A History 95 Years in the Making.
St Michael’s Collegiate is home to Tasmania’s only cinema organ, the WurliTzer Opus 1716 Model F. This incredible instrument has a French-style console (which is the visible part of the instrument) which houses the keyboards and stop tabs that control the rest of the instrument that’s hidden behind the Linmor Hall stage. Built to replace an orchestra during silent films, the instrument expands over several metres with pipe chambers, cymbals, xylophones, bells, chimes, drums and effects.
We have put together the known history of our WurliTzer organ, with help from the Theatre Organ Society of Australia Tasmanian Division inc (TOSA), who have installed and maintained the organ since the ’70s.
Video Sources :
00:44 A VISIT TO WURLITZER” – A FULL TOUR of the WURLITZER FACTORY at NORTH TONAWANDA N.Y.
03:02 Spring Cleaning Tussauds (1949)
03:18 The Madame Tussauds Bomb Night
03:42 Edward O’Henry
04:38 Stories of London
05:00 Five Organists Live in Blackpool
06:50 Keeping the Art of Silent Film Alive
The organ was built in America at the North Tonawanda factory of the Rudolf WurliTzer Manufacturing Company on 29 August 1927. It was a Model F instrument, of two manuals and eight ranks of pipes, one of nearly 300 to leave the factory that year. It was destined for Madame Tussauds’ famous waxworks on London’s Marylebone Road. On 18 March 1925, Madame Tussauds’ suffered a serious fire which destroyed much of the building, as part of the rebuilding a new cinema was included with the now Collegiate WurliTzer. The cinema opened its doors in 1928.
Edward O’Henry was the resident organist and musical director at Madame Tussauds’ new cinema, he was an established musical figure, who earlier that year had opened the Christie organ at the La Scalar Theatre, in Glasgow. O’Henry was regularly broadcast on radio from the cinema, with many musical recordings and one video existing to this day. He left Madame Tussauds’ in December 1932, to open the Compton organ at the Capitol, Aberdeen, and in his place, Leslie James soon followed. Unfortunately, tragedy struck Madame Tussauds’ cinema again, and the cinema was destroyed in World War II during the London Blitz. This was described in the book Life of A Teenager of Wartime London;
Although the console was badly damaged, miraculously, the WurliTzer organ and all of its chambers survived the bombing. During this time, the American WurliTzer business had closed, with its UK agent, Walter Pearce, which formed part of the S.J. Wright & Son (organ builders) continuing business under the WurliTzer banner. In an attempt to attract further orders for new pipe organs, they constructed a new ‘French’ style console for the ex-Madame Tussads’ organ and used it as a demonstration instrument at their London factory. In time, it became clear that their endeavour was fruitless as no further orders were forthcoming, so the Organ was sold to the Blackpool Tower Company, and the organ was installed in the Blackpool Palace Ballroom. At Blackpool, the Organ was modified to be more suitable for dancing, with installation being complete in May of 1952. Watson Holmes was the resident organist, he officiated at the opening ceremony on 27 June 1952. Several recordings taken at the Palace Ballroom of Holmes are available to listen to online.
The Palace Ballroom closed for demolition in 1960, with the organ planned to be destroyed alongside the building. Demolition work had started, and at the eleventh hour, Allan Hickling, an Organ enthusiast, rushed to the scene and removed the organ, pulling parts through several floors and debris without electric light, to save it from destruction. The organ resided at his residence in Sedgley, England, where he removed the English Horn and added it to his own organ Opus 2081, returning the organ to its original eight ranks.
The organ later travelled south, to Yeovil, where it was installed on the premises of Frank Rook’s residence, a member of The Yeovil Theatre Organ’s club. The Yeovil Theatre Organ club enjoyed its sounds for some years, and in about 1972, Hubert Selby recorded material on it for the BBC radio show ‘The Organist Entertains’. A visiting American organist writes about the WurliTzer at Yeovil’s Theatre Organ Club.
In 1975, it was decided to replace the organ with a larger Conacher organ from the Odeon, Blackpool. Below are the words of Ian R McIver, another organ enthusiast, about what transpired:
Once received, TOSA spent 10 years installing the theatre organ at St Michael’s Collegiate School, with the inaugural concert being given by English Organist, Len Rawle, on November 20, 1985. To this day TOSA continues to host concerts at St Michael’s Collegiate’s Linmor Hall.