Last of the seaside cinema organs: Weston-super-Mare bids adieu to its Compton

For almost a century an extraordinary Compton theatre pipe organ has wowed audiences, local people and visitors alike, at the Odeon in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare.

But on Sunday its warm, mellow, nostalgic tones were being heard for the final time before the Somerset cinema’s closing.

The British-made instrument and the modernist cinema are both listed, meaning that the organ, described on the town’s tourism website as a “wonder”, may be stranded behind closed doors and could never be fired up again.

It is a melancholy moment for fans of the organ, which glows in pastel colours during performances, and spells the end of an era as Weston’s instrument is the last of the seaside cinema Comptons operating in the original setting.

Once there were about 260 Comptons in UK cinemas but after Sunday there will be only two still being played in the place they were intended for – the Odeon in Leicester Square, central London, and the Plaza in Stockport, Greater Manchester.

Michael Wooldridge, who played the organ at a farewell concert on Sunday, said listening to a cinema organ in its intended setting was very special. “The nature of the space creates a very warm sound. There’s a special magic to it.”

Michael Wooldridge at the Weston-super-Mare Compton theatre pipe organ
Michael Wooldridge at the Weston-super-Mare Odeon’s Compton theatre pipe organ. Photograph: Cinema Organ Society

Wooldridge’s programme included hits from 1935 – when the organ was first played – Buddy Holly tunes and Eurovision favourites. “The idea is to take people on a musical and emotional journey,” he said.

Ben Snowdon, of the Cinema Organ Society, said Weston’s Compton was arguable the most authentic of the survivors. “If the John Compton company went in there now, they would see an organ that looks exactly as it did when it was installed. It is so original it is untrue,” he said.

Snowdon, one of the enthusiasts who has looked after the organ over the years, said Odeon had committed to a maintenance programme. “But I don’t know what will happen to the building. We hope, at least, the organ will have a good send-off on Sunday. It’s very sad.”

Cinema organs were built to provide accompaniment for silent films. When the talkies came in they were used to provide entertainment before the screening, during interludes and for shows in their own right.

Weston’s organ was first played in May 1935 by Alfred Richards, who composed the song Around the Corner at the Odeon for the occasion.

Ironically, cinema organs have enjoyed a modest renaissance. The Curzon in Clevedon, Somerset, has installed a Christie organ while in east London, the Troxy, a former cinema transformed into a multi-use events space, has brought in a Wurlitzer pipe organ. Musicians like Wooldridge still tour the country playing cinema organs, but in spaces such as town halls where the sound – and vibe – is different.

The Odeon has lost business to a new multiplex and said it is closing its Weston outpost because the business is “not viable”, but has not said what will happen to the building.

Among those attending on Sunday was Jo Lucas, 84, chair of the Weston Organ & Keyboard Club, who has enjoyed listening to the organ since she arrived in the seaside town 20 years ago.

“I’m worried about that lovely organ,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing with those flashing lights. I remember the days when you had half an hour or an hour of music before the film began.

“Now people can sit at home watching films and they don’t have to go out and pay for a cinema ticket. I shall be there on Sunday crying with everyone else.”

The Guardian