Friday, 24 January 2014

The Great Wurlitzer Disaster

When I lived near the seaside town of Lee-on-Solent I had an aged piano teacher who, like others I have had, spent as much time telling me incidents from his very interesting life as teaching me piano. (No wonder I still can’t play very well.) One of his fingers was oddly splayed at the tip: it had been crushed under a rifle butt in the First World War and the doctor had wanted to amputate it, but he had begged him not to.

He had worked as a cinema pianist in the silent film era: a difficult job; the pianist had to crane upwards and sideways to follow the film while improvising an accompaniment, tacking together phrases from popular pieces and always ready to change mood to match the action or lack of it. When the talkies came in the management of the cinema installed a Wurlitzer organ: one of those vast electric organs whose console, concealed in the orchestra pit, would rise in a blaze of coloured lights, organist already playing, on a hydraulic column in front of the screen. His job now was to play a medley of popular songs, with plenty of use of the bizarre special effects like train whistles and cow moos that were a feature of the Wurlitzer, during the interval. Then he was free until the end of the evening, when he had to play the National Anthem while the audience rose to attention. (Ah, those were the days.)

Naturally, between the end of the interval and the end of the main feature he would slip over the road to the pub. A slight miscalculation of the length of the main film was his undoing: one night he had had one or two too many, but nevertheless dashed back to the cinema and crept into his place at the organ console down in the pit. Noticing that the film still had about half an hour to run, he dozed off. And in his sleep he slumped sideways, leaning on the lever that set the hydraulic gear running. The console rose, concealing the screen just as the film was reaching its dramatic climax. The indignant cries of the audience failed to wake him, the film had to be abandoned, and only with great difficulty was my piano teacher got down again. End of job.

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