The sound of silents with popcorn


To celebrate 90 years of Rye’s historic Wurlitzer, one of the world’s finest theatre organists, Simon Gledhill, will be putting the instrument through its paces at Rye College on March 22.

The Wurlitzer theatre organ was designed to accompany the silent films of the 1920s. It contains real percussion instruments – drums, cymbals, tambourine, castanets etc, plus a whole host of novelty effects to be able to do this effectively. The organ was dispatched from the Wurlitzer factory in New York at the end of February 1925. Originally, it was installed at the Palace cinema in Tottenham, north London, and at the time it was only the second Wurlitzer to be installed in the United Kingdom.

The instrument opened on April 6, 1925 with a showing of the silent films Never Say Die starring Douglas Maclean, and Find Your Man featuring Rin Tin Tin, the wonder-dog of the screen. With the arrival of the talkies (films with sound) in 1929, the Wurlitzer went on to be used for interludes between films and variety acts, as well as to provide background music during the interval. It continued entertaining the population of Tottenham for the next 28 years.

The mid-1950s brought about a change to the way cinema programmes were presented and, by 1957, there was no longer a use for the Wurlitzer at the Palace cinema. It was put up for sale and was purchased by Rye Grammar School. The school installed the instrument at the back of its newly built school hall.

As funds ran dry, over the decades the condition of Rye’s Wurlitzer began to deteriorate. It eventually got to the point where it was virtually unplayable and again it was threatened with being sold.

In the early 1990s, Friends of Rye Wurlitzer was formed to raise funds to restore this monster music machine. Since then thousands upon thousands of pounds have been raised and spent on what is Britain’s second-oldest Wurlitzer theatre organ. Within a few years the Wurlitzer was returned to its former glory, the highlight of this period being the moving of the organ console on to the school stage, where it rises from the depths on its own lift mechanism.

In more recent years, Rye Wurlitzer Academy has been founded to teach students the theatre organ totally free of charge. This is a unique teaching project, which is heavily reliant upon donations to be able to continue.

On Sunday March 22 at 2.30pm, Simon Gledhill will be playing songs from the shows, marches, waltzes, light classics, old favourites and a whole lot more. Everyone is welcome at Rye College, Love Lane, Rye.

The following Friday (March 27,  7.30pm) is a rare opportunity to experience the Wurlitzer performing in the role for which it was originally designed: accompanying a silent film. In true cinematic style, the evening also includes popcorn, crisps, ice cream and a whole load of fun, all in aid of the academy. Tickets for this event are available by calling 01424 444058.

Palace Theatre, Tottenham: where the organ first accompanied silent films
Palace cinema, Tottenham, north London: the organ’s original home


Photo: Glen Twamley