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The public likes better music now.

By Cecil G. Bernstein
Director Granada Theatres


With the coming of the war in 1939 the majority of exhibitors dispensed with organists. We of the Granada Theatres were naturally tempted do the same. Theatres closed. Bombing seemed imminent.
Although exhibitors were not thinking in terms of defeat from a national viewpoint, it has to be admitted that September, 1939, did not offer a particularly bright outlook for the film industry; especially for cinemas in vulnerable bombing areas such as London. And so many of our theatres were so situated, in Woolwich, Greenwich, East Ham, West Ham, Leytonstone and Walthamstow.
We were prepared to re-open and carry on as soon as permission was given. Our theatre staffs stood by waiting for the word "go" but we rightly doubted whether there would be much reaction at the box-office. At best we expected an immediate and devastating blitz while playing to almost empty houses.
In such circumstances it was almost irresistible to cut running costs to a minimum; and organists seemed to rate as a luxury. We managed to resist the temptation. We held conferences. We argued the pros and cons of the problem and eventually arrived at the conclusion which can thus be summed up: "Despite the war we're still in show business. Granada Theatres provide entertainment for half a million people a week. If we are given permission by the government to re-open then it's our job and our duty to offer maximum entertainment irrespective of takings."
From this we argued that the war-racked public would expect organ shows to be included in our programmes. We kept our organists on the pay roll. Then when cinemas were allowed to re-open soon after the outbreak of war we directed and encouraged our organists to build up community singing. The public's response to our gesture was at once warming and refreshing. We feel that between the first two Septembers of the war our organists played an important part in maintaining morale.
In September, 1940, came the first big blitz on London. Audiences stayed in cinemas all night. The show carried on with reserve films and heartening community singing led by the organist who sometimes played for as long as an hour at a stretch.
It was during this period that we most benefited from our 1939 policy of retaining the services of our organists. Thanks to the community singing they organised Hitler's "noises off" were drowned by a thousand or so voices singing "Roll Out the Barrel" or "There'll Always Be An England."
It was natural that during the war current song hits and old choruses which lent themselves to community singing should form the staple diet demanded by cinemagoers. "Pops" accompanied by slides carrying the lyrics went down better than any other form of organ programmes.
But shortly before VE-Day, with the general release of a significant change occurred. The tremendous popularity of this film was due to the discovery by the general public of the melodious beauty of Chopin's music. Previously they had regarded him as a highbrow associated with works appreciated solely by lovers of classical music. Even the efforts of the B.B.C. had failed to remove that impression. But when the public were tempted to listen to his music because it was linked with a love story told in Technicolor, they were suddenly made to realise what they had been missing.
Our organists, immediately sensing the change that had occurred in public taste switched from "pops" to Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and other "highbrow" composers. The reaction of the public was extraordinary. Absolute silence almost amounting to reverence descended when the organists were playing music of this kind. Enthusiastic applause greeted the end of each show.
Another cause of the sudden popularity of good music was undoubtedly due to who had managed to persuade Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer to introduce classics into their boy-meets-girl musical comedies. Iturbi proved himself capable of putting over such music in a friendly lowbrow manner.
He became, as it were, the "good music uncle" to millions of cinema-goers. With his homely, avuncular personality plus the great playing skill he commands, he was able to nurse cinemagoers into liking and appreciating the works of the great composers.
Since the war good music has not diminished in popularity, so long as it is not hurled at an audience. We find our patrons are prepared to listen to the great composers provided that the organist takes the trouble to introduce them with the aid of slides or, perhaps, a few words of explanation through the microphone. In short, it is essential to glamorise and explain the works of Tchaikovsky, Chopin and so on, because of the fact that for years the mention of such names had struck a chill of highbrowism into the mind of the ordinary man in the street.
We find that the post-war cinema going public are not satisfied with an organist who is merely content to sit down and play in front of closed stage curtains. Showmanship must be introduced by managers devising attractive stage sets to support organ solos.
Organ shows need tricks and surprises in order to ensure a maximum welcome from the public. This is not to imply that the organ is losing its appeal. If anything the war years have enhanced its popularity, but the public are forever demanding novelty and change, and it behoves organists to satisfy the demand.
Extract from "Theatre Organ World" by Jack Courtney