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India's Mightiest Organ, war model

Con Docherty

I joined the R.A.F. at the end of 1940 and spent the first half of '41 in a remote spot on the west coast of Northern Ireland. I then took a course and passed out at Cranwell in the full glory of a Wireless Mechanic (A/C.2) in February, '42, and in March "Orders came for sailing" and we landed in India in July.
I was posted to a station about 25 miles from Calcutta. Following the evacuation of Burma, troops began to pour into Bengal and Assam and mostly found themselves in jungle sites with work, heat flies and malaria in plenty and little else to relieve the deadly monotony.
Eventually an organisation sponsored by The Lady Mary Herbert (wife of the then Governor of Bengal) and a number of prominent Calcutta citizens came into being. The Army and the R.A.F. co-operated and a few of us were attached to what was called The Bengal Entertainments Services Association (B.E.S.A.); our job was to go round in small parties to give badly needed entertainment in that area. I was one of a party of five who made the first trip into Assam in October, '42.
We travelled as light as possible, each taking only a small tin box to carry our props and personal gear. I had to rely on finding a piano, if possible. You can imagine some of the "instruments" I came across, mostly minus dampers, and if one was found with all hammers and strings intact, it was invariably half a tone to as much as three tones flat.
Many times we reached places where even the worst type of piano was unheard of, so I accompanied the show (and played a solo) on a small Indian "Baja," something like a piano accordion, played with the right hand with a small bellows worked with the left. These are much used by the Indians and the incredible "music" they get from them has to be heard to be believed.
After this first four months' trip in the wilds we again reached Calcutta and I scouted round until I found a tiny four octave American Billhorn folding organ, the sort used by the backwoods parson for "the church in the wildwood." It had two sets of reeds, the normal 8ft. pitch and a knee pedal brought in a set of 4ft. pitch reeds, two foot pedals connected to the small bellows, its height, length and breadth were 24" x 29" x 14. The tone, surprisingly, was fairly powerful, the reeds were well voiced with a definite diapason quality.
True to the cinema organ tradition I designed and had fixed a minute "flutter" tremulant. I couldn't have felt prouder of a twenty rank job when I sat down and "gave out" for the first time at the small theatre in Calcutta which had been taken as a shop window to try out our shows prior to touring.
By this time the authorities had decided we might travel a small piano, but in addition I took the "Mighty" organ on our next trip, more as a novelty than anything, I'm a pretty tall and hefty bloke and when I used to produce this vest-pocket affair and sit down to play it, amusement gradually changed to astonishment as I started all too literally to sweat it out and show that something could be made of it.
We finished our next tour and on reaching Calcutta again, I set about finding a practical way of putting into operation an idea that had been continually on my mind: How could I devise a touring slide show? Something that could be used anywhere. Any thought of actual slides was out of the question but with the co-operation of Coiling Pyper, Calcutta producer, we solved the problem.
A collapsible wooden frame was made, about 6' 6" high and 4' wide with two wooden rollers, one top one bottom, a roll of fine white cloth, 36" wide, was bought and Ted Salter, one time commercial artist, attached to 1.E.S,A. drew my designs and painted them in colour on the cloth. I chose the old "Trip Round London" and though Ted had never been there, he made terrific sketches a la Morgan of all the well-known London scenes, Marble Arch, Old Kent Road, Limehouse, Strand, Westminster Abbey, etc.
The finished product was wound on the rollers, the frame masked in, and a light from a screened 100 watt bulb directed from behind, on each change the light was blacked out with a piece of wood and the roller turned to show a different scene. The result exceeded all our expectations, a "slide" about 4' x 3' being shown that could be seen fifty yards away.
This touring Organ Interlude was a great success, though I must confess that the constant longing for home was many times coupled with a nostalgic yearning to play a real theatre organ again (there are no theatre organs in India), but I always felt it worthwhile when I sat in front of the "screen" in a stage blackout after my opening patter, and the audience saw "all the old familiar places." It was a moving experience to hear every audience join in "Abide with me," which I played for the sketch of Westminster Abbey.
With another "slide" show and the original "London" interlude, the organ was part and parcel of the five hundred performances (apart from many church services) in which I covered over 70,000 miles in Bengal, Assam and Burma. B.E.S.A. was eventually taken over by E.N.S.A., from whom I bought the organ on my return to England in '45.
It's now in my small son's bedroom where he uses it as a dressing table. One of these days I'll have to shoot an awful line and tell him the tale of My "Mightiest" Organ.
More about Con Docherty

Extract:- Theatre Organ World