to its former glory. He raised the necessary funds to purchase the organ and, with the assistance of a few friends, removed the Compton from the church and transported it to Bristol. It lay for some time in his house and garage while he sought a suitable new home that would do justice to this magnificent instrument.
2001. With the help of friends Byron managed to persuade a local church that their hall was the ideal venue for a historic musical instrument and designs were made by Terry Ahearn for the building of chambers on the existing hall stage, yet still retaining space for small theatrical presentations and other functions. Since then, with the assistance of other enthusiasts, Byron, Terry and Gordon Haley have completely restored the Compton to full working order. It is probably true to say that the organ sounds better today than it did in its original installation in 1927.
With thanks to Tony Moss and Ian R McIver for textual information gleaned from their own researches.
Special thanks to the following for the use of the black & white photography: Jeremy Buck, Photo Coverage, John D Sharp and the Cinema Theatre Association.