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The Mighty Wurlitzer of Howden Le Wear

 

In Howden Le Wear, County Durham, there is a modest little Methodist Chapel, with a discreet signThe Converted Chapel at Howden Le Wear housing the Mighty Wurlitzer hinting that all is not as it seems. This former chapel, now renamed the New Victoria Centre is home to NETOA, the North East Theatre Organ Association.

Moira McCrossan and Hugh Taylor paid them a visit.



Stepping inside the Chapel we entered a real old fashioned cinema with ornate plaster and gilding, red velvet seats, silky curtains and, the pride and joy, rising from the floor below the screen, the Mighty Wurlitzer, cinema organ. A beautiful, cream painted machine, with more pulls and levers and foot pedals than any one person should be able to operate.

The Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre at Howden Le Wear

 

As we took our seats the last few minutes of the film Ice-Cold in Alex was showing on the cinema screen.  As the end credits started to roll the organ music gracefully rose over the film theme music as organist David Watmough joined in on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Tourist Information: Dales Centre, Stanhope, County Durham DL13 2FJ. Tel: 01388 776688. Web: www.durhamdales.
co.uk

Email: durham.dales.centre
@durham.gov.uk 

Contact North Pennines AONB Partnership, Weardale Business Centre, 1 Martin Street, Stanhope, County Durham DL13 2UY. Tel: 01388-528-801. Email: e.info@north
penninesaonb.org.uk
for your Discovery Guide which focuses on the North Pennines AONB and Geopark. 

 

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Following the film David explained that, in the hey day of the cinema organ, the organist would play before the film, in the interlude and at the end.  He told us that playing over the end credits can be even more difficult than it looked, as film themes are often in strange keys, like D♭, which are hard to play even on less complicated instruments. However David made it look simple, his hands flying over the keys and his feet zig-zagging across the pedals with an almost athletic dexterity. 

Ice Cold in Alex End Credits

 

This particular Mighty Wurlitzer was first heard in the New Victoria Theatre in Bradford in 1930. The New Victoria was a magnificent cinema, tiered and decorated like a wedding cake with the Style 220 Special Wurlitzer looking beautiful in the centre of the orchestra pit, although it was always a little small for the vast cinema. For 38 years the organ was played for films and stage shows until finally in 1968, as cinema going declined, the organ’s day was done. However thanks to the dedicated enthusiasts of NETOA, it was painstakingly dismantled and removed to temporary storage in Crook. In 1974 it was installed in Cornforth United Social Club and for a short time was heard again, but by 1975 its stalwart saviours had to find yet another home for it and back into storage it went. After a few years of searching and uncertainty, they managed to acquire the former Trinity Methodist Chapel in March 1977 and with some trepidation set to work to adapt the building and install the organ. It was to be 9 years of blood, sweat and tears of concrete mixing, hammering, fund raising and restoration, before the opening concert of the Mighty Wurlitzer in the New Victoria Centre on 2nd March 1986.

 

However NETOA became a victim of its own success, for as the organ was played continuously once again, the resulting wear and tear required constant repair, with parts ever harder to locate. And so in 2003 the next major fund raising operation began, to completely renovate and update the organ. It was dismantled again in 2005, and by the time it was finished at a cost of around £150000, the organ had increased in size from its original 10 pipe to almost double at 18 pipes. The grand old pipes were either restored or replaced with original Wurlitzer pipes and the console refurbished, painted and gold leafed to look like new. Its workings have been completely modernized, so that it is now digitally operated. Its re-opening concert on 2nd June 2006 was a sell out as were the two following concerts.

 

The New Victoria Centre presents regular concerts and its programme is available online . For an hourly fee, musicians can arrange to play the Wurlitzer and members of the Association have regular opportunities to get together and play the organ. There are also teaching events, when well known and accomplished players such as Richard Hills and David Lowe, share their expertise and knowledge. Special Visitor Days provide the opportunity not only to listen to a performance but also to take a tour of the building, learn about its history and to go behind the scenes to see the organ’s massive pipes and cabling. Only then is it possible to appreciate the labours and determination of the volunteers, over the years, as they dismantled, removed, stored and rebuilt this mammoth instrument over and over again.  

The Mighty Wurlitzer

It is a wonderful experience to sit in this tiny auditorium, watching the beautiful console rise from the floor, listening to the multi-layered sounds produced by the 18 pipes ranging from vox humana to strings, woodwind and percussion, while the keys on a grand piano to the right of the console appear to be played by phantom fingers. Visitors to the area can check the online programme for concert dates and book in advance. For those who can’t visit, there are always the recordings, available on the website.

 

Read about other areas of the North East

WEARDALE - More attractions in the Durham Dales

LEEDS - Soap trail around Emmerdale

NEWCASTLE - Cultural capital of the North

NEWCASTLE - Down memory lane at Beamish open-air museum

NORTHUMBERLAND - Go furthest north in England, Alnwick to Berwick

TEES VALLEY - Exploring Captain Cook Country

YORK - follow the Vikings and the ghosts


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

North Pennines - Teesdale and Weardale (OS Explorer Map Active) - An Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 scale detailed map shows numerous attractions and all footpaths, bridleways, roads and lanes. The series is aimed mainly at the experienced map user.

Francis Frith's County Durham (Photographic Memories S.) - a collection of 150 photos from the publisher's archive.

Pub Walks in County Durham and Teesside (Pub Walks S.) - Twenty circular routes all based on good local pubs. Includes walks near Darlington, Bishop Auckland and Durham city. With maps and photographs.

Lead Mining Landscapes of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - the title says it all, showing the relationship between the scenery and the former lead mining industry.


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