A theatre organ in Ewell
Many of our older members will doubtless remember the heyday of the cinema/theatre organ in the 1930s/40s, when a regular feature of a visit to the cinema was the entertainment provided in the interval by the resident organist playing an instrument, which would frequently be billed as ‘the Mighty Wurlitzer’. The lights would dim, there would be a hush of expectation and then, with a blaze of light and a thrilling sound filling the whole cinema, the maestro would ascend from the depths seated at the resplendent console of a three- or four-manual organ, many of which had glass surrounds containing lights which constantly changed colour as the organist played.
In the early days cinemas were small and the silent films needed some accompaniment, if only to cover the sound of the projector. This was usually provided by a pianist, but as cinemas grew in size, something with more power than a piano was needed. Some managers hired orchestras, but this was expensive. A pipe organ certainly had the necessary power, but the sound produced by the instruments available at that time was not entirely suitable to provide the accompaniment to a film. Moreover the hundreds of pipes required (some of which might be 16 feet tall) took up a lot of space.
Then there came upon the scene a young man by the name of Robert Hope-Jones, who had been playing the organ in his local parish church since the age of nine and, after qualifying as a Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, became the Chief Electrician of the then Lancashire and Cheshire Telephone Company. Robert Hope-Jones’ interest in the organ led him to abandon his career as a telephone engineer and to set up his own organ building firm with the name of the Hope-Jones Electric Organ Company Limited. He clearly had an inventive mind and, as an organ builder, set about putting many of his, then quite revolutionary, ideas into practice. These included such innovations as electropneumatic action, exceptionally high wind pressures and a range of pipes of novel design intended to make them sound more like the instruments of an orchestra. The best known of these is, perhaps, the tibia, which is one of the pipes which give the cinema organ such a distinctive tone. His aim was to produce an instrument which could be used as a one-man orchestra and he called his organ the Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra. He also applied his genius to reducing the number of pipes required by using a complicated switching arrangement and an idea of his success in this direction can be gained from the fact that a cinema organ, with the same number of stops as a church organ, makes do with fewer than a quarter of the number of pipes. These and many other innovations ultimately resulted in an organ which had the tonal versatility of an orchestra, could cope with the wide ranging repertoire needed in cinemas and (very important to cinema owners) took up a lot less space. In 1903 Robert Hope-Jones took his ideas to America. In 1910 he joined with Rudolph Wurlitzer to form the Hope-Jones Wurlitzer Organ Company and through his work with that company, and previously, has rightly earned the nickname of ‘the father of the cinema organ’.
At this point the reader may wonder what all this has to do with Ewell. I have a considerable interest in pipe organs and when, working with the Epsom and Ewell History and Archaeology Society’s Documentary Group a few weeks ago, indexing the Glyn Papers, I came across a document referring to an organ, I could not resist following it up. The document is a copy of an agreement between the Hope-Jones Electric Organ Company Limited and Sir Gervas Glyn for the supply in 1893 of a four-manual (i.e. four-keyboard) organ for installation in the music room of Glyn House. the Agreement is dated 10th April 1893 and is personally signed by Robert Hope-Jones M.I.E.E. Managing Director. It is clear from the specification attached to the contract that this was an unusual organ. Whilst it was not a theatre organ as eventually developed by Robert Hope-Jones and Rudolph Wurlitzer, it nevertheless contained a number of innovative features, which were certainly not to be found on the average church organ of the time, and it would certainly have been versatile enough to enable Sir Gervas and Miss Margaret Glyn to play a much wider variety of orchestral music than would have been possible on a purely church organ.
With the papers was a handwritten note to the effect that the organ had been removed to a church in Bognor in 1921 but no other information.
I made enquiries of several members of the theatre organ fraternity in Sussex without gaining further information, but my enquiries eventually led me to write to Mr. Roger Fisher, who is the author of a book on the life and work of Robert Hope-Jones. Mr. Fisher, who has an extensive archive of information about organs built by Robert Hope-Jones was, nevertheless, most interested to learn about our discovery because he knew of a Hope-Jones organ in Ewell, but nothing other than its inclusion in a list of Hope-Jones organs. He also knew of the Bognor organ, but only recently realised that these were the same instrument. After carrying out some further research, Mr. Fisher was able to tell us that the Ewell organ had in fact been transferred to St. John’s Church in Bognor in 1921/22, but unfortunately it was destroyed upon demolition of St. John’s in 1972. At that time efforts were made to raise interest and save the organ – or at least the console, but these were unsuccessful. Had the authorities at Bognor known of the organ’s Ewell origin, or of its importance as part of the history of the Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ, something might perhaps have been done to save it. It is nevertheless interesting to know that the action of Sir Gervas Glyn in purchasing what at that time must have been a most unusual organ, helped to form a link in the chain of events which eventually led to the development of the organs which in later years were to provide the people of Ewell with much entertainment in their local cinemas.
Those of our members with an interest in pipe organs may like to know that the Glyn Hope-Jones Organ installed at Ewell had 4 manuals, 20 speaking stops of 4, 8 and 16 foot pitch, 20 couplers operated by electro-pneumatic levers, second touch on pedal and great and tremulant on the swell. Such an unusual organ must have been a source of great interest, and possibly amazement, to organ aficionados of its day. Robert Hope-Jones built around 150 church organs in this country before emigrating to America. Of those only a handful now survive and they have mostly been altered beyond recognition.
Members who would like to know more of the life and work of a remarkable man who came to Ewell and installed an equally remarkable organ in the home of the Glyn family will find much of interest in Roger Fisher’s book From Wirral to Wurlitzer.