How one man's fascination with cinema organs took him to Hollywood and back to Saltaire's world-standard Wurlitzer

As a boy David Lowe had joined Shipley’s church choir with his eye on its organ, which he found as seductive as the sounds from his radio set.

It was to be the beginning of a lifelong fascination that took him to Hollywood and beyond, and then back to Bradford where his career as an organist began.

Saltaire’s Wurlitzer is one of the last of its kind, and among the finest worldwide, he said, as he put the finishing touches to its tuning for play once more.

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As a starstruck teenager pressed into club service some 60 years ago he had seen some sights, he chuckled, but none to beat the majesty of this “phenomenal” machine.

David Lowe tuner of the 1937 Wurlitzer organ at Victoria Hall in Saltaire. Writer: Byline: Gary Longbottom

“There’s something about this instrument,” said the now 74-year-old. “It’s one of its kind with its size. You do get a lot of bang for your buck.”

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Mr Lowe is a trustee of the Cinema Organ Society (COS) which owns the grand organ in Saltaire’s Grade II listed Victoria Hall.

David Lowe playing the organ in the hall. Writer: Byline: Gary Longbottom

On Thursday night, it will play once more, to accompany the 1925 silent horror Phantom of the Opera.

These orchestral organs, while not intended for silent movies, proved ideal to the task and were once a common sight in cinemas, theatres and ballrooms from the early 1900s.

To seven-year-old Mr Lowe, singing in St Peter’s choir, they were a wonder of invention.

'It was an education'

David Lowe tuner of the 1937 Wurlitzer organ at Victoria Hall in Saltaire, playing the organ in the hall. Writer: Byline: Gary Longbottom

From those early days he came to the Wurlitzer at the Gaumont Cinema, gazing at his name in lights before a crowd of thousands, and the city’s ice rink.

Then it was on a broadcast career in London, global tours and, in the 1980s, catering to wealthy Americans who would fly him out to Hollywood or Tennessee for a private set.

“It was an education,” said Mr Lowe. “To be a teenager, playing the clubs on Sunday lunchtime, there were times I didn’t know where to look.

“It led to enough money to come back to Bradford. My first paid engagement was in this very hall in about 1965.

David Lowe organist and tuner of the 1937 Wurlitzer organ at Victoria Hall in Saltaire, playing the organ in the hall. Writer: Byline: Gary Longbottom

"Even then I was looking around and thinking ‘isn’t it fantastic to have a Wurlitzer’. Here it is.”

Peddles and pipes

Saltaire’s Wurlitzer, still in use for concerts, is a vast machine of pedals and pipes, with chambers under the stage that speak of a forgotten age.

“People forget now the earliest films were silent,” said Mr Lowe. “Wurlitzer organs were a sensation.

“It’s the feeling of history, the phenomenal versatility, the huge variety of sounds. That, and the sense of joy it gives when you hear it playing. It sounds superb, it really does.”

Saltaire’s Wurlitzer, first installed in 1937 at the Gaumont Cinema in Oldham, was purchased in 1961 by the Cinema Organ Society.

David Lowe Organist and tuner of the 1937 Wurlitzer organ at Victoria Hall in Saltaire, tuning the pipes of the organ below stage. Writer: Byline: Gary Longbottom

Phantom of the Opera

Its first new home was Dale Hall Hampsthwaite, where it took four years to install, before it moved in 1991 to Trinity Arts Centre in Pudsey, then the Brighouse Ritz Ballroom.

Since 2009 its home has been the Grade II listed Victoria Hall in Saltaire, first opened in 1869.

The Wurlitzer itself has been extended over time, now incorporating a tuba horn, orchestral oboe, English horn and a Wurlitzer Krumet.

On Thursday evening, it will be played by organist Aaron Hawthorne to accompany a live showing of the 1925 silent horror Phantom of the Opera, with Rosie Lavery as soprano.

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