As photographer Claire and I began to climb high into the roofspace of the Winter Gardens, I seriously began to regret wearing white trousers. But these guys were insistent – and their obvious enthusiasm put thoughts of a boil wash to the back of my mind.
Regardless of the dusty atmosphere, we both stood and gaped. We were truly up in the gods, in a place where heavenly music will soon be made. Because the assortment of pipes; tall, short, wide and thin, that were arrayed before us are capable of creating magical music. It may be more than forty years since an organ was played in the Empress Ballroom, but in a matter of months that is all about to change.
And it will all be down to the hard work and sheer tenacity of the members of the Cannock Chase Organ Club, who have literally been on quite a journey in pursuit of one goal – to restore an organ to the Empress Ballroom. These guys have already worked their magic with the Opera House’s Wurlitzer. And as the finishing line is in sight in the ballroom, they are elated.
Club spokesman Steve Tovey told me: “We are all looking forward to the first concert with great anticipation. You could say all the stops are being pulled out!”
The organ will be unveiled sometime in November, when a dance is planned – only appropriate for a venue which boasts the biggest dancefloor in the UK. “The ribbon will be cut by Reginald Dixon’s two daughters,” Steve revealed. Reginald was the organist at the Tower Ballroom from 1930-1970 and his theme tune, Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside, is sure to be on the programme.
But let’s get back to the start of the story, and how the Cannock Chase group first became associated with Blackpool.
“It was six or seven years ago that we heard the Opera House organ was to be taken out or dismantled,” said Steve. “I came as soon as I heard, met the management and they said we could undertake repairs and maintenance in exchange for putting on concerts.”
Those concerts on the Wurlitzer have proved a big draw, with up to 800 people coming along to hear it being played by top theatre organists.
“The same kind of organ was in the Empress Ballroom until it was taken out in 1970 and sold to the BBC. We asked if there was any chance we could put our own organ back in there and, riding on the back of the work we had done in the Opera House, the management agreed. They were keen to have another theatre pipe organ in the Winter Gardens complex.”
That was three years ago, and since then the club members have worked hard to source the parts needed. The pipework has been been gathered from far and wide – alongside a ‘tibia clausa’ from the original Tower Ballroom organ, there are pipes from organs at the Regal, Golders Green, the Ritz in Huddersfield and the West End in Birmingham. New pipes have also been made by specialists Booths in Leeds. The console (originally from a cinema in Plymouth) was found in someone’s garage and has been lovingly restored.
“We are making it as near as possible to the original organ. We’re in the final stages of wiring now on the console – and the sounds we’ve been getting from the organ are most encouraging.” I can vouch for that, as we were given a little sneak preview of what sort of sounds the organ can make!
All of the work is done by the members, who have paid for the instrument and all its parts themselves. A true labour of love, then?
“We’ve posted updates about the project on Facebook and there has been an awful lot of interest from organ lovers around the world,” said Steve. “People are keen to come and hear it.”
So, what can I tell you about this magnificent instrument? It has 1,600 pipes, 25 miles of wiring and weighs seven tons – and I can’t wait to hear it in all its glory. Save me a ticket for that grand opening, guys!
Images courtesy of C J Griffiths Photography.
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