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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Jan 272012

By Bob Smith.

There’s jist nithing ti dee
Young eens cry in Aiberdeen
Iss wisna muckle o a problem
Fin I wis aroon seventeen
There wis cafes bi the dizzen
Faar ye cwid sit an chat
The famous Holburn Cafe
Or maybe the Kit Kat
Syne later on alang Union Grove
Ye cwid dander wi ease
An cum upon The Rendezvous
Better kent as Mama G’s
I learnt the airt o duncin
At Garlogie, Echt an Skene
Syne twis  ti the dunce halls
In bonnie Aiberdeen
Wednesdays – Abergeldie Jazz Club
Ti listen or jive ti Sandy West
Setterday – doon ti “The Beach”
Faar Leslie Thorpe wis at his best
There wis ither eens o coorse
The Palace, Douglas or the Palais
Faar ye cwid fin a bonnie quine
Ti snog up some dark alley
There wis Rock n’ Roll an ballads
Maybe jazz it wis yer choice
Played on the latest record players
Made bi Decca or His Master’s Voice
There wis lots o drainpipe troosers
Sweaters wi necks ca’ed crews
There wis Tony Curtis haircuts
An ticht winkle picker shoes
Ti the open air duncin at Hazleheid
Ye wid wanner hand in hand
Ti listen ti the music
Or waltz ti Bert Duff’s Band
On Sundays ye’d “waak the mat”
An see lassies bi the score
Maybe ye’d bump inti een
Ye’d snogged the nicht afore
There wis hullocks o picter hooses
The Majestic an a haill lot mair
The Capitol an the Astoria
Even hid an organ player
Ye ask’d a lassie ti the picters
She wis dolled up ti the nines
Ye really felt a cheapskate
Gyaan in the one an nines
The faavrit meetin plaicies
Fer the young an gallus
Wis ootside the “Monkey Hoose”
Or near the statue o William Wallace
There wis Eric, Bill, Neil, Ian an me
We fairly thocht we war dashin
Noo we’re aa ower sixty five
An rinnin oot o passion

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2011

Oct 092011

By Alex Mitchell.

Art Deco: a style in the decorative arts as defined by a major international exhibition held in Paris in 1925.   It had been planned for 1915, but was postponed because of the First World War.   The exhibition was a celebration of modernity, of modern materials and techniques.   The expression ‘Art Deco’ describes the style which predominated there; a jazzy application of a visual vocabulary derived from Cubism, Futurism, Functionalism and other recent movements to a variety of decorative, fashionable and commercial purposes.

There was a shift in emphasis from the Fine Arts to the Arts Decoratifs.   Artists now applied their aesthetic skills to all areas of design, ranging from architecture and interior decoration to fashion and jewellery.   Oddly enough, the expression ‘Art Deco’ did not come into use until a much later exhibition in London in 1968.   In its own time, the style was generally referred to as moderne (not to be confused with’modernist’) and sometimes as ‘jazz’ or ‘jazz-style’.  

Although it applies to the decorative arts and interior design of the 1920s and 1930s, the description ‘Art Deco’ can be extended to analogous styles in architecture, where it is characterised by smooth, sleek, aerodynamic or ‘streamlined’ motifs, reflecting the contemporary preoccupation with speed and the setting of new land, sea and air speed records.

Sunbursts, sunbeams and sun-rays are another very characteristic Deco motif, reflecting the new fashion for sunbathing and the perceived benefits of natural light and fresh air.   The ‘Deco’ style created clean simple shapes suitable for mass production in factories using modern materials such as plastic, chrome and aluminium.   Even mundane objects like vacuum cleaners and radios were given the Deco treatment, adorned with smooth, streamlined surfaces and sleek lines resembling those of racing cars and aircraft.

Following its revival in the 1960s, Art Deco has been seen as the natural sequel to the Art Nouveau of the 1890s, of which the early work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) provides several examples, e.g., the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow.   Art Nouveau drew much of its inspiration from the natural world of plants and flowers and is characterised by a sinuous, curvilinear style.   A local example of Art Nouveau is the cast-iron Ventilator at the Holburn Street end of Justice Mill Lane.

But Art Deco is more a product of the machine age, and is characterised by flat, geometric shapes.  

Mackintosh at first incorporated a significant degree of Art Nouveau ornamentation in his work, but he later pared down these decorative elements in favour of a starkly elegant and geometrical aesthetic, e.g., the vertical emphasis of his notorious ladder-backed chairs.

Art Deco and other aspects of Modernism as applied to architecture were in conscious rebellion against pre-1914 styles such as Victorian Gothic, Scottish Baronial and Edwardian Baroque, which came to be seen as dark, stuffy, cluttered, over-decorated, pompous and impractical. It was now felt that design should reflect function, that function should dictate form, and that buildings serving modern purposes such as railway stations or schools should not be disguised so as to resemble medieval cathedrals or castles.

Modernism came to favour asymmetrical compositions, unrelievedly cubic shapes, metal and glass framework often resulting in large windows in horizontal bands, and a marked absence of decorative mouldings or ornamentation.  The pendulum of fashion had swung from the one extreme to the other, from Gothic extravagance and whimsy to a style, or absence of style, often described as ‘Brutalist’, if not as ‘Stalinist’.

Art Deco may be seen, at its best, as a via media, a happy medium between the over-ornamentation and clutter of the Victorian-Edwardian era and the stark, totalitarian style too often characteristic of the 20th century.

Art Deco emphasised stylishness attuned to domestic use and popular consumption, and was characterised by geometric patterning, sharp edges and flat, bright colours, often involving the use of enamel, bronze and highly polished chrome.

The simplicity of the style can be seen as Classical in spirit, apparent in the extensive use of Egyptian, Aztec and Greek motifs.   This reflected the widespread interest in the discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun in 1922.

The craze for all things Egyptian coincided with the spate of cinema construction in the 1920s and 1930s, and was often incorporated into both exterior and interior designs, being very apparent in Odeon, Gaumont and other chain-cinemas of the period.

Sumptuous picture-palaces were built in Aberdeen during the inter-war period, the ‘Age of Deco’, including:

The Palace Cinema; the old Palace Theatre was substantially extended in 1931 to create its impressive Rubislaw granite frontage on Bridge Place, which itself stands on a ridge extending from Holburn Street to Crown Terrace. The Palace became a dance-hall in 1960. The building was owned by Scottish & Newcastle Breweries from 1993 until recently, and its shabby and neglected condition did them no credit.   It is now a nightclub, operated by Luminar, who have tidied it up considerably.

The Regent Cinema in 1927, by Tommy Scott Sutherland (1899-1963), was built on the site of the Upper Justice Mill, at the Holburn St. end of the ridge described above.   The Lower Justice Mill was down the brae in Union Glen; its mill-pond lay between the two buildings.   The two mills had been in operation well before 1320, when they were granted to the Burgh of Aberdeen by King Robert I, Robert the Bruce, and were still in operation 600 years later in the 1920s.

The Capitol had the most remarkable interior of all the Aberdeen cinemas, which included a Compton theatre pipe organ

The Lower Mill pond was drained and filled, the three streams diverted and covered and the site was levelled by excavating it back towards Justice Mill Lane.   The Regent cinema occupied the eastern part of the site formerly occupied by the Upper Mill; the western part of the site is occupied by the McClymont Hall.

The frontage of the Regent Cinema (latterly the Odeon) was of Rubislaw granite, decorated with bands of red terracotta, with a polished black granite base.   The vertical central windows, giving the impression of height, became something of a Sutherland trade-mark, later deployed to useful effect in the Kittybrewster Astoria and the Majestic.

The Regent opened on Saturday 27 February 1932, a few months after the Palace.   The building is now occupied by the Cannon sports centre and health club.   The new owners have renovated the exterior to a high standard, extending to the rear of the car park, where it abuts Union Glen.

The Capitol in Union Street in 1932, by A. G. R. Mackenzie, had a sparkling dressed granite frontage, slightly asymmetrical in layout.   Above the entrance were three tall windows with two shorter windows to the left and three such to the right.   The frontage was/is surmounted by a plain but elegant pediment which had the effect of concealing from street view the high, steeply pitched roof of the auditorium.

The Capitol had the most remarkable interior of all the Aberdeen cinemas, which included a Compton theatre pipe organ, and it was also the most influenced by Art Deco, both inside and out, e.g., the outer doors with their stainless-steel semi-circular hand plates, forming full circles when the doors were closed.

The Capitol opened on Saturday 4 February 1933.   Its more recent conversion for Luminar involved the horizontal division of the auditorium into two complementary night-clubs, one upstairs, one downstairs.   We are unable to say how this affects the Compton organ, or just what remains of the Art Deco interior.

Tommy Scott Sutherland went on to design the Astoria Cinema in Clifton Road, Kittybrewster, which opened on Saturday 8 December 1934.

This was followed by the Majestic in Union Street, (opposite the Langstane Kirk), which TSS regarded as his finest creation.   It had a fairly plain and austere frontage of Kemnay granite in the style by now known as Sutherland Perpendicular.
It opened on Thursday 10 December 1936.   By then, Aberdeen could boast one cinema seat per seven inhabitants, more than double the ratio in London.   (For more on this, see The Silver Screen In The Silver City by Michael Thomson, 1988.)

Other Deco-influenced buildings in Aberdeen are:

Jackson’s Garage in Bon-Accord Street/Justice Mill Laneof 1933, by A. G. R. Mackenzie.   This is a rare example of excellent commercial architecture of the inter-war period in Aberdeen, and has many Deco characteristics.   It incorporates the distinctive horizontal banding of windows and glazing, curving around the corner to Justice Mill Lane.   The Bon-Accord Street frontage has an impressive central section with three very tall vertical windows surmounted by a distinctive 1930s clock.   The building is now occupied by Slater’s Menswear.

The Bon-Accord Baths in Justice Mill Lane, of 1937, is one of the most characteristically 1930s buildings in Aberdeen, being a giant buttressed granite box.   Inside, there is an abundance of curved blond wood and shiny metal; the swimming pool roof is supported on concrete arches.   The window glazing is distinctively ‘Deco’.

Amicable House, Nos. 250-252 Union Street, of 1933, by Tommy Scott Sutherland, built just west of his Majestic Cinema, embodies some Art Deco motifs and characteristics.   The Majestic was demolished in the early 1970s and replaced by the present bland, characterless office block.

The 1930s Medical School at Foresterhill.

The King’s College Sports Pavilion of 1939-41, by A. G. R. Mackenzie; one of the few Modernist buildings in Aberdeen before World War Two.

Tullos Primary School, begun 1937, but not completed until 1950, by J. Ogg Allan; one of the best 1930s buildings in the city.

I should mention the Carron Tea-room in Stonehaven, built 1937 and recently fully refurbished; it may be the finest Art Deco building in the north of Scotland.

Finally, the Northern Hotel, Kittybrewster, of 1937, by A. G. R. Mackenzie.   Its curved frontage is dominated by broad horizontal banding of windows and glazing.   The Northern Hotel is the most distinctively ‘Deco’ building in Aberdeen, and has recently been fully restored.   The interiors are well worth seeing.

For all that, the Northern Hotel is arguably more a thing of interest than of great beauty.   The Deco style seems to work better in pastel colours and in sunny locales.

I used to walk past the Northern Hotel regularly, and it never occurred to me to think of it as a beautiful building; striking, yes, beautiful, no.   By the time it was built, in the late 1930s, the new architecture of Aberdeen had perhaps slipped too far down that long descent from Victorian Gothic to Stalinist Brutalism; all the way from the splendid Flemish-Medieval Town House of 1867 to the irredeemably awful St Nicholas House of 1967.

These bitter-sounding thoughts were occasioned, quite some years ago, whilst walking from the Castlegate back to the Brig o’ Dee.   It occurred to me that every building I liked along the way dated from long before I was born, and that almost nothing put up in my own lifetime was any good at all.   I like to think that things bottomed out, perhaps as far back as the 1970s or ‘80s, and are now on an improving trend, but the evidence is still uncertain.

That said, ‘Deco’ influences are apparent in at least three recent buildings in Aberdeen, as follows:

The Lighthouse Cinema; I like those sleek glass curves along the line of the old Shiprow.

The huge block of student flats in Mealmarket Street/West North Street is distinctively ‘Deco’ in style, brightly coloured in pastel shades of blue, white and pink/orange.

Talisman House in Holburn Street is another symphony in tinted glass with its undulating green roofline, now complemented by Gillie’s new furniture store across the street.

Talisman House is certainly a big improvement on the old College of Commerce; but is the Boots/Currys building by the Brig o’ Dee an improvement on the former, much-unloved, Dee Motel?   At least the Dee Motel was a low-rise building, set well back and largely obscured by trees and shrubs.   The Boots/Currys building might be acceptable somewhere else but, on this prominent corner site, is too big, too far forward and too close to the historic Brig; and it completely dominates the view all the way down South Anderson Drive and out Holburn Street.

Contributed by Alex Mitchell.