Harry Remembers 4
David Bridgeman-Sutton continues his conversations with Harry, recalling halcyon days as cinema organist, and a special meeting. . .
“The 1920s and 30s were a good time for theatre organists. New cinemas were opening, almost weekly. In the depression years these were warm and comfortable places where people could forget their troubles for a few hours. In many industrial areas, management reduced the price of seats and organists joined in an effort to provide cheerful entertainment for the workless. The effects were felt most at boardroom level, and there were a number of mergers – the big circuits, State, Odeon, Gaumont etc took over many of the independents.
“These had differing attitudes to organs; some regarded them as a regrettable additional expense, others as live entertainment to be encouraged at all costs. They also had different policies about the deployment of organists. Some appointed “residents” who were attached to one cinema and often stayed there for years, becoming well-known local personalities. The longest-serving British “resident” was Reginald Dixon (pic 1)– whose forty years were spent at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool. (Pic 1b) My chain tended to appoint staff organists who were moved between theatres – a few weeks at an industrial town followed by a season at a seaside resort, if you were lucky.
“This arrangement suited me, though it often meant travelling between towns on a Sunday and getting to know the organ before the first house on Monday. This wasn’t helped by the sounds of vacuum cleaning and various maintenance jobs”.
(Harry never met Jacques – how much they would have had to talk about.)
“There was plenty to do between organ interludes. Most players made a point of never having sheet music on the console, so every number had to be committed to memory. We had a lot of arranging to do; medleys of three were popular – three-song tunes, usually with a common theme, such as rain, sunshine, or, of course, love. As the big owners tightened their grip, there was ever-more paper work – instructions from head office to include certain numbers, and – once – an order never to include a certain item. We never got to the bottom of that one! Lists, returns and programmes proliferated and much of the carefree attitude of early days was lost. I filled in spare time with flying, whenever there was a club nearby. When there wasn’t, I studied and eventually took a London external degree and a higher performer’s diploma.
“ When war broke out (1939) many organists found themselves in uniform – quite a number in the RAF. With my pilot’s licence, I was soon flying full time. One day, the weather closed in suddenly and a large plane – a Lancaster, if I recall - was diverted to our field. The pilot was a member of ATA - Amy Johnson (pic 2), who had broken a number of solo records pre-war. We had met, briefly, at one or two flying-club dinners – she used to come along occasionally in her never-ending search for sponsorship. Well, here she was, and we managed a long chat, which wasn’t always possible with the ladies of ATA! Amy’s talk, as always, was of nothing but flying and she went on to tell me of various pioneering ventures she had planned for after the war.
"Very soon afterwards, we heard that she was missing, later confirmed dead; her plane had run short of fuel and ditched in the Thames estuary. I often wonder what would have happened if she had survived. Of course, she would have flown – nothing could have stopped that – but technology had moved on a long way, costs had risen, and with airlines exploring new routes, the days of the solo-pioneer were numbered. Another woman pioneer, the American Amelia Earhardt, had disappeared a few years earlier while on round-the-world-flight: if she had lived, it would have been into a changed world.
“By the end of the war, I was engaged to be married and had had enough of travel and irregular hours. When the chance of a good job in education came along, I seized it. The theatre organ world got along without me. For a few years queues were longer than ever; then they began to decline. Management put it down to increasing television ownership and by the 1950s there was panic in the industry. Almost overnight half the circuits world-wide were sacking their organists – some even ordered organ blowers to be disconnected from the mains so that they couldn’t be used. A few years later, dozens of instruments went for scrap.
“Fortunately, hotels, pubs, clubs and some restaurants were installing electronic instruments – mainly Hammonds – at about that time, so there was work about for some: others went in to theatre management, became pub landlords, or left the entertainment world altogether. Most never ceased to regret the change - I still miss the thrill of applause as the console sinks out of sight. Will there be a single Wurlitzer or Compton left in fifty years time?
“It was fun while it lasted”.
(this conversation took place just about half-a-century ago; Harry’s fears for the future were unfounded - we can still hear many instruments - though few are in their original homes).