THE MIGHTY WURLITZER
Our Wurlitzer organ was ordered by The Ritz Cinema, Chatham on 23 November 1936 and shipped from the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, America, on the 12 December 1936 - confirmed by the shipping label on the back of the console. It was not the first Wurlitzer ordered by Union Cinemas as this went into The Ritz, Huddersfield. Ours was originally installed in the 2,322-seater Ritz Cinema in Union Street, Chatham, Kent, England, the site of the original workhouse - Chatham's second of 3 super cinemas and the largest cinema in the county of Kent, thought to be the oldest county in England, and was to organist Harold Ramsay's specifications, although we have made additions to the original specification pipework that was delivered to The Buttermarket. The Wurlitzer has a style-D trumpet. It has been suggested that the original installation would have included a French trumpet; however, there is another school of thought that Chatham was the only Union setup not to have a French trumpet. The French trumpet is more 'nasal' in tone than the sweet-sounding style-D trumpet. We still have a clarinet rank in situ, which is usually the first to go; however, the particular one we have we believe was from the Forum Wythenshawe, Burton Town Hall, Burton on Trent and this information has come from several sources and it is believed that the Gamba and Celeste came from The Ritz, Hastings Wurlitzer and other pipework. What has been added to date was what we believe Harold Ramsay himself would have liked but funds at the time did not allow, but more about this below. As a general point, Wurlitzer ranks of given scale and voicing are identical and unlike Compton or Christie ranks, do not carry a job number as they were just taken out of stock and used as required. Suffice to say, an organ can still be of original specification and, indeed, sound the same but all the parts may not be original. Harold Ramsay, then Musical Director of Union Cinemas, performed on the Wurlitzer for the opening concert at The Ritz on 22 March 1937, signature tune 'Rhapsody in Blue' (The Ritz, Barnsley organ was not ready for the double opening, although there was a direct telephone link between venues). The film showing was 'My Man Godfrey'.
Prior to the Ritz Cinema going over to bingo, as many cinemas did, the organ was purchased and removed by organ builder David Pawlyn in 1971 and stored in his workshops at Aylesbury. On the 9 March 1972, Shrewsbury's first specialist (electronic) organ shop was opened in Castle Street, Shrewsbury when Vic Emerson played on a Conn 580 Theatrette - a 3 manual electronic organ. The Ritz closed as a cinema on 20 May 1972. It was converted into a bingo club but there was a fire on 30 September 1998 and the building was subsequently rebuilt and now survives as a Gala Bingo, with seating for 900. David Pawlyn later installed the organ at The Buttermarket, Shrewsbury, in 1988. The opening concert at The Buttermarket was on Sunday 4 December 1988 with organist Dudley Savage (1920-2008) who, interestingly, was only the second organist to play the Wurlitzer in The Ritz at Chatham. The Trust originally rented the Wurlitzer, on a 10-year lease, as agreed on 12 July 1987, until 14 July 1995 when we were able to purchase the organ outright - the capital for this was raised in just 14 days.
The Wurlitzer's model number is Opus 2204. It was originally known as a 3/8 with 3 fully-unified manuals or keyboards (Chatham first Union setup like this) and 8 ranks or rows of pipes but, as part of our Millennium (2000) project, we now have the addition of two extra sets of pipes, with the addition of English horn and kinura, which we believe Harold Ramsay would have liked to have added, as alluded to above, so we now have 10 ranks (Main Chamber: Clarinet, Gamba Celeste, Diapason, Gamba and Flute; Solo Chamber: Saxophone, Trumpet, Tibia, English Horn and Kinura) with 708 'speaking' pipes in total, which are the ones that produce the music. It has a double bolster of stopkeys and 32 foot resultant bass (derived from the tibia).
Each manual has a compass (or range) of 61 notes, with 10 adjustable thumb pistons under each manual (see right-hand picture below showing combination switchboards inside the back of the console where wires are moved to the left to cause the stop tabs to come down when the buttons are pressed). Harmonic couplers 'Great to Solo' added to the 'Solo' manual (top keyboard), in 1999, means that the 'Great' (middle keyboard) can be played at 5 different levels - a combination found on the world-famous Wurlitzer in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. The bottom keyboard or accompaniment manual has an Octave Coupler.
There is a 3 1/2 octave radiating pedal-board (32 notes), which provides the bass notes, which would be the double bass of an orchestra or bass guitar of a band. Next to the toe pistons, the top row used for silent movie effects and the bottom row to alter pedal setup, there are 4 foot pedals. The first two are balanced expression pedals and open the great and solo chamber swell shades or shutters (to control volume), the next pedal operates the piano sustain now and the fourth is a general Crescendo pedal, which brings in a number of pre-set ranks, independent of the settings - some organists can be seen pumping this. 1st silver pedal: snare drum roll (half way), bass drum and crash symbol (full); 2nd silver pedal: full organ (half way), adding all stops Great and Pedals and glockenspiel, sleigh bells and xylophone (full).
The horse-shoe shaped Wurlitzer console with 'flutings', to conceal the lights, is painted gold. It is one of only 3 Wurlitzer organs (ex Chatham, Aldershot and Barnsley*) to have its particular illuminated glass surround, not made by Wurlitzer but designed by Francis Beard and manufactured exclusively for Union Cinemas (1928-38) by R.R. Beard Limited of London - an English company. It is the Mark I of 'pillar and vase' design. Later ones were wider with more fretwork. The first Union theatre organ that had the 'pillar and vase' design surround was The Ritz, Belfast, although was a Compton. The earliest Union Wurlitzers had the 'Rainbow' design. Clear glass 60w tubes would originally have been coated in coloured gels (the primary colours of light that are red, green and blue); however, since 2013 we have used LEDs, which are obviously a lot safer, and the Hope-Jones design with the Wurlitzer means the organ voltage gets reduced to about 12-15V from 240V DC. See photos below of surround and what is inside. The console platform is built from an old railway trolley and when the Wurlitzer is not in use everything is stored behind closed doors which were constructed by The Buttermarket's carpenter at the time, Steve, towards the end of 1988. The doors are in five sections - four fold flat against the wall and are bolted to the floor - the doors are suspended from a track.
The Trust were unable to obtain the original Wurlitzer 'Phantom' Grand Piano at the time, on a separate lift in its original installation, and it would have been difficult to have accommodated, anyway. However, a Technics digital piano was donated in October 1993 and the pedal coupled in February 1996. The piano has been added, via MIDI, up in the organ chambers, which can be played from the Wurlitzer console - the speaker is positioned just outside the chambers, adjacent to the swell shutters. The frames for the swell shutters were delivered on 8 December 1987 from BMSS Shrewsbury, four sets 6 foot by 5 foot. No additional amplification is now needed to boost the sound of the Wurlitzer, which sounds fantastic all around the auditorium - the whole spectacle enhanced by the console and The Buttermarket venue lighting.
The Organ Chambers: Main (left) and Solo (right)
The organ chambers at The Ritz, Chatham were situated one above the other on the left hand side of the auditorium. At The Buttermarket, the main chamber is on the left hand side of the balcony and the solo on the right. In the organ chambers, as well as the piano, we have the pipes which replicate real instruments, the tonal effects (real instruments e.g. xylophone), percussion instruments e.g. snare drum (probably the most realistic effect) and the silent movie effects, housed in The Toy Counter: Snare Drum, Cymbal Tap, Auto Horn, Steamboat Whistle, Door Bell, Triangle, Fire Gong, Bird Whistle, Tambourine, Chinese Block, Horses Hoofs and Castanets.
Now, more about what has been added at The Buttermarket. From the December 2015 concert onwards we have had our Wurlitzer specification bench, kindly sourced for us by Cameron Lloyd through the late Steve Tovey and funded by our chairman, in memory of Joan Byrne. The bench is shorter to allow for organists swinging their legs around and lower to make it easier for organists with shorter legs to reach the pedals! We still have the previous padded bench, of course, which was made for the Trust and donated by the Goddard family, in early 1989, based on the design of the bench in the town Hall Burton on Trent, and the original Howard seat with the two swivel cushions, which are up in the chambers - should any organists wish to use these.
Inventor of the Theatre Organ
Robert Hope-Jones (1851-1914) is credited with inventing the theatre organ - a telephone engineer from Birkenhead, Cheshire, England who served his apprenticeship at Laird Brothers now Cammell Laird's shipyard, in Liverpool. He took his ideas to America and sold his designs and rights to Wurlitzer. His design meant the voltage was greatly reduced and unlike with a church pipe organ his 'extension system' meant less pipes, hence less space and cost, and the pipes did not need to be where the console was as is the case with a church organ.
Brief History of Wurlitzer
The Rudolph Wurlitzer Organ Company was founded in 1853 by German, Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer (1831-1914) in Cincinnati, Ohio, America and later based in North Tonawanda, New York. The 'Mighty Wurlitzer' range of theatre organs was made from 1910, the last theatre organ was built in 1939 and pipe organs continued to be made up until 1942. It is recorded that there were originally 99 Wurlitzer installations in the UK compared to over 250 Compton organs (the UK equivalent) and it has been suggested that there are now around 50 with 30 in regular use. The Wurlitzer company ceased to exist in 1988 - the Baldwin Piano Company later bought the company, using the Wurlitzer name until this eventually disappeared by the end of 2009. Interestingly, a piano was the first keyboard Wurlitzer produced in 1880.
* NB: The ex-Ritz, Barnsley Wurlitzer was originally of 3/7 specification with no clarinet but now has 12 ranks with a fully unified console and being played at West Wickham. The ex-Ritz, Aldershot Wurlitzer was originally of 3/8 specification but now has 8 ranks. This was in the Isle of Wight in the seventies but is currently in store near Spalding.
From The Ritz, Chatham to The Buttermarket, Shrewsbury.