An industrial estate comprising of self storage units is probably not the place you’d expect to find a tribute to the halcyon days of 1930s theatre organs.
But the Astoria Centre in Barugh Green is nothing like you’ve ever experienced before.
The first of its kind in the UK, the Astoria Centre is Barnsley’s unique centre of musical heritage dedicated to the theatre organ. Inside the steel fabricated walls, the unit has been transformed into a top-quality concert venue with a nod to the Art Deco era when entertainment was king.
Long before surround sound, theatre organs were used for silent films, replacing the orchestras that once swamped the cinema hall. If you’ve never seen someone play the theatre organ before, it’s quite a sight to behold. One person sat on a stool in front of this almighty instrument that looks like a pilot’s control deck can create every sound of an orchestra using both hands and both feet. It’s simply mind boggling to watch.
The Astoria Centre enables visitors to enjoy music that was once such a key cog in a cinema visit for less than a current-day cinema ticket. Every Wednesday, the public can reminisce about their youth or courting days at the popular afternoon tea dances. Or on Thursdays you can wallow in nostalgia at the Music and Memories mini concerts. They also host monthly events where they welcome celebrated organists from the music scene such as Tower Ballroom’s Phil Kelsall MBE or Robert Wolfe from the acclaimed Thursford Show.
Song repertoire varies across 100 years of popular music, so it’s not just music from the 1920s and ‘30s. There might be songs from the Beatles, Dusty Springfield, Adele, or Robson and Jerome. Sometimes the setlist will include songs from shows and musicals, or even film scores like Harry Potter and Disney.
It’s always tuneful, and always performed on the range of theatre organs that make up their collection including a three-manual electric organ and a three-manual Allen digital replica theatre organ.
New life has been breathed into the pipes of some classic items from film music history such as a 1934 Compton organ from the Astoria Cinema in Purley, Surrey, after which the centre is named. Restoring it took five years, with 1,200 pipes ranging from 16-foot to a few inches tall.
This painstaking task was undertaken by volunteers from the Penistone Cinema Organ Trust who are custodians of the Astoria Centre. The trust is led by organist, Kevin Grunill, who has played the organ for almost 40 years since he was a young lad and was once part of the team at Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom.
There are around 20 volunteers who attend regularly from across the Yorkshire region and beyond to restore the organs and help with events. Most are retired, ranging from electrical or mechanical engineers to teachers and highway inspectors, but collectively they bring different qualities with the aim of keeping traditional skills alive so that nostalgic music can be enjoyed by future generations.
One of their most recent tasks has been to restore a Melotone from the former Gaumont cinema in Camden Town. This unique stand-alone feature, which looks a bit like a filing cabinet, can be added to the Compton organ to extend its range. It was an early form of technology for electronic sound that uses spinning discs with the sound fed through a huge speaker horn in the organ loft.
“There are only ten left worldwide out of 85 initially built, and only four or five of them are still playing. They had inherent faults that meant the sound deteriorated. We sourced this one in a real wreck but the volunteers have spent two years restoring it, stripping each component and replacing each wire. It’s now playing again and will be featured at most upcoming events,” Kevin says.
We first visited the Astoria Centre when it opened in 2016. But in the years since, the centre has continued to evolve, fuelled by lockdown at the height of the pandemic when they sadly had to close their doors to visitors temporarily.
The team cracked on with renovations and there is now a new stage, new dance floor, and new colour-changing lights. They also received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant which paid for a new air conditioning and heating system to keep the organs at a stable temperature.
One of the biggest changes has been the addition of a bright and clean kitchen area in the ‘box office’ entrance. The Astoria Centre now serves food at their weekly and monthly events which is another revenue stream for the centre that receives no funding towards its £50,000 a year running costs.
The volunteers make everything fresh on-site, from making the individual cakes, macarons and trifles to poaching the salmon and cooking the ham for the afternoon tea sandwiches. These can be booked to enjoyed before, during or after an event.
There’s now a great social aspect to the Astoria Centre. Not everyone who visits is an organ enthusiast; they come for the music, the camaraderie and to be part of something special.
“The organ is the catalyst to a much bigger picture. People have made life-long connections by coming here and it’s given them a purpose. We have one widow who comes that felt guilty at first for leaving the house after she lost her husband, so she’d just stay for 40 minutes or so. Then she made some new friends and they now meet up outside of here,” Kevin says.
“It was humbling to hear her say the Astoria Centre has changed her life as she had no life without it. It took us six years of hard work to build but I’d do it all again 24/7 if it makes a difference to one person’s life like that.”
What’s on at the Astoria Centre:
Weekly events (Pay on the door)
Afternoon Tea Dance
Wednesday 1-4pm £6.50
Ballroom and sequence dancing to the sound of the Compton
Music and Memories
Thursday 1-2.30pm £5.50
Listen to a variety of music through the decades
Don’t miss the Summer Ball
Saturday 17th June from 7.30pm £10
Ballroom and sequence dancing with Kevin Grunhill and Declan Poole, Young British Organist of the Year
All from 2.30pm and priced at £12 per person
Saturday 10th June – Simon Gleadhill
One of the world’s most highly regarded organists
Saturday 8th July – Stephen Austin
Saturday 12th August – John Mann and Tony Stace
A Compton and Yamaha Digital Orchestra duet
Saturday 9th September – Phil Kelsall MBE
Blackpool Tower Ballroom’s principal organist makes his annual visit
Saturday 23rd September – Chris McPhee
Australia’s finest organist gives a rare UK performance
For tickets, call 07944 566972 or buy online www.astoriacentre.co.uk
The Astoria Centre Unit 16a Metro Trading Centre, Barugh Green, Barnsley S75 1JT