The Worthing Wurlitzer 1991 to Present

Spring 2018, Sunday afternoon, Worthing Assembly Hall. About 200 are gathered. To applause, a magnificent Wurlitzer organ rises from the stage, the gaudy sound of ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’ rings out. The man playing is Phil Kelsall, principal organist at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom for over 40 years.

IN A CONCERT OF TWO PARTS, he entertains all afternoon, a ball of energy at the instrument’s distinctive horseshoe shaped console. Playing the Wurlitzer requires stamina and Kelsall is almost dancing as, bathed in pink light, his arms leap hither and thither, his body jumping around as he attacks the pedals at his feet.

The sounds he creates can be strident but are also sonically varied, full of entertaining twists and turns. It’s what used to be called ‘light music’ but seems also part fairground, part music hall, even part naughty postcard as a swanee whistle is never far away. And yet, as well as stomping jollity such as the ‘Drunken Sailor’ sea shanty and ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ from ‘Mary Poppins’, he also assays a delicious vibraphone-like version of the
gallery theme from ‘60s/’70s children’s TV show ‘Vision On’ and a sturdy take on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

It’s a uniquely British experience, run through with nostalgia, but Worthing is one of only a few towns left where a theatre organ maintains such an active presence.

“In the 1920s cinema organs accompanied silent films but by the 1930s they were used to play the audience in and out and in the ice cream break,” explains Simon Field, chairman of the Sussex Theatre Organ Trust and owner of the Worthing Wurlitzer. “In those days the organists themselves were real stars – most of whose forenames were Reginald, for some reason – Reginald Dixon, Reginald New, the famous Reginald Foort who had a touring organ carried around in five big lorries that he’d set up and play. Coming out from your cold home into luxurious warm to see an exotic film was a big evening out and the organ was part of that escapism.”

Worthing had just such a cinema with a Compton organ in its massive Odeon on Liverpool Road but this was sadly demolished in 1987 (despite being a Grade II Listed building). That Worthing has a Wurlitzer at all, then, is mostly down to one man, Jim Buckland, now in his late nineties.

In 1975 he was at the heart of a group of enthusiasts who set about bringing a theatre organ to the town. It was to prove a daunting task.

They rescued a dilapidated organ from Buckingham’s derelict town hall. The instrument had itself been rescued from Stepney’s defunct Troxy cinema. Buckland and his devoted team, supported by Worthing Borough Council, spent 36,000 man hours on the restoration, at a cost of £137,000. The grand launch was on 24th May 1981 and playing the opening set was Bobby Pagan, who had also played when the organ originally opened in Stepney in 1933.

The ‘80s and ‘90s were glory years for the Worthing Wurlitzer, consistently selling out 1000-capacity concerts. American organ stars Lyn Larsen, Carlo Curley and Hector Olivera all appeared, for the US has a particularly strong theatre organ culture (indeed Buckland’s original aim was to emulate the sound of the Wurlitzer in the
Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California). Homegrown talents such as Simon Gledhill, Richard Hills, and Nigel Ogden also performed, and the Wurlitzer accompanied the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, a collaboration that continues to the present. A piece was especially written for this pairing by Hollywood composer Rex Koury (who wrote the theme to the radio/TV show ‘Gunsmoke’).

Buckland wasn’t yet completely satisfied with the sound. In the mid-‘90s, an organ became available that could be used to extend and update Worthing’s. This was the BBC Theatre organ from Manchester’s Playhouse, which had previously been in Blackpool’s Empire Ballroom. The renovations took two years to complete and the revitalised Wurlitzer was finally presented in concert on 23rd February 1997, now one of Europe’s largest and most complete. A final round of “tonal finishing” was completed in 2001, overseen by Lyn Larsen and two top US Wurlitzer technicians.

“To sound really good organs need to be tuned to the building,” says Simon Field, “Certain ranks of pipes need to be made louder, some softer, same with individual notes. That process often didn’t happen with many English cinema installations but this one has been tonally finished by two experts so it’s very Americansounding, brighter and slightly louder than the average English cinema organ.”

Four years ago Field took over fromJim Buckland, purchasing the organ and overseeing it. The income to pay for its upkeep comes from concerts but audiences have dwindled somewhat in the 21st century. The generations who recall Wurlitzers in cinemas is passing and no-one is replacing them.

“There are only about five or six organs in the country on the same scale as Worthing’s,” says Field, with justifiable pride, “Very few are regularly played, although the one in the Odeon Leicester Square is still used to play audiences in. Overall, not enough people are coming now. It tallies with the fact people don’t listen to light music, the sort composed by Leroy Anderson in the ‘40s and ‘50s, that used to be on BBC Radio 2 before they started playing pop from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Such music is deeply unfashionable at the moment, and I think it’ll be a good few years before it’s rediscovered. When it is, that’s when the theatre organ will re-emerge with it.”

In the meantime, Field is forward-looking. The Wurlitzer is successfully played at Worthing Beer Festival each October, was recently used in an “immersive musical”, was the highlight of TotRockinBeats’ child friendly NYE party, and there are plans to show an accompanied silent film classic in the autumn, as well as for a revival of orgayled dancing.

The Wurlitzer concert programme has now paused until the autumn but keep your yes open. The Worthing Wurlitzer is an institution. It’s something this town has over almost any other in the UK. Whether you’re a fan of the music or not, it’s a treasure and we should ensure it has a vibrant future.

Thomas H Green