A Potted History of Rye’s Wurlitzer

The idea of having a pipe organ at the School originated with William May, then Head of Music, in the mid 1950s. Assembly was held in the school Gymnasium in those days but insufficient space was available there for an organ. Plans were in hand however for the construction of a much larger hall on the East Side of the existing school buildings and provision was made at the rear of the proposed gallery for an organ chamber. Fortunately several cinemas were disposing of their organs at that time due to lack of interest and a relative shortage of players. Several were inspected in London, the choice falling on a two manual six rank Wurlitzer in the Palace Cinema, Tottenham, London, which was one of the earliest Wurlitzers to be imported from the U.S.A and installed on the 21st February 1925. Jack Courtney performed the opening ceremony at the Palace and continued until Frank Matthews took up residency, John Bennett took up the post until 1934 with Alan Cornell playing for films and matinees during the period 1934-1939. The Model D was one of a pair brought into the country the other bring the New Gallery, Regent Street, London. A purchase price of £450 was agreed and after many hours of labour by Bill May and Clifford Foster (who looked after the Wurlitzer during its early years) dismantling the organ during the showing of the film “Fire Down Below”. The organ was removed to Rye in August 1958 together with much soot accumulated over the years in North London.

               Electric Blower from the Regal

The electric blower installed at the Palace Cinema was very noisy and therefore not suitable for the use at the school so the hunt started for a substitute machine. Quotations were obtained for a new blower from various sources but the cost was far beyond the funds available. Rumours were heard of a redundant plant at the Regal Cinema, St Leonards. The Compton there had been sold on the closure of the cinema. This blower was available at a very reasonable figure but it was in the outhouse of the roof (the organ being originally over the proscenium arch) much work lowering a heavy 5 H.P. motor and cast iron-blower sections down the side of the building was involved. The organ was installed with very few hitches, the additional height being obtained by the removal of the floor in the chamber giving the necessary ten feet or so of headroom. The blower was placed in the adjacent tank room thereby giving the air intake a higher degree of humidity, which is valuable in a centrally heated building.

During the 70s the organ was seldom played or used. However this all changed in the early 80s by the arrival of Chemistry Master Nigel Spooner himself an excellent player who put a lot of time and effort into repairing the Wurlitzer. Nigel left the school in 1990 when the Rye Old Scholars took over the maintenance of the organ by way of fund-raising concerts until the ‘Friends of Rye Wurlitzer’ was formed by its current Chairman and Restoration co-ordinator, Richard Moore in 1993. Since then Richard and a small dedicated team of helpers have arranged nearly 70 concerts encouraging some of the countries leading theatre organists to come and play Rye’s Wurlitzer. Compared to the like of Blackpool, Leicester Square, Harrow & Woking, Rye is a very small installation and when something does not work properly it is even harder to perform on. However not to be put off by this, artists have appeared, and, once they do, they have returned again much to the delight of the appreciative audiences. Electronic relays (designed by Bill Walker of St. Albans) were installed in 1997 giving more room in the organ chamber for the toy counter working again to its full potential in September 2001 and percussion items. The Wurlitzer in now computer compatible so other electronic instruments and recording equipment can be linked to it, now and in the future. After forty-two years in residence the future seems bright now for the Rye Wurlitzer. Technical support and regular maintenance is under the direction of David Barnett and Tony Leeson.

From “Rye’s Own “ March 2003

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