Astoria Centre, Barnsley: The hidden nostalgic gem on a Yorkshire industrial estate where tea dances bring back memories of yesteryear
A warehouse in Barugh Green is the unlikely location of the UK’s national collection of cinema organs – and it has become a much-loved social hub thanks to its dances and concerts where memories can be shared and past times evoked.
The Astoria Centre has only been open since 2016, when a group of dedicated volunteers succeeded in transforming the industrial unit into a museum and auditorium ready to welcome visitors. As well as being home to some of the country’s last surviving instruments, it is graced with visits from some of the most eminent organists on the circuit and has become Yorkshire’s answer to Strictly Come Dancing and the famous Tower Ballroom.
What is all the more remarkable is that the volunteers restoring and caring for the organs, which include Wurlitzers and Comptons dating from before the war, have little experience in the field; only Kevin Grunill was a professional organist, while his team are a mix of teachers, engineers and secretaries who have taught themselves intricate handicraft skills.
The Astoria’s story began back in 1999, when a Penistone-based group of enthusiasts restored a 1937 Compton for the local Paramount Cinema. They had always talked about a permanent home of their own, and an opportunity came in 2009, when a disbanding group in Sheffield offered them another Compton that was being displaced from a school scheduled for demolition.
"We decided we wanted to do something quirky and different, and we started looking at industrial units. We spent six years creating workshops, a pipe room, auditorium and cafe area and we wanted to hold dances, concerts, rehearsals and silent film screenings,” said Kevin, who was resident organist at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool.
Since then, the Astoria’s collection has only grown, with other instruments rescued and a second unit acquired next door for additional workshop space.
"I say we’re like a musical version of Men in Sheds! Our youngest volunteer is 24 and the oldest 84. None of them had worked with organs before but they’ve picked it up quickly.
"We realised there was no national collection, so we have become one. We’ve told the story of the entertainment organ – not those played in churches, but cinemas and theatres. At one point, there were around 400 in the country, and now only 90 survive, most in private hands. Only around 25 are on public display.”
Despite this illustrious history, it is the weekly tea dances which have put Astoria on the map with the general public and widened its appeal beyond enthusiasts.
"People come from all over. They are so popular. Not everyone dances, some people just have lunch and take in the atmosphere, but even the non-dancers often get bitten by the bug and have a go.
"Strictly has really helped, it’s shown that dancing isn’t old-fashioned or niche. For many people, it’s their weekly outing. We have a group of widowed women who say it is their highlight.”
There are larger-scale events, such as Christmas and New Year’s Eve balls that bring out the tuxedo-wearing younger generation, but the poignancy of the Music and Memories mini concerts leave not a dry eye in the house.
"They are 30-minute performances with tunes from the 1950s and 60s, and from the films. People are familiar with them and they can have tea and cake. We are mindful that music evokes memories for older people. We’d like to do more of them, with themes and perhaps in the evenings.
"It’s a real social thing and we just want to get people here.”