The Playhouse HiLSDON Organ



The History of the Organ in the Playhouse

The Hilsdon organ in the Playhouse Edinburgh was designed and built in time for the original opening date in 1928, with many parts actually being made in a large, double height basement room in the Playhouse, which until 1985 was still known as 'the organ room'.  The walls of 'the organ room' still bore the chalked names of the various ranks of pipes of the organ, which were stored there both during the initial installation of the organ, and during extensive refurbishment of its slider soundboards in 1932.   The soundboards had suffered from shrinkage, caused by excessively low humidity in the organ chambers, due to the continuously high temperature at which the Playhouse was kept.

The Playhouse in 1973

The Edinburgh Playhouse stage viewed from the Circle

The Edinburgh Playhouse auditorium from the stage


The organ was never intended to be used as a solo instrument in the way that a unit organ of the Compton, Christie or Wurlitzer type would have been, or even the slightly later unit organs produced by Hilsdon themselves.  Instead, this organ was designed to be played with the fifteen piece orchestra of the Playhouse - the 'Playhouse Rising Orchestra' - which assembled on the rising forestage/orchestra pit of the theatre.  The organ console though, was provided with its own elevator platform, on the stage left side of the orchestra pit and the organ made a glorious sound on its own.   The image below was taken on the 16th birthday of Ronald Maguire, the youngest son of John P Maguire who, along with Fred Lumsden, funded the building of the Playhouse.


The 1928 Specification of the Playhouse organ.

3 Manuals, CC-C, 61 notes; Pedals CCC-F, 30 notes
Enclosed in two chambers, one each side of the proscenium arch

PEDAL  
Open Bass16Right
Octave  8Right
Bourdon16Left (from Solo Quint Flute)
Bass Flute  8Left (from Solo Quint Flute)
Violone16Left (from Accmpt. Contra Viola)
Violoncello  8Left (from Accmpt. Contra Viola)
Bombarde16Left (Bombarde Unit)
Clarion  8Left (Bombarde Unit)
Bass Drum (tap)
Kettle Drum (roll)
Clash Cymbal (sic)(tap)
Roll Cymbal
Orchestral to Pedal
Accompaniment to Pedal (all manual couplers play through)
Solo to Pedal
PEDAL 2nd Touch
Bass Drum (tap)
Kettle Drum (roll)
Clash Cymbal (sic)(tap)
Roll Cymbal
  
ORCHESTRAL lower manual RIGHT
Hohl Flote  8
Dulciana  8
Concert Flute  4
Orchestral Piccolo  2
Viola da Gamba  8
Clarionet  8
Vox Humana  8
Orchestral Oboe  8
Marimba Harp
Carillon Harp
Glockenspiel
Sleigh Bells
Tremulant
Sub Octave
Unison Off
Octave
Solo to Orchestral
  
ACCOMPANIMENT centre manual LEFT
Contra Viola16
Open Diapason  8
Claribel Flute  8
Dolce  8
Octave  4
Fifteenth  2
Contra Bombarde16
Bombarde  8
Octave Bombarde  4
Snare Drum Roll
Castanets
Tambourine
Chinese Block
Tom-tom
Tremulant
Octave
Solo sub-octave to Accompaniment
Solo to Accompaniment
Solo octave to Accompaniment
Orchestral sub-octave to Accompaniment
Orchestral to Accompaniment
Orchestral Octave to Accompaniment
ACCOMPANIMENT 2nd Touch
Snare Drum Roll
Castanets
Tambourine
Chinese Block
Tom-tom
  
SOLO upper manual LEFT
Quint Flute16
Violin Diapason  8
Stopped Flute  8
Octave Viola  4
Viol d'Orchestre  8
Viol Celestetc8
French Horn  8
Contra Bombarde16
Bombarde  8
Octave Bombarde  4
Cathedral Chimes
Carillon Harp(Right)
Snare Drum
Castanets
Tremulant
Bombarde Tremulant
Sub Octave
Unison Off
Octave
Orchestral to Solo
Balanced Swell Pedal to Left Side
Balanced Swell Pedal to Right Side
Balanced General Crescendo Pedal (Affects whole organ)
  
5 Thumb pistons each to Solo, Accompaniment & Orchestral
Reversible thumbs pistons to :-
Accompaniment to Pedal
Accompaniment (1st Touch) Snare Drum
Pedal Kettle Drum
 
EFFECTS
Telephone Bell (pearlised thumb piston in Accmpt key cheek)
EFFECTS ON TOE PISTON
Horse Hoofs
Train
Surf
Boat Whistle
Birdsong
Syren
Triangle
Fire Bell
Klaxon
 
Blower Start / Stop controls
Lift Up / Stop / Down controls (on side of bench)
 
The Music Desk and Pedal Light were originally controlled by the Conductor and Stage Manager.


It will be noted that the stop list was almost identical to that of the Savoy, Glasgow, which had been built some 12 years earlier.   The only differences were on the Solo keyboard, where the 4 rank Harmonics Mixture and 8' Tibia were deleted and an 8' French Horn inserted.

The orchestra was dismissed in 1938, and following the resignation in 1942 of Mitchell Thomson, the then resident organist, the organ was taken out of regular use.  Although played by Hilsdon's tuners when they serviced the instrument during the next 6 years, and occasionally by others, the maintenance contract was terminated in 1948 and the organ silenced for the next 22 years.

The control cables for the organ console's lift, the orchestra pit lift, and the organ blowers, were all cut and the control pushbuttons on the stage were also disconnected, during a period of electrical rewiring in the early 1960s.

In the spring of 1970 following the success of the revitalised organ at Edinburgh’s suburban Astoria Cinema, the Playhouse management accepted an offer from local enthusiasts led by Gordon Lucas and Larry McGuire to restore the instrument and bring it back into use.  The first task was to reconnect the blower controls at the console, and this was done with the assistance of a friendly electrical engineer, who then reinstated the controls for both lifts, at least, the organ's console lift was controllable from the console and the orchestra pit lift was controllable from the stage.

When the blowers were first switched on in March 1970, the freshly cleaned auditorium filled with thick, choking black dust and apart from many cyphers (pipes sounding continuously) amazingly, most of the organ still played.  After several months of concerted effort, sometimes lasting well into the night, or indeed, overnight, the organ eventually sounded forth the way it would have done in 1928.

As can be seen below, when we first entered the disused organ chambers, everything inside them was covered in thick dust!


Inside the door to the
Left Chamber was the
larger relay panel

The 1st level up,
Left Chamber
the Accompaniment pipes

The 1st level up in the
Left Chamber
the 'Traps'

The 1st level up,
Left Chamber
the 16' Viola pipes

Left Chamber
Bombarde trebles
from the top level

The top level of the
Left Chamber
The basses of the Solo

Right Chamber
Orchestral pipes, 1st level up

Right Chamber
The tonal percussion

The bottom level, Right Chamber
the 16' Open Wood

One thing which was discovered with the help of Wilfred Southward though, was that the windpressures had been reduced shortly after the theatre originally opened, because the conductor felt the organ was too loud.  With Wilfred's access to the original design files, we were able to return these to the original designed pressures, which made an incredible difference to the overall volume, brilliance, and response of the instrument.

The reception of the organ the first time it was played for a Friday evening intermission in 1970 was so enthusiastic, the management allowed the organ to be played every Friday and Saturday – with the proviso that if the organ was to be played at all, it HAD to be played every week without fail, with the organist's name being given prominence in their newspaper advertisements.


Ernest Broadbent at the Hilsdon, February 1971


The lack of major solo voices on the organ was quickly apparent though, and in order to overcome this, a programme of additions, reconfiguration and enlargement was begun, which continued right up until the unexpected announcement of the building's closure a a few weeks before November 1973.   The first addition was a Christie Tuba from an unknown instrument, which was added in 1971.

The remains of a Hill Norman & Beard ‘Christie’ unit organ, formerly installed in the Empire Cinema, Neath, South Wales, comprising the Tibia Clausa, Wald Flute, Viol and Viol Celeste were purchased, removed from the Neath cinema, and installed in the Playhouse in March, 1973.


The Empire, Neath

Always there are stairs

A loaded van

Part of the relays from this 2/6 Christie organ were reconfigured and rewired to suit the revised stop layout required by these additions, leaving the original Hilsdon relays untouched.


A view of the organ console and stage, 1973


Despite its shortcomings however, many famous organists played concerts on the organ, or even requested to play for cinema intervals when they were visiting Edinburgh.


Hubert Selby rehearsing at the Hilsdon, 1970


David Hamilton
in Concert 1973

Gordon Lucas, 1973



Here is the stop list for this version of the organ.  All of the additional stop tabs were mounted into a neat 'box' mounted below the music desk, as can be seen in the above photograph of Gordon Lucas.

3 Manuals, CC-C, 61 notes; Pedals CCC-F, 30 notes
Enclosed in two chambers, one each side of the proscenium arch

PEDAL  
Open Bass16Right
Tibia Bass16Right (from Orchestral Tibia Unit
Bourdon16Left (from Solo Quint Flute)
Octave  8Extension of Open Bass Right
Tibia  8Right (from Orchestral Tibia Unit
Bass Flute  8Left (from Solo Quint Flute)
Tibia  4Right (from Orchestral Tibia Unit
Violone16Left (from Accmpt. Contra Viola)
Violoncello  8Left (from Accmpt. Contra Viola)
Bombarde16Bombarde Unit Left
Clarion  8Bombarde Unit Left
Bass Drum (tap)
Kettle Drum (roll)
Clash Cymbal (sic)(tap)
Roll Cymbal
Orchestral to Pedal
Accompaniment to Pedal (all manual couplers play through)
Solo to Pedal
PEDAL 2nd Touch
Bass Drum (tap)
Kettle Drum (roll)
Clash Cymbal (sic)(tap)
Roll Cymbal
  
ORCHESTRAL lower manual RIGHT
Contra Tibia16Tibia Unit Right
Tibia Clausa  8Tibia Unit Right
Hohl Flote  8
Tibia Piccolo  4Tibia Unit Right
Concert Flute  4
Tibia Twelfth2,2/3Tibia Unit Right
Tibia Piccolo  2Tibia Unit Right
Orchestral Piccolo  2
Viola da Gamba  8
Viola Celestetc8
Vox Humanatc16Vox Humana Unit Right
Tuba  8
Clarionet  8
Vox Humana  8Vox Humana Unit Right
Orchestral Oboe  8
Vox Humana  4Vox Humana Unit Right
Marimba Harp
Carillon Harp
Glockenspiel
Sleigh Bells
Orchestral Tremulant
Tibia Tremulant
Tuba Tremulant
Sub Octave
Unison Off
Octave
Solo to Orchestral
  
ACCOMPANIMENT centre manual LEFT
Contra Flutetc16Wald Flute Unit Left
Contra Viola16
Open Diapason 1  8
Open Diapason 2  Octave Unit Left
Tibia Clausa  8 (Right)
Wald Flute  8Wald Flute Unit Left
Flute Celeste  8Former Claribel Flute
Dolce  8
Unda Maristc8Former Dulciana
Octave  4Octave Unit Left
Open Flute  4Wald Flute Unit Left
Flute Twelfth2,2/3Wald Flute Unit Left
Fifteenth  2
Piccolo  2Wald Flute Unit Left
Contra Bombarde16Bombarde Unit Left
Bombarde  8Bombarde Unit Left
Tuba  8 (Right)
Vox Humana  8 (Right)Vox Humana Unit Right
Octave Bombarde  4Bombarde Unit Left
Snare Drum Roll
Castanets
Tambourine
Chinese Block
Tom-tom
Accompaniment Tremulant
Octave
Solo sub-octave to Accompaniment
Solo to Accompaniment
Solo octave to Accompaniment
Orchestral sub-octave to Accompaniment
Orchestral to Accompaniment
Orchestral Octave to Accompaniment
ACCOMPANIMENT 2nd Touch
Snare Drum Roll
Castanets
Tambourine
Chinese Block
Tom-tom
  
SOLO upper manual LEFT
Quint Flute18
Violin Diapason  8
Stopped Flute  8
Tibia Piccolo  4Tibia Unit Right
Octave Viola  4
Viol d'Orchestre  8
Viol Celestetc8
French Horn  8
Contra Bombarde16Bombarde Unit Left
Bombarde  8Bombarde Unit Left
Tuba  8 (Right)
Octave Bombarde  4Bombarde Unit Left
Cathedral Chimes
Carillon Harp(Right)
Snare Drum
Castanets
Solo Tremulant
Bombarde Tremulant
Sub Octave
Unison Off
Octave
Orchestral to Solo

Balanced Swell Pedal to Left Side
Balanced Swell Pedal to Right Side
Balanced General Crescendo Pedal (Affects whole organ)
  
5 Thumb pistons each to Solo, Accompaniment & Orchestral
Reversible thumbs pistons to :-
Accompaniment to Pedal
Accompaniment (1st Touch) Snare Drum
Pedal Kettle Drum
 
EFFECTS
Telephone Bell (pearlised thumb piston in treble end Accompaniment key cheek)
EFFECTS ON TOE PISTON
Horse Hoofs
Train
Surf
Boat Whistle
Train Whistle
Syren
Triangle
Birdsong
Fire Bell
Klaxon
 
Blower Start / Stop controls
Lift Up / Stop / Down controls (on side of bench)
 
Music Desk Light switch
Pedal Light Switch


Not long after this work was completed, the original relay panels began to give more than just intermittent trouble, and a plan to gradually replace them with a solid state system was begun.  Larry McGuire designed a low current diode switching system coupled to encapsulated Darlington Driver IC packages, and the first 'unit' to be converted to this from the original electro-mechanical note switching and electro-pnuematic stop switching, was the Pedal Open Wood.  The regular players of the organ were amazed at how promptly this rank began to speak after this conversion, making the 16' stop extremely 'punchy' and the 8' Octave an extremely useful stop for a 'walking bass' for rhthymic pieces.

Some of the traps were then changed over to the same design of solid state note control and plans were laid to convert the rest of the relays over to this system, when out of the blue, it was announced that this busy and successful cinema was to close in less than a month's time.

The Playhouse closed as a cinema after the last film on November 24th, 1973.  Because the building was scheduled for demolition, the Society had to remove all of its property from the building, including all of the additions to the organ and console.   The Society launched a 'Save the Playhouse' campaign even before the cinema closed, however, and history shows that STOPS were successful in their bid to have the building 'listed' as a Category 'B' on the ‘Buildings of Historic Importance and Worthy of Preservation' list (this listing was later increased to a Category A).


The Accompaniment

The Solo

The Orchestral

With much assistance from STOPS members, who volunteered to clean the building from top to bottom and get all the equipment in the building ready for use, the theatre reopened for a year from 1976 to 1977 primarily for rock concerts, featuring most of the major names of the day, but also saw its relaunch as a cinema.   It re-opened initially to host the John Reid Festival of Popular Music, which ran concurrently with the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama, and the closing highlight of the Festival of Popular Music was the performance by Elton John, which began with him playing the Hilsdon and rising on its lift to stage level, in front of his adoring fans - and almost one billion people worldwide in the televised live broadcast of the show.  see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nMfi3lFuVU&t=324s Larry McGuire had to crouch at the side of the organ console to press the 'up' button for Elton, then the 'down' button once Elton had left the console and gone onto the main stage, all of which, including the orchestra and organ lifts, was covered in a pure white, long pile carpet.  Society member Betty Fraser spent hours polishing both the organ console and Elton John's grand piano and woe betide anyone who put a finger near either after she'd finished!

The Playhouse, 1973

Susannah York & Peter O'Toole
World Premiere of 'Country Dance' 1970


It was finally purchased by the then Lothian Regional Council in 1979 who carried out a full refurbishment of the building over the next year and the first performance in the refurbished theatre was an Organ and Variety Concert staged by STOPS to an audience of just under 3100.  Two other highlights for STOPS over the next few years, were firstly the showing of the recreated Abel Gance masterpiece 'Napoleon' with the organ being played alongside the Wren Orchestra under the baton of Carl Davies, and the second was the screening of the 1925 film Phantom of the Opera during the 1984 Edinburgh Festival, with the film being accompanied live by resident organist, Larry McGuire.

Other highlights were the appearance of 'The Carpenters' for two nights in November 1976, Queen in September 1976, then between 1976 and 1985, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf, and countless other world famous bands performed.  Performances by such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, which was one of the first live events in June 1980 to re-open the refurbished theatre, Bob Hope, Howard Keel, and many others of that calibre.

With regards to the 45 foot wide 'big screen', UK Premieres were a regular feature, with films such as ET, Bladerunner, A Company of Wolves and many others, were first shown to a British audience in the Playhouse.  The reaction of over 3000 of an audience for ET was amazing.  When 70mm projectors were installed, films like 'Blue Thunder' were an incredible experience.


A view of the stage and console, 1977


The Playhouse has changed hands several times since then, currently being owned by the Ambassador Theatre Group and operated as one of their flagship theatres, staging major 'West End' musical productions, such as Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, etc.  Its reputation as a first class theatrical venue was earned early on after 1980, and this was due in no small part to the efforts of the newly appointed front-of-house Management Team headed by General Manager Ted Way and the Technical Team led by Gordon Lucas and Larry McGuire.  Several major classical companies, as well as major West End shows were produced at the Playhouse in those early days, as well as hosting performances by most of the world's major entertainers and rock bands of the era.

The Playhouse holds several UK records for numbers of admissions.  The first, with over 48,000 people being admitted over six days, was for Harold Young’s 1934 film ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ which starred Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon.  Another cinema record was set in 1972, with over 42,000 admissions in 6 days for the re-release of Walt Disney’s ‘SnowWhite’, when Larry McGuire also played the Hilsdon for all intervals in the program for the full six day run.  On the ‘live’ side, it also holds a record for the largest audience for an Indoor Opera Performance, when, in its re-opening week in 1980, a record was set for Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ performed by Scottish Opera on 12th June with a completely full house (3056), and broke that again on Saturday 14th June 1980, when even the audience and cast members became enthusiastic about breaking the record again, with additional loose chairs being put into the Stalls and Circle Boxes, the seating area in the Circle Slips and into the normally unseated Balcony Slips alongside the FOH Stage Lighting bars.  With 'standing room only', a total of over 3200 of an audience enjoyed a party atmosphere, with the cast, technicians, FOH staff and audience participating together in this special event.

Unfortunately, during a concert by 'Genesis' in 1976 the console of the Hilsdon was damaged when audience members tried to use it as a 'step ladder' onto the stage from the stalls seating area.  Repairs were carried out, but as the top panel had been shattered and matching timber was unavailable, the top was replaced with plywood and the whole console sprayed Ivory, with the beading highlit in Gold.


The original console of the Playhouse Hilsdon in 1976.


A Compton console was purchased by the Society as a longer term replacement however, with the intention that all the first set of additions to the organ would be re-instated along with further additions, to increase the versatility of the instrument.

Everything was reinstalled into the chambers, along with some parts and pipes which had been collected in the intervening time, but due to the sudden and unexpected closure of the building again in 1977, this console was never connected to the organ.  The additional pipes and parts however, were left in the organ chambers as the Society had a much better working relationship with the Building's owners, the Estate agents who were handling its forced sale, and the lawyers and bankers who had taken possession of it.

When the Lothian Region Council purchased the theatre in 1979, STOPS' status was such that we were treated as 'The Client' by their Architect's Department for the refurbishment of the building.  Now that the future of the theatre was seen to be secure, the Compton organ console, (ex Astoria, Brixton, London) was exchanged in 1980 for the console of the Hilsdon Unit organ of the Picture House, Paisley, which had become available due to that organ having been removed from the cinema.


A 'full house' enjoys the STOPS
Concert to celebrate the re-opening, 18th May 1980.


The Paisley organ was the last Hilsdon cinema or theatre organ to be installed by the firm and was a fairly standard Unit type organ of 3 manuals and 10 ranks of pipes, along with the usual selection of Hilsdon percussions.


The Picture House, Paisley's Hilsdon organ console
while still in the cinema


Made famous around the world by a recording on the ‘Concert Recordings’ label in an album played by Frank Olsen, this organ had been removed from the Paisley cinema by the East Kilbride Cinema Organ Society who intended amalgamating the Paisley organ with the Wurlitzer they had.  Subsequently, its console and relay panel were acquired by STOPS, refurbished, many stop tabs from the original Hilsdon console added to it, and it was installed in the Playhouse in 1981 along with further pipe rank additions, including a complete, unenclosed ‘straight’ section of Hilsdon pipework, which had been obtained from Hilsdon when they closed their works in 1974.

Here is the final 1985 stop list of the Edinburgh Playhouse organ.

3 Manuals, CC-C, 61 notes; Pedals CCC-F, 30 notes
Enclosed in two chambers, one each side of the proscenium arch

PEDAL  
Harmonic Bass32Right
Acoustic Bass32Left
Open Bass16Right
Tibia Bass16Right (from Orchestral Tibia Unit)
Violone16Left (from Accmpt. Contra Viola)
Bourdon16Left (from Solo Quint Flute)
Octave  8Right
Tibia  8Right (from Orchestral Tibia Unit)
Violoncello  8Left (from Accmpt. Contra Viola)
Bass Flute  8Left (from Solo Quint Flute)
Open Flute  8Left (from Wald Flote Unit)
Tibia  4Right (from Orchestral Tibia Unit)
Bombarde16Left (Bombarde Unit)
Trombone16Right (Tuba Unit)
Clarion  8Left (Bombarde Unit)
Tuba  8Right (Tuba Unit)
Bass Drum (tap)
Kettle Drum (roll)
Clash Cymbal (sic)(tap)
Roll Cymbal
Orchestral to Pedal
Accompaniment to Pedal
Solo to Pedal
  
ORCHESTRAL lower manual RIGHT
Contra Tibia16
Contra Flutetc16 (Left)
Tibia Clausa  8
Wald Flote  8 (Left)
Hohl Flote  8
Viola da Gamba  8
Viola Celestetc8
Dulciana  8
Voix Celestetc8
Tibia Piccolo  4
Concert Flute  4
Octave Flute  4 (Left)
Tibia Twelfth2,2/3
Flute Twelfth2,2/3 (Left)
Tibia Piccolo  2
Orchestral Piccolo  2
Piccolo  2 (Left)
Tibia Tierce1,3/5
Flute Tierce1,3/5 (Left)
Contra Bombarde16 (Left)
Trombone16
Vox Humanatc16
Bombarde  8 (Left)
Tuba  8
Cornopean  8
Clarionet  8
Vox Humana  8
Vox Mystica  8
Octave Bombarde  4 (Left)
Tuba Clarion  4
Vox Humana  4
Marimba Harp
Carillon Harp
Xylophone
Glockenspiel
Orchestral Bells
Sleigh Bells
Orchestral Tremulant
Tibia Tremulant
Tuba Tremulant
Vox Humana Tremulant
Sub Octave
Unison Off
Octave
Solo to Orchestral
  
ACCOMPANIMENT centre manual LEFT
Contra Tibia16 (Right)
Contra Flutetc16
Quint Flute16
Open Diapason  8
Tibia Clausa  8 (Right)
Wald Flute  8
Flute Celeste  8
Violin  8
Violin Celestetc8
Dolce  8
Unda Maristc8
Octave  4
Tibia Piccolo  4 (Right)
Open Flute  4
Violin  4
Violin Celeste  4
Tibia Twelfth2,2/3 (Right)
Flute Twelfth2,2/3
Fifteenth  2
Tibia Piccolo  2 (Right)
Piccolo  2
Flute Tierce1.3/5
Contra Bombarde16
Trombone16
Bombarde  8
Tuba  8 (Right)
Octave Bombarde  4
Tuba Clarion  4
Snare Drum Roll
Castanets
Tambourine
Chinese Block
Tom-tom
UNENCLOSED centre manual RIGHT
Double Open Diapasontc16
Open Diapason  8
Claribel Flute  8
Principal  8
Harmonic Flute  4
Fifteenth  2
Trumpet  8
Accompaniment Tremulant
Unenclosed Tremulant
Octave
Solo sub-octave to Accompaniment
Solo to Accompaniment
Solo octave to Accompaniment
Orchestral sub-octave to Accompaniment
Orchestral to Accompaniment
Orchestral Octave to Accompaniment
  
ACCOMPANIMENT 2nd Touch
Bombarde  8
Tuba  8 (Right)
Tibia Clausa  8 (Right)
Tibia Piccolo  4 (Right)
Tibia Twelfth2,2/3 (Right)
Tibia Piccolo  2 (Right)
Solo to Accompaniment 2nd(Couplers play through)
  
SOLO upper manual LEFT
Contra Tibia16 (Right)
Contra Flutetc16
Contra Viola16
Tibia Clausa  8 (Right)
Violin Diapason  8
Wald Flute  8
Stopped Flute  8
Violin  8
Violin Celestetc8
Viol d'Orchestre  8
Viol Celestetc8
Dulciana  8 (Right)
Voix Celestetc8 (Right)
Tibia Piccolo  4 (Right)
Octave Viola  4
Octave Flute  4
Violin  4
Violin Celeste  4
Tibia Twelfth2,2/3 (Right)
Flute Twelfth2,2/3
Tibia Piccolo  2 (Right)
Piccolo  2
Tibia Tierce1.3/5 (Right)
Flute Tierce1.3/5
Contra Bombarde16
Trombone16 (Right)
Vox Humanatc16 (Right)
Bombarde  8
Tuba  8 (Right)
French Horn  8
Vox Humana  8 (Right)
Octave Bombarde  4
Tuba Clarion  4 (Right)
Cathedral Chimes(Right)
Carillon Harp(Right)
Xylophone(Right)
Orchestral Bells(Right)
Solo Tremulant
Bombarde Tremulant
Sub Octave
Unison Off
Octave
Orchestral Sub-octave to Solo
Orchestral to Solo
Orchestral Octave to Solo
Balanced Swell Pedal to Left Side
Balanced Swell Pedal to Right Side
Balanced General Crescendo Pedal (Affects whole organ)
  
5 Thumb pistons each to Solo, Accompaniment & Orchestral
Reversible thumbs pistons to :-
Accompaniment to Pedal
5 thumb pistons to Pedal
 
EFFECTS
Telephone Bell (pearlised thumb piston in Accmpt key cheek)
EFFECTS ON TOE PISTON
Horse Hoofs
Train
Surf
Boat Whistle
Train Whistle
Syren
Triangle
Birdsong
Fire Bell
Klaxon
 
Blower Start / Stop controls
Lift Up / Stop / Down controls
 
Music Desk Light switch
Pedal Light Switch

Possibly one of the greatest performances ever staged in the Edinburgh Playhouse was the 1985 Royal Gala Performance in aid of the 13th Royal Commonwealth Games, when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, HRH the Princess Royal, and HRH Prince Philip, attended a special production by the BBC and which employed a cast of over 1000 during the evening.  The organ was featured several times during the course of this show, and provided a sole accompaniment for Sarah Brightman and Paul Miles-Kingston singing Andrew Lloyd-Weber's 'Pie Jesu'.  During the Finale, 'full organ' was used, and the Royal Box was right next to the 16' Pedal Open Wood, so Her Majesty would been well and truly 'shaken'!  The theatre was subsequently used for the Weightlifting and Grecian Wrestling competitions during the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and was visited by several members of the Royal Family during those events.

Despite the organ being used frequently by visiting companies, it was actually extremely amusing to the resident organists during those rare times when visiting musicians or conductors would hire in a small portable pipe organ for opera productions, rather than use the Hilsdon, because they decried it as being ‘only a cinema organ'.  What these visitors didn't know in their ignorance, was that this was no ordinary 'unified' cinema organ, but a true 'King of Instruments', with many classically voiced straight ranks, and as an instrument, was more ‘classical’ than the ineffective portable pipe or electronic organs which they hired in at great expense.

The Playhouse could use up an entire Web page of its own, its history is so fascinating, and in days to come, we will add more information about this truly wonderful theatre, erected on American lines, and with its grand interior styling.  But back to the organ; the two almost triangular shaped, tall chambers were placed either side of the proscenium arch, with their floors being at Circle Box floor level, and rising for over 35 feet to the base of the 'cove' over the forestage.

The chambers were almost 80 feet apart across the wide auditorium, and the console was on the right side of the orchestra pit facing the stage, on its own lift.  The Discus blower and dynamo was in a separate room in the 'machinery space' of the theatre in the first basement level below stage, where a second blower was installed in 1973 to supplement the original and allow wind to be provided separately to the two chambers.

Tonally, the similarity to a typical large Hilsdon church organ of the same period was suggested as being more or less identical when reading the original stop list, but on listening, the Playhouse organ was much more mellow in tone, the diapasons lacking some of the brilliance and sparkle of their church organ cousins, the flutes were bolder and stronger, the strings keener and sharper, and the orchestral reed stops much more imitative.  The whole ensemble was able to blend perfectly with even quite a small orchestra, and when used with a large orchestra, blended extremely well.


We have identified the chamber locations on the above picture, and as can be seen, the Accompaniment and Solo divisions were on the left of the auditorium, with the Solo above the Accompaniment, each with their own set of swell shutters, and with one of the two relay panels being beneath them.  The Orchestral division was on the right, above the second relay panel, with the pedal Open Wood sitting on a raised section of concrete flooring amd extending upwards for eighteen feet.

A small chamber some 12 feet tall, above the right-hand Orchestral chamber, which itself was over 24 feet high in total, had been designed to house the percussion section, but as the shutters had never been installed, this area became used in 1981 for the unenclosed percussions, Tuba, and a Diapason Chorus section.  In the other sections of the organ, despite them each having a massive 'grille' area through which to speak into the auditorium, the actual shutter area and number of shutters was incredibly small for each section, resulting in the organ sound being 'bottled up', but even with this hindrance, the instrument was too loud for the conductor on opening night.

The sound of the organ reached every seat in the vast auditorium though, but the best place to hear the organ was in the centre of the front three rows of either the Circle or Balcony, as here, one had the benefit both of the full spacious acoustic of the auditorium, and direct line-of-sight stereophonic sound travelling from the large chambers.  Sitting at the console, the sound from the organ went straight over the organists head, and playing, one played by the 'key clicks', as the sound of the instrument eventually reached you after it had reflected from the back wall of the auditorium.  In the early days performing on this organ, Gordon Lucas and Larry McGuire found that 'up tempo' music was difficult to play, but they both soon mastered the acoustic delay.  Some visiting organists who were accustomed to playing electronic organs attempted to play the instrument, but failed to overcome the audible delay between pressing a note and hearing the pipes speak, whereas those who performed regularly on theatre pipe organs had no problems whatsoever.

Visiting performers included Arnold Loxam, Byron Jones, David Hamilton, Dennis Townhill, Ernest Broadbent, Gerald Shaw, Jeff Barker, Nigel Ogden, Peter Jebson and Dr John Landon.

With the chambers being divided either side of stage, the opportunity to play one chamber against the other, melody on one side, accompaniment on the other, swapping sides for contrast, using sounds from both chambers for chorus and ensemble work, made registration of the organ something that had to be thought about more carefully, than if the organ had been installed all together in one location, either on one side of the stage, or above or under the stage.

But although the organ is in the process of being fully restored and preserved now, it was with immense sadness that STOPS members undertook the removal of the instrument from the Edinburgh Playhouse in 1995, as the sound of this magnificent organ in this incredible theatre can never be recaptured, despite our trying very hard to do so. 

But, onwards to the New Palace Centre.

The nucleous of the instrument in the New Palace Centre was the remains of the 2 manual 8 rank Hilsdon from the Palace Picture House, Princes Street, Edinburgh.  Once again, although a unit organ, it was played with the orchestra and was rarely heard as a solo instrument until 1938 after the orchestra, which was shared with the Playhouse, was dismissed.  Played on special occasions and on Sundays for ‘Garrison Cinema’ (special Sunday afternoon film performances for serving Forces personnel), the organ was a favourite amongst the fans of the day in the City.  It was fabled as being sweet toned, melodic, and extremely musical.

An overhead installation, the two chambers were positioned side by side above the stage, speaking through grilles in the proscenium directly into the 1300 seat auditorium.  An oft told anecdote, was that the staff of the ‘Palace Cafe’, if running out of storage space, would store crates of vegetables and other tinned or dry goods in the rear of the pipe chambers.

Although a popular cinema, it closed in 1953 following an offer from Messrs F W Woolworth, and it was demolished to make way for an expansion of their existing store, already one of the largest in the UK.  Hilsdon’s bought back and removed the organ, and stored its parts in their works in Glasgow.  Over the next 20 years, some of the pipework (Tibia, Diapason, Tuba Horn and Clarinet) was re-used by Hilsdon in unknown church organs, the remainder, including all of the percussions, being left to languish in a corner of the workshop.  Early in 1975, Wilfred Southward offered the remaining parts of it to Gordon Lucas, then Chairman of STOPS, as ‘spares’ for the Playhouse as they were vacating the Dorset Street workshops which were to be demolished as part of Glasgow’s renewal project.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  Had we known then what the future held, we would have taken everything they offered us, but as it was, we accepted the chests, the remaining pipework and some other Hilsdon pipework, but left the Marimba, Carillon Harp, Cathedral Chimes and other percussions.  They went down with the building a few weeks later.  A 61 note Deagan Marimba Harp in almost unused condition is probably worth around £6,000 alone these days on the ‘parts market’.  In any case, the parts we collected firstly went to Bangour and were stored in a room alongside the chambers of the Society’s Christie organ there, to be worked on and refurbished, before being moved into the Playhouse late in 1979 ready for adding to that organ, after the Lothian Region Council bought the cinema to refurbish and use as a theatre.

Most of those parts were added to the organ, and once the theatre re-opened in 1980, time was consumed replacing the console, re-instating the main cables from the console to both chambers, and creating the Unenclosed division, as well as getting the rest of the instrument back up to concert standard again, which included a full and thorough cleaning of the entire instrument.

Following the purchase of the Playhouse at Christmas 1984 by Apollo Leisure, the Society was eventually given 4 days notice in September 1985 to vacate the theatre and take all our possessions with us.  Suddenly, the Edinburgh home of Gordon Lucas and Larry McGuire was filled with organ parts, with much more left behind in the theatre.  Hard choices had to be made, and two entire church organs, along with several other choice ranks of pipes, had to be left in the ‘organ room’ in the basement of the theatre.  It is presumed that these were all later scrapped by Apollo, along with the relay panels from the Picture House Paisley which were still connected to the organ, sometime between 1985 and 1995, as the organ room was virtually empty of all organ parts when the Society looked through it in 1995 whilst removing the Hilsdon.

With the organ having had no use for 10 years and vandals getting into the organ chambers and both damaging and removing organ pipes, including three complete ranks, as well as destroying the console, the instrument was in a very sad state when we surveyed it prior to removing it in 1995.

The remains of the Playhouse console as inspected in 1995
What is not shown are all the broken keys and shattered cabinet

But that was not the end for the organ, but a new beginning.  As the theme song to one famous movie begins, 'it was back when it all began', and the Story of the Organ in the New Palace Theatre Organ Heritage Centre and how it came to be there continues here.


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