The WurliTzer at St Michael’s Collegiate’s Linmor Hall

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.

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;

Madame Tussauds was another popular attraction, as it had been since it opened in 1835, first on Baker Street then on Marylebone Road. However, it was devastated during the opening flurries of the Blitz. The cinema, which had been built in 1928, three years after the attraction was destroyed by a blaze, was blown apart by a single, high-explosive bomb on 9 September 1940.

Writer Virginia Woolf saw for herself the damage caused to the cinema, making a note about it in her diary the day after the raid:

“The cinema behind Madam Tussauds torn open. The stage visible, some decoration swinging.” More than 350 head molds were also destroyed. Ironically, one of the heads to survive was that of Adolf Hitler, although his nose was chipped, according to Daily Express reporter Hilde Marchant,

.. and Goering’s magnificent white coat was covered with black dust. It was a macabre joke, stepping over wax arms and torn wax torsos. Naturally I had hoped Hitler was broken, but little had happened to that gang. The head boy himself had slipped to one side and chipped a lump out of his face. Pleasingly, Churchill stood as firm as a rock, his glassy blue eyes sternly supervising the clearing of the wreckage.

Despite the damage, the attraction was open again by the end of 1940, although the cinema never returned.

Leatherdale, G., Leatherdale, D. (2017). Life of a Teenager in Wartime London. United Kingdom: Pen & Sword Books.

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.

Journal of The American Theatre Organ Society (1970) Letter to The Editor, from Jack Moellmann

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:

In 1975, it was decided to install the larger (4c/13) Conacher organ from the Odeon, Blackpool, at Yeovil, which meant that once again I happened to be storing parts of the Conacher, on behalf of the previous owner, and so I got to hear of this quite early in the proceedings, as I had received a letter from the Tasmanian division of TOSA, who were very anxious to acquire a theatre organ.

I immediately placed a provisional bid on their behalf. Naturally, there were objections to the organ going so far, but the total lack of any theatre organ in Tasmania proved a powerful argument, and this, backed by my first hand experience of some of the re-installations carried out by various TOSA divisions on the mainland, enabled me to win the day so that when the bid was confirmed from Hobart, it was accepted. Shortly afterwards, Tony Manning dismantled the instrument, and it was on its way to Tasmania.

Ian R McIver. Document provided by the Theatre Organ Society of Australia Tasmanian Division inc.

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.

Additional Sources:
Letter from Ian McIver to TOSA, note some inaccurate dates in letter.
History of The Theatre Organ from TOSA