And so it came to pass that, one scorching August Saturday night, what once seemed the most outlandish of dreams became an unforgettable reality.
Chris Borg writes…
When the South Bank University chapter of the Trocadero Wurlitzer story came to an end, nobody had a clue where the organ might end up. Robert Wolfe (more on him later) brought down the curtain on the Edric Hall era, the instrument was removed to storage and the search for a new home began.
It had always seemed to me that the prospect of an installation like several in the States – historic theatre organ meets historic theatre and lives, we hope, happily ever after – was very unlikely in Britain. Could the right building, with the right owners and circumstances, ever come along at the right time?
When it did, it turned out to be more than right. The Troxy is the Trocadero’s east London sister, also built by the Hyams Brothers and designed by George Coles – and it also offered the possibility of a divided installation in shallow chambers as at the Elephant and Castle. Historically and acoustically, it was perfect
Five years, an immeasurable amount of hard work and an awful lot of money after the dream first began to take shape, the installation was complete. And on August 22, almost 1,000 people made their way down Commercial Road for the Night of 1,000 Pipes – the first public concert on the Troc instrument for more than a decade.
In the huge Troxy auditorium the art deco grilles concealing the chambers glowed under warmly atmospheric lighting, while the console gleamed in the spotlight as the focus of attention in time-honoured fashion. We could almost have been time-travelling back in the 1930s and, as the evening’s first notes drew closer, the sense of anticipation – mingled with a sort of happy disbelief at this magical setting for the jewel in the COS crown – increased rapidly.
With his all-round virtuosity and strong sense of theatre organ history, there could have been nobody better than Richard Hills to usher forth the first sounds from left and right of the proscenium.
Things got off to a deceptively gentle start as quiet dulcianas nodded to the theatre’s location with a hint of Limehouse Blues before a solo orchestral oboe – a very Quentin Maclean touch – introduced Knocked ‘Em in the Old Kent Road, the music hall tune used by Mac at the end of community singing medleys that sometimes formed part of his Troc broadcasts.
Then, suddenly and dramatically, we were swept away into the big, console-raising strains of Jack Strachey’s Theatreland, with a pedal line you could feel as well as hear, snappy ensembles and the sort of in-theatre Wurlitzer punch that hasn’t been heard on this side of the pond for far too long.
Signature Trocadero sounds are back and reared their heads throughout the evening – the tuba mirabilis again has the sort of round, mellow effect apparent on Mac’s wonderful Troc recordings, the diapason sings out beautifully and the strings come across with the kind of zip they had in their first home.
The organ’s divided tibia chorus – a sound last heard live at the Odeon Manchester – was showcased as COS founders Hubert Selby and Tony Moss were remembered through Love Everlasting (complete with a quote from Hubert’s signature tune, I’ll See You In My Dreams), while the sheer richness of the Troxy sound came to the fore in a shimmering, emotional re-creation of Jackie Brown’s arrangement of I Cover the Waterfront.
There was so much more – Mac’s brilliance remembered in Richard’s transcription of his recording of Edward German’s dances from Nell Gywnn; Bobby Pagan, who opened the original Troxy Wurlitzer, honoured with his own Canyon Caballero; the timeless music from High Society providing a whistle-stop tour of registrations big and small. A thoughtfully-crafted medley of hits from 1930 and 1933, opening years for Troc and Troxy respectively, brought Richard’s half to a vibrant close.
How do you follow that? Well, Robert Wolfe, helping to reopen the instrument he had closed back in 2004, did so with panache. In his three-and-a-half decades as the resident organist at Thursford Robert has introduced the wonderful world of the Wurlitzer organ to countless people (several at the Troxy, Richard among them, owe their interest in the theatre organ to him), and his tremendous showmanship was a perfect match for this most special of evenings.
He could hardly have chosen a more apt opener than Happy Days Are Here Again, which led the way to a typical Wolfe whirl through all manner of sounds and styles. Entry of the Gladiators, music from Disney, rags, ballads, Gershwin, Latin American rhythms, novelty sounds and a swell pedals-to-the-floor performance of the Holy City were present and correct, all enhanced by the range of theatrical effects conjured up by the Troxy’s expert lighting engineers.
“Doesn’t the organ sound fantastic? It’s brilliant,” Robert said, and you wouldn’t have found anyone in the audience willing to dispute that. Neither was anyone keen for proceedings to come to a close but, once that hour had come, Robert and Richard combined to deliver a riotous send-off in the form of a duet romp through Tiger Rag.
That was that, and the audience’s ecstatic reaction to the musicians, the organ and the occasion spoke volumes. It was a night that will live in the memory for a long, long time.
Every theatre organ fan’s immense thanks are due to everyone who has contributed in every way to this musical milestone. It’s an achievement of which the COS can be immensely proud, and there can be no better summary of it than the verdict of an organist who has known this historic Wurlitzer since its Elephant and Castle days.
His conclusion? “It’s just like the Trocadero – only better.”