The Burtey Fen Compton

 

 

WHEN THE MIGHTY ORGAN PLAYED!

Remember the days of the Cinema Organ? - Compton and Wurlitzer organs played by the likes of Reginald Foort, Sidney Torch and the maestro himself Reginald Dixon.

Most major cinemas of the 1930's and 40's had their own pipe organs that would rise dramatically from beneath the stage to accompany the silent films or entertain the audience between films. By the 1960's changes in popular entertainment saw their demise and by the 70's most had been removed and destroyed. A lucky few were saved by enthusiasts and are now highly prized. Wurlitzer Organs were manufactured in the USA but Compton's were the British counterpart, made by the John Compton Organ Co. of London. A total of 262 cinema organs were made by this firm, but today only a quarter of these survive.

One such organ is now resident in a purpose built music hall in Pinchbeck, near Spalding, Lincolnshire - a 10 rank Compton organ, formerly of the Ritz Cinema, Tunbridge Wells. The cinema was opened on December 3rd 1934, with the film 'Sing As We Go', starring Gracie Fields. A highlight of the programme was the organ interlude, given by Alex Taylor. Here the Compton remained, delighting audiences, until 1970 when it was removed to make way for a multi-screen complex. There was an outcry from the public of Tunbridge Wells, and a band of loyal followers lobbied in vain to find an alternative home for the organ in the town.

Henley and District Organ Trust purchased the organ and installed it in the Regal Cinema, where it was used for monthly concerts until 1986 when the cinema closed down. It remained untouched, and fell into disrepair until 1993 when developers bought the cinema which was to be demolished to make way for a car park for a nearby supermarket. In order for the organ to be saved it had to be bought, dismantled and removed within a couple of weeks.
 

 

Enter Nicholas Pitts:- a classically trained organist and organ restorer, with an interest in nostalgia and a determination to save the organ when he heard about its history from well-known theatre organist David Shepherd. Nicholas immediately bought the 7 rank Compton - unseen - and together with a small army of helpers brought the console and its 600 pipes back to Pinchbeck - just in time, as two days later the cinema was demolished!

The past few years have seen Nicholas restore the organ to its former glory. All moving parts were removed for renovation, with all the leather, wiring and wind ducting being replaced with new. The pipework was cleaned and repaired, and five additional sets (ranks) of pipes were included in the specification to make a total of twelve ranks.

The Compton was then installed in a studio annexe in Nicholas's former home in Pinchbeck, but the word was out! People wanted to see and hear the organ again - including visitors from its home town of Tunbridge Wells. A series of monthly concerts was planned and these became so popular it was soon evident that it was time to move to larger premises!

Nothing on the market was suitable, so the only alternative was to buy a site and build a purpose built music hall. Nicholas, together with another nostalgia fan, Mark Willerton eventually found an ideal site, and set about designing the building to house the Compton and Mark's vast collection of music and film memorabilia from the 1940s, 50's and 60's. Once again the organ was carefully dismantled and put into storage, whilst the new building was constructed.
The three manual Compton, complete with its original illuminated surround, which slowly changes through a rainbow of colours as the organ plays, stands regal on the stage, again in perfect working order, to mesmerise audiences just as it did in its heyday. The chamber, at the rear of the stage, houses the twelve ranks of pipes (Tibia, Vox, Diapason, Flute, Cello, Celeste, Trumpet, Tuba, Clarinet, Kinura, French Horn and Saxophone), and all the percussion (Xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, drums, cymbals etc.)

Nigel Ogden, presenter of Radio 2 The Organist Entertains was invited to give the opening concert in October 1999, and now in its new purpose built home, The Mighty Organ Plays again.

Since then, several of the country's top organists, including Nicholas Martin, Robert Wolfe and Phil Kelsall have given concerts on the Compton, all commanding a full house.

The Burtey Fen Collection, as it is known (taken from the quaint district name in Pinchbeck) is only open to the public once a month for a charity concert, with many star names of the organ circuit booked for future concerts.

Phone 01775 766081 for details, as prior booking is essential.

Photos copyright of The David Simpson Studio (Tel: 01205 311235)

 

 

 

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