A Pipe Dream Come True

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Amidst its industrial setting, the unimposing steel enclosure with scents of solvents and oil, a dream begins, encircled in far-off sounds of the past.

As we enter the enigmatic Astoria Centre in Barugh Green, we are instantly hit with the entrancing tunes drifting through the centre. Thoughts of romance and drama entrap me, I could quite easily have been spinning in a field dreaming of what could be.

We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again, or so I am told.

Notes of Novello ricocheting through the air, a gloomy March afternoon was brightened with the spectacular sounds coming from within.

What sounded like a full orchestra hidden behind the door was in fact just one very talented man playing one very triumphant instrument – the theatre pipe organ.

A Compton, to be exact.

Barnsley’s unique centre of musical heritage, the Astoria is actually home to three theatre organs, including a Mighty Wurlitzer.

When silent films blazed into the cinemas across the world, theatre organs would be used to accompany them, providing music and sound effects as the on-screen drama unfolded.

Often replacing orchestras or big bands in theatres and cinemas, pipe organs were the epitome of 1930s leisure-time. Be it watching a play as the curtains opened, attending a dance at a local working men’s club, or simply loving to be beside the seaside, the notable sound of an organ is one filled with nostalgia for most.

The organ would often be the crowning glory for theatres and cinemas; some may remember the magic of seeing them erupt from the floor, or hearing their mighty roar. South Yorkshire was home to many.

And what a treasured pleasure it is to have three right here in Barnsley.

The new headquarters for the Penistone Cinema Organ Trust, The Astoria Centre is run by a host of volunteers, including notable organist, Kevin Grunill.

The first Theatre Organ Heritage and Restoration Centre of its kind, the team of volunteers have worked tirelessly over the past six years to restore and install an Astoria Purley Compton organ into its own premises.

But heading back to the beginning, our story starts in 1999, when the Trust was set up by Kevin Grunill to install a Paramount Birmingham Compton into the then-named Metro Cinema in Penistone.

Having played the electronic organ since he was 12, Kevin travelled to the Regal Cinema in Owestry in 1994 to purchase his very own Compton.

Although the Wurlitzer was deemed more recognisable and popular due to its catchy slogan and marketing ploy, there were four Comptons for every one US Wurlitzer in the UK.

Kept in storage until a new home was found, the journey to Penistone took five years – metaphorically of course.

Although some may be aware of what the organ console looks like – a piano-type instrument with whizzes and bangs and a whole host of keyboards and stops – most, like myself, have probably never understood the makings of such a magnificent instrument.

A chamber needed to be installed in the Metro to house the many pipes that make up the sounds. This may seem straight forward, but with some wind pipes as tall as 16ft, the eight foot under-stage area just wasn’t big enough.

Alas, the floor was lowered to allow for the pipes and the rest, as they say, is history.

Renamed the Penistone Paramount after its beloved new organ, the Trust were prosperous in their mission and still showcase concerts at the theatre and at St Andrew’s Church, Penistone.

Following their success, the Trust was gifted with another Compton which was in danger of being broken up and used for spares.

Once belonging to the Astoria Cinema in Purley, Surrey, the 1935 organ had found a new life in Sheffield, owned by the Sheffield Theatre Organ Society. Housed at the City School in Handsworth, its outcome looked bleak when the school was demolished in place of the new Outwood Academy.

No longer accommodated for, the society agreed to gift the organ to the Penistone Trust under one condition – it was to be kept as a whole instrument and not used for replacement parts.

Signed, sealed and delivered to Barnsley in a number of boxes, the mammoth task of assembling the organ and its chamber of secrets was to begin. Thanks to Heritage Lottery funding, renovations to the organ could begin, with other fundraising ventures carried out to complete work on the centre itself.

The job took five years in total, with some parts having to be stripped back and restored, or rebuilt completely. But overall, the volunteers agree it looks, and plays, far better than the original would have.

Volunteers from all walks of life, the team work together and play on each other’s strengths, passing on vital skills to keep the organ in full working order. And that’s no mean feat. With over 700 pipes and counting in the chamber, it soon became clear to see where the hard work and effort is put in.

With Kevin’s musical background and profound knowledge of the mechanics behind the organ, the team of volunteers, many of whom have been with the Trust from day one, work off the guidance of Kevin using their individual skills to complete tasks.

Former motor mechanics and manufacturers are joined by highway and electrical engineers, plus pianists and music enthusiasts, too. Travelling from far and wide, whilst many are from South Yorkshire, some volunteers even come from Selby and Derby to help out.

And one miraculous gentleman, Ron Dickinson, is 97 years old and still helping out making tea. He joined the trust at the young age of 80 following the death of his wife and is still helping out 17 years later.

Despite his age, Ron said it was great to be involved in such a project – but he thought he wouldn’t be around to see the end result.

Kevin tells us it made his day to see Ron and his family sat at the back of the concert space on opening day.

Entering into the magical backstage world of wonder, the sight of the chamber was truly amazing. Having seen the colossal workings of the humble organ, it was awe-inspiring to say the least.

To recreate that orchestral sound, wind is used to create noise, with shutters on the chamber letting the sounds out. Behind the shutters, a whole host of instrumental pipes appear, descending and ascending in all sizes and widths.

What surprised me the most was the likes of a triangle, maracas and a xylophone, all controlled by certain keys on the organ console.

Using software designed by Dick Wilcox, the computer genius behind the first lunar landings, the organ has been brought into the modern world thanks to the Uniflex Relay System.

A series of computerised control boards, the relay system has done away with the hundreds of wires needed to control every pipe, narrowing it down to less than 20.

Since its grand opening this March, the Astoria Centre is open to visitors on certain days, with monthly concerts also provided.

 What’s On Each Week

Monday – Private Practice Days with one-hour slots available to book

Tuesday – Heritage Days, see the volunteers at work 10am-4pm

Wednesday – Tea Dances 1pm-4pm

Come along and join in an afternoon of fun from the 30s

£5.50 includes tea and sandwiches

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