Oct 112012

As plans progress for a new 10 storey office block on the former Capitol cinema, Murray Henderson meets Charlie Davidson, an early member of the Aberdeen Theatre Organ Trust, who talks about his hopes for the legendary Compton Cinema Organ, still resident in the now derelict building.

During the Capitol’s spell as a nightclub, few clubbers could have known that beneath their feet lay an exquisite example of one of the most complex and beautiful musical instruments ever produced in Britain.
The mighty Compton Organ was sealed underneath the floor of the nightclub as a condition of planning approval to convert the cinema in 2002. It was built by master organ maker John Compton of Nottingham. His brand was the most popular in Britain, with a total of 261 organs installed in British theatres1.

Because of the silent nature of early cinema, it was left to virtuoso organists to provide the spine-tingling soundtracks to the era’s films. In its heyday the Capitol’s Compton was of some renown and organ performances in the theatre were even broadcast to the nation.

A previous planning application for the demolition of the Capitol auditorium was approved by Aberdeen Council and backed by Historic Scotland. Though the plans were not progressed, they included the display of the organ console alone, to be rendered unplayable, above the entrance as “a reminder of the original use of the building”2.

But that is not enough for former Trust member and Aberdeen-born organ maestro Charlie Davidson, who is intent on saving the entire instrument from the wrecking ball and ensuring that its unique sound can once again be heard in the city.

Aberdeen Voice (AV): Charlie, what is your association with the Capitol’s Compton Organ?

Charlie Davidson (CD): I was born and raised in Aberdeen, and studied organ at St Andrews Cathedral in King Street Aberdeen in the 1960s but also discovered there was a magical Pipe Organ in the Capitol at the same time. I was allowed in to play the Compton on Saturday mornings which was wonderful. This was about 1965 and the Compton in the Capitol was the first Cinema Pipe Organ I ever played. The Capitol Organ, and in fact the entire cinema, was a big part of my life.

AV: Can you describe the Compton and how it felt to play in the Capitol?

CD: The Compton was a wonderful instrument. The acoustics of the Capitol were great and the organ console was on an electric lift situated in the centre of the orchestra pit. It was a great thrill to push the ‘up’ button on the organ console whilst playing and you would be lifted up to stage level in full view of the audience.

AV: How does a Cinema Organ differ from a Church Organ, which people might be more familiar with?

CD: The mechanical side of the organ is very similar to some Church Organs but the stops, or ranks of pipes, are quite different. Because the Cinema Organ was originally designed to accompany silent films, its main purpose was to imitate an orchestra. Having said that, it can still sound like a Church Organ if required.

The technique required is quite different to Church Organ playing. In fact, you will find that practically all cinema organists can play the Church Organ, but few church organists can play the Cinema Organ. The percussions were a major part of this design.

The Capitol Organ has a xylophone, glockenspiel, cathedral chimes, vibraphone and a full set of drums, cymbals and sound effects. The effects are operated by buttons above the pedals and consist of things like horses’ hooves, bells, buzzers, car horns, sirens, etc. – all great fun.

AV: It sounds like a very complex instrument.

CD: The organ is not just the console in the pit; it also has a massive blower in the basement and two rooms full of organ pipes and percussion instruments half way up the proscenium arch on the right hand side. There are also miles and miles of cables and relays etc. Restoration is a big job and I should know as I have removed several of these instruments over the years. The last one was in Mallorca this year.

AV: Can you tell us more about your previous restoration work?

CD: Another of the organs I rescued was from the Rex Cinema in Stratford, east London. This organ has now been fully restored by a team of enthusiasts in the Royalty Theatre in Bowness on Windermere and had its opening on the 6th October3. In addition, I have the unique Ingram Organ from the Astoria Corstorphine in storage and also a fine Wurlitzer Pipe Organ from the Ritz Workington.

AV: I understand the Capitol Compton was broadcast.

CD: Yes, the Capitol organ was broadcast many times on the BBC. We had lots of famous resident organists including Rowland Timms, George Blackmore, Bobby Pagan and others – all of whom broadcast regularly. The Capitol was very well known to the UK BBC audience.

AV: There seem to be a number of different Compton designs, do you know if the Capitol’s Compton was unique, designed especially for the cinema?

CD: There were many designs of organ console. The Capitol console was unusual but not unique.  The art deco end boxes are known as ‘coffin ends’ for obvious reasons and are really just for show, to make the organ look more impressive as it rose out of the pit in the spotlight.

AV: Do you have any idea of how rare these instruments are nowadays?

CD: There are now only four Cinema Pipe Organs left in Scotland – the Capitol Compton, a very fine restored Wurlitzer in Glasgow, a Hilsdon organ in Greenlaw (ex Playhouse Edinburgh) and a Compton under restoration in the Heritage Centre Coatbridge. To the best of my knowledge, these are the only Cinema Pipe Organs left in all of Scotland. The Capitol Organ was a particularly good instrument as was the one in the Astoria Aberdeen.

AV: What became of the Aberdeen Astoria Organ?

CD: It was rescued and installed in the hall of Powis Academy. In November 1982, an arson attack by a pupil destroyed parts of the school including the organ. It had a glass surround and organ bench and the organist could change the colour of the entire lighted console at the flick of a stop. It could also be set to ‘auto’ and gently fade through all the colours of the rainbow. These illuminated consoles were known as ‘jelly moulds’ again for obvious reasons. They were unique to the UK which I always found surprising. The American Cinema Organs never had anything like it.

AV: How did you learn the skills necessary to restore Cinema Organs?

CD: Sheer trial and error. I bought my first pipe organ from Letterfourie House in Buckie when I was 14 years old and completely rebuilt it. It was a really historic organ and is still going strong with a local organ builder. It just went on from there and I got interested in the mechanics of Pipe Organs. The restoration encompasses woodwork, electrical, relays, etc. which I love and you end up with something you can play.

AV: In your opinion is the Compton Organ in the Capitol restorable?

CD: The Capitol Compton organ is most certainly restorable. It will require a lot of work, but it is such an important piece of Aberdeen’s history it really has to be done.


1.       http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Compton_(organ_builder)

2.       Aberdeen City Council Approval Notice for Planning Application (P101757) searchable on ACC website. Current Capitol Planning application is (P101757).

3.       http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-19270424

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  7 Responses to “Aberdeen Musicians In Bid To Save Historic Organ”

  1. A good atricle. Very interesting. It is a pity it cannot be saved in working order. Get the P&J to run an article and drum up some support. Do you know what the new owners plan to do with the building and the organ?

  2. Cinema organs are very easy to rescue – because the keys and the pipes are connected electrically, unlike church organs there isn’t any visible decorative case, and there are far fewer pipes than in a typical church pipe organ. All it needs is somewhere in a hall to reinstall it perhaps the size of a one bedroom flat, and it will hide out of the way, ready to make the hairs on the back of your neck tingle again. Good luck Charlie.

  3. Is there an update on this story? I used to play the compton with the organ society every saturday and was really sad to hear the Capital is being renovated once again and not keeping this great organ on show. Unfortunately I don’t live in Aberdeen any more but wanted to know what will happen to the organ and bench

  4. if it has to be rendered inoperable, wouldn’t it make more sense to salvage it and transfer it to somewhere like the music hall or beach ballroom? I’m sure that a good show of local support for such a plan could get the gears moving to find it a suitable home where it can be heard once again. Would the tivoli be an option?

  5. Are there any contact details for Charlie?

    • Hi Michael. This is the mail address Charlie supplied in response to the previous Article about the Capitol. I have reason to believe though that it might not be active …. I await a response from Charlie myself … thinking of changing to co.uk and trying that out.


  6. It appears that the Aberdeen Compton has been ‘lost’. Historic Scotland listed the building and its contents shortly before permission was granted for its conversion. It was conditional of the planning permission that the organ be donated to ‘The Aberdeen Theatre Organ Trust’, of which Charlie was one of the Trustees. In the five years preceding the ‘gifting’ of the organ to the Trust the Trust was allowed collapse due to retirement and death of Trustees. No attempt appears to have been made to replace the missing Trustee’s, despite interest being shown from several potential replacements. According to OSCR the trust simply ceased submitting accounts in 2018 without explanation. I have it on good authority that in August 2021, during lockdown, Knight Property evicted the organ from its storage premesis, and the sole remaining Trustee, Charlie Davidson, decided ‘Unilaterally’to ‘give’ the organ to a collegue in Germany. The organ has since been removed from the UK.

    After reading an article ‘Don’t wait until Aberdeen’s heritage is under threat to fight for it’ by Rebecca Buchan in the P&J, I contacted her with the potential story of the missing organ. Despite an initial interview in which she seemed very excited to look in to it she sat on it for nearly a year then never published it. I find it highly ironic that she then goes on to write articles bemoaning the lack of musical interest in Aberdeen, when she could have played a part in providing the same.

    At the time I belived there was a strong case that the remaining Trustee had acted illegally, not least because the whole planning permission for the conversion of the Capitol was granted on the basis that the organ remained in Aberdeen for preservation. Also, the organ was ‘gifted’ to the Trust. Under Scottish law title to an object doesn’t change unless some form of consideration is passed, a ‘peppercorn’ gesture, yet the documents in Aberdeen councils planning department say the organ was gifted free of charge. There was also probably an implied contract between the owner and the Trust which is now broken by the Trust’s failiure to meet its side of the contract. At the time it was shipped I belived there was a very good chance the organ could have been recovered, but thanks in part to the total inaction fo Aberdeen’s P&J that opportunity has probably now been lost.

    And if you dont think it could have been done, in the late 1960’s a local Arbroath man, Ian Fraser, bought a steam loco from BR and gifted it to the then Dundee Corporation for it to be included in a proposed transport museum. When, after 20 years Dundee council failed to build the museum Mr. Fraser was able to show that the contract had been broken and ownership of the loco was reverted back to him. The loco, Ivatt class 2, No. 46464, is now nearing completion of its return to steam by the Carmyllie Pilot Company Ltd.

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