Harold Ramsay

The Organ in the Music Hall.

Why do I play in Music Hall instead of the cinema? This question turns thought back to the early days of my career at the Rivoli, New York City, one of Broadway's "Big Four." Our programmes always included a section of variety ranging from brilliantly executed ballet to world famous soloists. There was never a word spoken but the theatre was always packed to capacity.
There, I learned the value of music plus showmanship on the stage. Coming to England for the Granada, Tooting. I soon heard of the success of G. T. Pattman, and wondered when an organ would be invented which would really be suitable for touring, always ready for use within an hour or so and always in tune.
What should one do on the variety stage? This question was almost answered for me by the "Eight Piano Symphony." This I devised and conducted for the 1933 anniversary of the Granada, Tooting: it toured the country but my employers preferred that I continue playing and broadcasting from the Granada.
The John Compton Organ Co. honoured me by an invitation to play and broadcast on their electronic organ at Radio-Olympia. It was the first all-electric organ built here and was a grand instrument.
In the spring of 1936 I bade a regretful farewell to the Granada to accept Musical Directorship of Union Cinemas. After a few months my post was changed to Controller of Entertainment, and again my work was directed to the variety field.
The excellent team of organists I had the pleasure to work among proved conclusively that a theatre organ, under experienced hands, can accompany any act. There is no single name in the group I can select to mention. They were all first class.
The series of variety broadcasts from the Union-Regal, Kingston, "Radio Rodeo" (a title I invented while conducting at the Palace, Dallas, Texas), proved what a team of organists can do in working with the world's finest variety acts. "Stork Radio Parade" every Sunday had constant "House Full" notices before the performance started, proving what shows, in which organ was the backbone, could do. Organists I then engaged are now considered among our "top flight."
In 1938 I decided to sever connections with the cinema and take the plunge, so . . . from ethereal pipes to electric plugs!
When a cinema organist goes into variety he must have a better reason than that he is an accomplished organist. The variety audience demands to see his face as well as his back and does not wish for words on a screen or the cinema type "interlude."
He must have a portable instrument, plus equipment which can operate from A.C. or D.C. and be installed in an hour or so. Sometimes it must be moved from the wings on to the stage, ready to play, in two minutes and cleared from the stage after the act in thirty seconds. It must be reinforced so that travel and constant handling does not upset the mechanism.
My speediest installation was to drive into an R.A.F. hangar, unload, and be playing within twenty minutes. That show was requested during one of the first German raids on North Sea shipping, and the organ was ready when the boys landed in Yorkshire to celebrate seven down out of twelve, with no losses.
The organ should be made so that only loss of current can stop the performance. This entails carrying of spares galore. My choice was a Hammond-Lafleur, one of the several all-electric organs, and I cannot praise it too highly.
The performer must be prepared to finance his own show in case bookings offered are not to his satisfaction. He must expect constant touring with little chance of seeing his home, unless he has long periods out of work. Perhaps the smell of the grease paint makes up for his trials; perhaps he will be so fortunate as to engage a good electrician-cum-stage manager-cum-cartage supervisor, to take care of the many annoying little things which beset one.
My vehicle was "Radio Rodeo"; the many broadcasts under this title had introduced me to a public widely separated from the cinema minded listeners. After a season's tour I continued in variety until requests for voices with the organ decided me to engage eight young ladies. The result was "Eight Lovely Ladies," and a long run with a show. After two years of touring, including Sunday shows at military hospitals, R.A.F. stations, etc., I had to ease up and return to the performance of a single act.
The girls were excellent singers; several have graduated to leading solo engagements. Soprano was Victoria Sladen now too well known to listeners for her brilliance in opera, to need any introduction from me.
In 1942 I combined with my wife, Cherrie Cooper, in our present organ and vocal vaudeville act. After a long run in variety we produced a show in January, 1944, which toured for fifteen months. Enjoyment, disappointment, and chagrin came by turn. We broke records at seaside resorts after dodging doodle-bugs in London during July, 1944; spent Christmas and New Year in the quiet north, after November and December in London amid rockets. Financially, it was the story of the swings and roundabouts.
Last summer while appearing at the Manchester Hippodrome, that city's most ardent organ fan, Mr. R. Bonner, told me that he was forming a "Harold Ramsay Organ Fan Club": a fine club has been formed and they have selected a worthy charity in Dr. Barnados Homes, to give all their proceeds to.
Whence? I can only add my voice to the general query. Television will undoubtedly cause a big change in the entertainment world. What will be its effect on the music hall or on the cinema, who knows?
At the moment Cherrie and I are enjoying our new home on the Thames near Chertsey, Surrey; after that we tour with the famous Bud Flanagan, this year, King, of the Grand Order of Water Rats, of which it is my great honour to be a member. Our happiest wartime effort to entertain was during London's Warship Week, in Trafalgar Square, 1942.
The Hammond was installed on the 'bridge' and current came from the underground lines. Whenever a tube train passed the section I felt the loss of power. The Hammond's output plus microphones and loud speakers placed in all directions carried the sound of organ and voice all over Westminster. For an hour on that Friday afternoon we played, sang and led community singing, and read that over £10,000 had been collected for War Bonds during that time while the many thousands of people had joined in the sing-song.
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Extract from "Theatre Organ World" by Jack Courtney