In the beginning, theatre organ console cases were relatively plain in appearance – not far removed from a typical detached church console. There was no real reason for them to be otherwise, as most were hidden in orchestra pits, and used mainly for the accompaniment of silent films. When, in the late 1920s, the reels of celluloid had learnt to talk, the theatre organ was required to change its image.
So dawned the age of the organ as a showman’s instrument. The organ interlude was born, and with it, the need to bring the console into full view of the audience. The obvious way of doing this was by use of a lift, to raise the console from the pit to stage level. Later, there were a few novelties – consoles emerging from the side of the proscenium on a ‘railway track’, or dolley-mounted for wheeling on stage – but the console lift reigned supreme.
In reality, the sight of a panelled console, at the top of a lift, was not exactly a show-stopper – even in a coloured spotlight!
There was a need to make the console as much a part of the presentation, as the organist and organ.
The John Compton Organ Company was by no means lacking in resources of genius. There was John Compton himself, supported by his right-hand man, Jimmy Taylor – and designer and chief draughtsman, Frank Mitchell.
Frank Mitchell was in continual demand for designing new console styles and church organ cases. In a letter of May 1991 he writes:
“Your analysis of consoles is amazing. There is, however, one type that you do not mention, and that is the genuine oriental lacquer type, in the eighteenth century fashion.
I well remember the Japanese artist, sitting quietly in a dust-free area in our Turnham Green Works, applying coat after coat of lacquer, and building up the thickness for the golden dragons with real gold paint.
There were only three consoles decorated in this way: one red [Super, Charing Cross Road];
The first major new design was a French-style console. With more than a hint of Wurlitzer, the first appeared at the Marlborough, Holloway, in April 1930, with a total of 16 being produced over the next 18 months. More than half were ordered by Gaumont, but it was also popular with a few of the smaller circuits. The final one was at the Regal, Uxbridge in December 1931.
October 1931 saw the introduction of a new Gaumont ‘flat top’ design, for the new Pavilion, Shepherds Bush console – again, a popular design, making its final appearance at the Gaumont, Wood Green in March 1934.
Frank Mitchell’s letter continues:
“Still on the subject of consoles, the Savoy, East Acton [April 1931] was the first of what I named as the ‘coffin-ended’ jobs. The owner of the Savoy was a fairground tycoon, who wanted something impressive. Up till then, no one had produced anything other than the usual basic horseshoe console. So, I submitted a number of designs to him, and he picked that one. I cannot say I was ever proud of it! This started a new departure in console design - and everyone else followed, and led to the luminous surrounds . . .”
The East Acton prototype was a somewhat plain forerunner of the renowned Wooden Sunburst ends, which appeared in October of the same year, at the Playhouse, Dewsbury. That the design should continue to be used as late as December 1938 (Apollo, Ardwick) is testimony in itself!
Interestingly, both East Acton and Dewsbury were the only two theatre consoles ever produced with an ‘angular’ horseshoe, i.e. straight centre stop bolsters flanked by 45-degree jambs.
". . . These jelly-moulds were coming off the production lines like tins of beans, and it was a great relief to have some decent consoles to do in decent solid wood, like Lewisham Town Hall (walnut); Lysaght residence (mahogany); Broadcasting House (solid oak). And one I remember with affection is the Paramount, Liverpool [also an identical console for the Paramount, Glasgow], the panels of which I designed in bas-relief stylised flowers (inspired by the facade of Derry & Toms of Kensington), to be seen to advantage on a turntable. This was done in plasterwork, and painted ivory."
In later years, there were to be more unique designs of wood console cases, such as the Gaumont, Finchley (1937); Davenport, Stockport (1937); Warner, Leicester Square (1938); and Ritz, Whitton (1939). However, from 13 September 1932, when “The World’s First Luminous Organ” opened at the Capitol, Forest Hill, Frank Mitchell’s unashamedly British idea positively flourished!
The 1932 (Forest Hill) design, known as the Glazed Sunburst, was patented by Compton, and the manufacture was entrusted to F H Pride & Company, Clapham, London.
In the following six months the demand for illuminated surrounds was overwhelming. A new design had already been commissioned for the Princess, Dagenham and Plaza, Southampton, and it was clear that further designs would be too costly and time-consuming for Frank Mitchell to produce in the Compton factory. Thus it was that Charles Theobalds, chief designer and technical head of F H Pride, was awarded the job.
He was responsible for the design of three of the most familiar styles – the Cascade, the ABC, and the Rainbow, together with the many special commissions.
The Union-style surronds were, however, designed by Francis Beard, and manufactured by R R Beard Limited, London.