St Albans Organ Theatre (Museum) History

 Mr. Charles Hart ran a successful building business (Goodwin and Hart) from his premises at 320 Camp Road, St. Albans and also had his own 16mm film hire service and childrens' amusement hire with permanent parks at Goodrington Sands and Paignton in Devon and temporary summer holiday sites at Wardown Park in Luton and Verulamium (known locally as The Lake) in St. Albans. He had been interested in mechanical organs from his childhood, when the travelling fairs came to his home town and many years later, in the 1960s, he discovered that many organs were being discarded due to the increasing popularity of the jukebox. Fairground organs were unfortunately too loud for him to play indoors but he discovered another quieter type of organ, the Belgian dance organ, standing idle on the Continent. 

 Mr. Oscar Grymonprez (a former employee at the Mortier organ factory) and his son Leonard had an organ building and restoration business in Ghent, Belgium and with the assistance of Mr. Arthur Prinsen, (a music arranger in Antwerp) Mr. Hart visited there many times and purchased nearly 40 organs, many of them derelict, and shipped them to St. Albans. 

 The largest organ was the 121 key Decap 'Nethe', renamed 'England's Pride' to mark its new life here. Lots of smaller instruments were collected too. Musical boxes, reproducing pianos, a Mills Violano, organettes, orchestrelles and even some Weber orchestrions filled Mr. Hart's sheds to bursting. Many of these instruments were also presented in a large tent at Verulamium alongside the childrens' amusements, mentioned earlier. 

 On Sunday afternoons the playable instruments were demonstrated, (sometimes two at the same time!) and word soon spread about the 'Aladdin's Cave' in St. Albans, as one reporter put it.
It was here that the traditional free cup of tea was given to every visitor - and continues to this day.
Several regular volunteers attended to help Mr. Hart and eventually a more organised format for the afternoon was devised, where each instrument was introduced and briefly described. The surplus instruments were gradually sold on to other enthusiasts and Mr. Hart kept his favourites.
So St. Albans Organ Museum with the Charles Hart Collection was born and went from strength to strength. 

 Mr. Hart also had another interest - theatre pipe organs. He often heard Reginald Foort and Reginald Dixon playing and would visit many other venues to hear other artists.
In 1969 he discovered that the Granada Cinema, Edmonton, North London was due to be demolished and the fine WurliTzer pipe organ inside was up for sale. He managed to purchase it and he took up residence in the empty Cinema to protect the organ. In about a week, with some of his volunteers, the removal of the organ was completed, together with some chandeliers, exit signs and 200 tip-up seats! The chandeliers and signs are still here, preserved along with the organ.


  Looking to the future, in 1976 Mr. Hart disposed of his amusements, cleared his yard and financed a large extension to his premises to better display his collection of instruments and to include the mighty WurliTzer and its pipe chambers 


 

In 1978 he arranged the formation of the Charitable Trust, St. Albans Musical Museum Society, to administer the Museum and make it permanently available to the public.


 The founding Trustees, who also formed part of the Management Committee, comprised Mr. William (Bill) Walker (Chairman), Mr. Eric Cockayne (Secretary) and author of the book 'The Fairground Organ', Mr. Peter Allen (Treasurer) and Mr. Keith Pinner (Sales Office 

 Restoration of the WurliTzer began when Mr. Fred Jennings, a professional organ builder, was introduced to Mr. Hart who somewhat cautiously, allowed Fred to restore one of the windchests at his home. When he took it back to the Museum, Mr. Hart was delighted with Fred's workmanship and the WurliTzer restoration continued for the next 20 years under Fred's guidance. Sadly, Mr. Hart died in July 1983, aged 87 and never heard his WurliTzer play at St. Albans. 


 While work proceeded on the WurliTzer another theatre organ was offered to the Society during the 1980s. This was an extremely rare instrument, built in England by R. Spurden-Rutt of Leyton, East London and in more-or-less playing condition. The owner needed to house the organ so it was decided to install it so the Society would have a theatre organ available while work continued on the WurliTzer. This decision gave Fred some headaches, trying to squeeze two theatre organs into the chambers designed for one, but he succeeded. The very first theatre organ concert here took place on Sunday, 24th May 1987 with American organist Dennis James at the Rutt console and a very attentive Fred Jennings on hand, sitting in the front row with his tool-box at the ready. 


 

The long and meticulous restoration of the WurliTzer was eventually completed and an opening concert was held on Saturday, 25th July 1992. The Mayor of St. Albans ceremoniously cut the blue and yellow ribbon that was draped across the console and declared the WurliTzer organ 'open'. The concert featured two organists - Len Rawle and Bryan Rodwell. Since then both the Rutt and WurliTzer have been played regularly by many other organists at our monthly concerts.

In 1998 an extension to the Museum building was added to provide additional seating, a dressing room and toilet facilities for disabled people. Then in 2005 the decision was made to slightly modify the long-standing name "St. Albans Organ Museum" to "St. Albans Organ Theatre" to describe our activities more accurately.


It was in 2008 that the Organ Theatre celebrated thirty years since the formation of the Charitable Trust, St. Albans Musical Museum Society. To mark the occasion a CD was issued - The 97 key Mortier organ 'Four Columns' - which is the first ever digital recording of this organ. Coincidentally, RHD Sounds released a CD entitled 'Quartet' featuring Nigel Ogden playing our Rutt and Wurlitzer theatre organs, the Steinway piano and Hammond C3 organ. We were very pleased that Nigel chose to record his latest album here.

The biggest restoration project that has ever been undertaken by the Society concluded in November 2008 when the 121 key Decap organ 'England's Pride' returned from Antwerp after a complete overhaul at the Gebr. Decap factory, where it was built in April 1939. A special Fund Raising event was held at the Organ Theatre on November 29th 2008 and among the guests and dignitaries were Roger Mostmans, the present owner of the Decap factory, the Mayor of St. Albans, Cllr Bert Pawle, and the Mayor's Consort, Mrs. Pam Brown.

During the late summer of 2011, a midi player was added to the 121-key Decap organ "England's Pride". (This device plays the organ directly from specially prepared files instead of using perforated cardboard music-books - the traditional way. The originality of the organ is unaffected but savings on music-book costs and storage space for these large books makes it a wise choice.) Later in December, the Society secured the ownership of the Spurden-Rutt theatre organ which was previously on loan. Also during December the long-awaited CD recording featuring all the working instruments in the collection was released.

The Organ Theatre closed during January 2012 when the Foyer area was completely renovated to include a purpose built pay-booth, a new shop location and a larger serving area for refreshments. The stage area was also enlarged and extended forward and the toilets were re-fitted too.

The Organ Theatre re-opened in February 2012, opening on the second and fourth Sunday of each month.

Starting in March 2013, the Sunday openings had to be reduced again and we now open on just the second Sunday of each month due to a further reduction in our compliment of Presenters.

After launching fund-raising for the restoration of our 92-key Decap Dance Organ "Jeanneke", the organ was eventually transported to the Gebroeders Decap factory in Antwerp during the Spring of 2016. After a complete renovation and the re-leathering (including the accordion pneumatics) of the organ and replacing the 92 worn keys and the rollers in the keyframe - the organ returned to St Albans in October and a replacement blower fitted as the former blower was considered to be inadequate. The organ featured during the 2016 'Dance Organ Day' where Roger Mostmans, the owner of the Decap factory, was invited as a guest. The fund-raising achieved well over half of the restoration cost. The lettering ("GEBROEDERS DECAP ANTWERPEN") that was missing on the bottom section of the facade was also re-instated at this time.

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Mr. Hart could never have realised what he had started when he began collecting the organs. His hobby has brought together countless people who otherwise may never have met and has encouraged many to appreciate the world of mechanical music. The Charitable Trust, "St. Albans Musical Museum Society" continues and maintains a membership of around 120.

Mr. Hart certainly 'Spread a Little Happiness' and this became his theme tune which can be heard playing at the Organ Theatre on the largest organ that Mr. Hart brought over from the Continent - the 121 key Decap orchestral dance organ "England's Pride".