‘Worth all the effort when the first notes are played’

Photo Neil Cross'The new, second organ at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool'Organist David Lobban
Photo Neil Cross'The new, second organ at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool'Organist David Lobban
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You only need hear a few notes call from an organ to be transported back to a time and a place that’s oh-so familiar...

Oh I do love to be beside the seaside, but shelter’s long been needed from the battering of the North Sea’s winds and taking a break from the elements helped make Blackpool’s ballrooms, theatres and picture houses a popular retreat.

Once upon a time, crowds would flock in their thousands for variety shows and dancing, as seven of the celebrated instruments graced the resort’s entertainment halls providing the soundtrack to the summer.

The famous Wurlitzers graced the Opera House, the Empress and Tower ballrooms, and the Palace, with other brands in situ at the Odeon, Imperial and Jardin.

But over the years, as the buildings’ uses changed, these have disappeared, barring the Opera House and Tower set-ups.

It’s almost 45 years since the Wurlitzer’s sound graced the beautiful setting of the Empress Ballroom, but this weekend music and dance fans will hear an organ strike up once again.

On Sunday, the Winter Gardens Trust and management will host an Empress Ballroom organ concert to unveil the restored instrument to the public.

The restoration has been a joint project between Cannock Chase Organ Group, and the Winter Gardens’ complex management and trust.

The Midlands-based organ group has been looking after the Opera House Wurlitzer since 2007 after rumours began that it faced a similar fate to many others up and down the country.

Group president Steve Tovey said: “A rumour came about that the ‘unplayable’ Opera House organ was going to be taken out and used for spares for the Tower organ about eight years ago.

“So I shot up here and had a meeting with the management, thrashed out a deal whereas if we put it into working order we could then put concerts on – and that’s what we did.

“They were very successful. First, we had to fund the repairs for the Opera House organ, then me and Cameron Lloyd started concerts in the Empress Ballroom on electric organ and piano, too, in 2010.”

The Opera House organ holds the honour of having been the last Wurlitzer made in the UK, back in 1939, and the second to last made by the company at all.

Mr Tovey said: “Wurlitzer always said the Opera House organ was the best they’d ever installed in Europe; and I wouldn’t disagree.”

Sadly, many were lost in the Second World War and cinemas replaced organs with ice cream sellers for their interval entertainment, he added.

And with production having ceased, the parts of organs have become prize items for collectors and specialists seeking to repair existing instruments – with Mr Tovey travelling the length and breadth of the UK in his pursuit.

The original Empress Ballroom organ came from the Tower Ballroom, when ‘Mr Blackpool’ organist Reginald Dixon worked with Wurlitzer to design his own instrument for the Promenade venue.

The ‘twin’ took its place on stage in the Empress in 1935, with Horace Finch becoming its master there – at least until the Tower Ballroom fire in 1956, when Dixon moved to the Winter Gardens, and Finch was ousted to the Pavilion Theatre.

While the organ chambers remained over the Empress Ballroom stage, all the many parts had been stripped out over the years, but Steve and his team used their concerts’ income to collect the items needed to fill the chambers and bring the unique sound back to the ballroom.

With original Wurlitzer parts hard to come by, the new organ, installed on the balcony above stage left in the ballroom, has a Compton outer framework (console) although many of the internal workings have been salvaged from the 
famous brand’s instruments.

Mr Tovey was the last full time cinema organist in the country, and has been able to salvage parts of all sizes from his places of work over the years. Many of these are in storage or form part of his own private collection.

Parts have come from organs across the UK, and even Toronto in Canada and Durban in South Africa to recreate the Empress instrument – with the estimated cost of the restoration totalling around £30,000.

“It’s a wonderful achievement for the team to hear the organ now back in action in the Empress Ballroom,” 68-year-old Mr Tovey, from Aston in Birmingham, said, in tribute to his 29-man team.

“I’m rather pleased with the way it has gone, and I would have thought it might have taken us a lot longer.

“The first time I heard the pipes sounding round the hall again, it really took me back to remember the old days and it’s very emotional.

“When we have the relaunch, I want everyone there, barring The Queen - although she’d be welcome.

“I want everybody to hear it, and see it, and dance to it.”

The original Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer was sold to the BBC in 1969, for just £300, Mr Tovey said, with it used in the Playhouse studios in Manchester. From there it was sold on and was dismantled – but Mr Tovey tracked down that original console and it is currently owned by Wolverhampton Council, where he holds the title as official civic organist.

Although it’s now probably too expensive to reinstate as an organ, he hopes to return it to Blackpool, as a feature in the Blackpool Museum planned for the Winter Gardens’ Pavilion Theatre.

Mr Tovey, a member of the Winter Gardens’ board, regularly travels to the resort to help keep that authentic sound ringing true.

“Some time in the near future we want to make Blackpool the Mecca for Wurlitzers, with the Tower and Winter Gardens making for a grand 
weekend,” he said.

But in the meantime, the music and dancing enthusiasts are being called on to help make Sunday’s party a real celebration.

Organist Cameron Lloyd has the honour of taking to the keys from noon, playing music for popular ballroom and sequence dancing and an interval of ballroom and Latin dancing with Heather Roberts.

Winter Gardens Trust secretary Carl Carrington said: “The original Empress Ballroom Wurlitzer organ was installed by the Blackpool Tower Company. That was removed and broken up in the 1970s and the console is now owned by Wolverhampton Council.

“The aim is to purchase that back and restore it to the ballroom but in the meantime it’s fantastic to have a Compton console in place.

“We’re very grateful for the expertise of the Cannock Chase Organ Club to achieve this and it will be worth all the effort when the first notes are played.”

lTickets for the Empress Ballroom organ concert and dance on Sunday cost £3 from the Winter Gardens box office, in advance and on the day, with music beginning at noon. Tickets are also available at www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk.