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Dendy Theatre, Brighton

The Dendy Theatre in 1975

The Dendy Theatre in Church Street, Middle Brighton, was built in 1940, and was a typical suburban cinema of its time. The 1172-seat building drew scant praise from theatre architecture specialist Ross Thorne:

 It may seem unlikely that this building, thus dismissed with the literary equivalent of a sniff, and named after an early settler in the area, [Building, 24 December, 1940, p. 19] should have become an icon of the theatre organ movement in Australia, and known by name, if not by sight, to theatre organ lovers throughout the world. It was, however, the first public building in Australia into which a theatre organ owned by a preservation society was installed. The opening of that organ thus represented a land-mark, a concrete expression of the resurgence of interest in the instrument in Australia.

The Victorian Division of the Theatre Organ Society of Australia purchased the three-manual, fifteen-rank Wurlitzer organ from the Capitol, Melbourne, in 1963. After they had removed it and placed in into storage, the next step was to find a suitable home in which to install it. In 1965, after many negotiations with the no-doubt initially sceptical management and owners of the Dendy Theatre, agreement was reached for the organ to be installed there.

Unlike some other theatres, no speculative organ chambers had been included in the theatre's design, but fortunately, the Dendy possessed a stage of some depth which was not used. It was found that there was sufficient space on the stage to construct chambers to house the organ behind the screen, an unusual, but by no means unsatisfactory, location.

An electronic organ was featured while the Wurlitzer was being installed

The chambers were soon constructed, and on 27 March, 1966, the 32ft Diaphone pipes and the piano, both sited on top of the chambers, were in position. These were the first portions of the organ to be installed.[Vox, TOSA(Vic),April, 1966, p. 1] As the remainder of the organ's parts were set up in the chambers, its relay system was completely rewired. Twenty miles of wire were used in the process. [Inaugural Concert Programme, Dendy Theatre, 30 April, 1967, p. 5]  By October, 1966, work had progressed to the point where it was announced that the organ would be opened early in May by English organist George Blackmore, who would play the organ for a three-week season. Horace Weber, long associated with the organ when it was at the Capitol and who had opened it there in 1924, would perform the actual opening items at the première concert. [Vox, October, 1966, p. 2] Blocked drains at the theatre caused the chambers to be flooded to a depth of two inches over Christmas, 1966, but quick action by TOSA members prevented the organ from suffering any damage; fortunately at this stage the console was not yet installed in its lift pit. Work on the installation was, however, set back about a week. [Vox., February, 1967, p. 1]

Finally, after some 20,000 hours of work, the instrument was entrusted to Hill, Norman & Beard Ltd., to carry out final regulation and adjustment.[The First Twelve Months, TOSA (Vic), 1968, p. 2] All was then ready for the organ's unveiling, at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, 27 April, 1967. Organ music was not new to the Dendy, as a Burge electronic organ had been on the right-hand side of the stage for some while, but at last, genuine pipe sounds were to be heard for the first time.

Horace Weber unveils the Dendy organ nearly 43 years after he opened the same organ in the Capitol

George Blackmore, who had arrived from England four days earlier, then played for twenty minutes, including the "Dendy March", which he had written specially for the occasion. The audience then settled back to enjoy the Australian première of the film "Zulu".

Photgraphers unknown for the three above photographs

Dendy Organ Specification

The opening, which was a special feature of a film show, gave the audience only a short sample of the organ's sounds. The following Sunday afternoon saw the Inaugural Concert, when George Blackmore really put the organ through its paces.

This was a full-scale concert, which included a wide range of music, from Widor to current popular tunes. George's programme was as follows:


















For the next four weeks, George Blackmore played the organ six nights per week (and Saturday matinées), and for more concerts, before returning to England. While he was at the Dendy, he recorded material for an LP record, which was issued in America and released worldwide, to let theatre organ aficionados throughout the world share the delights of the Dendy organ.

Some examples of media coverage of the organ's first year at the Dendy

The organ at the Dendy was installed unaltered from the Capitol, except for some tonal adjustment to suit the different auditorium. One rank, the Saxophone, was not able to be restored by Hill, Norman & Beard Ltd. in time for the opening season. Fortunately, TOSA member Bill Glasson had in his residence organ an identical set of Wurlitzer pipes, and these were loaned until the original rank was reunited with the rest of the organ in July, after being fitted with new reed tongues. [Vox, August, 1967, p. 6] The organ console was restored to its 1924 appearance, in varnished dark wood, without the ormolu mouldings added while it was at the Capitol (these were later used by TOSA on its organ at Cinema North, Reservoir). It was placed on a lift, in front of the stage, on the left-hand side of the auditorium.  For a short period a Compton Tuba was added, raising the rank complement to sixteen. Comparison of the Dendy and Capitol specifications shows a few changes that have occurred over time.

Console in 1975 when piston mechanism was removed for overhaul

The organ continued to be featured almost every night for the next decade and a half. It was played by both local and international organists. Some of these, such as Lyn Larsen and Vic Hammett, came for several extended seasons, as the instrument became a vehicle for the enjoyment of some of the world's greatest theatre organists.

It was regularly used for TOSA's many series of concerts, and rapidly established itself as a major venue on the world concert circuit. Its success inspired other TOSA Divisions to acquire and install organs of their own.

Even the theatre management was so swept away that in their vision for expansion of the Dendy they planned an organ-equipped restaurant. They brought over a three-manual, eight-rank Compton organ, from the Gaumont Theatre, Cheltenham, in England, for that purpose, and placed it in storage at the theatre pending the construction of the restaurant. Unfortunately, that plan never materialised, and the Compton was eventually sold to TOSA in Canberra, who installed it instead in the Albert Hall, Canberra.

The Dendy organ was seen on television a number of times. In particular, it was creatively featured with organist Lyn Larsen in a monochrome cigarette commercial, and in a splendid episode of ABC's "The Music Masters", when it was played by Dennis James, including some exciting duets with Heidi James on piano. Viewers were also taken on a conducted tour through the organ chambers. [Videotapes in my personal archive]

Intermission at the Dendy - David Johnston at the Console - David was house organist at the Dendy for several years


















Programmeof a classic organ and jazz band concert, including combo numbers.  Thirty years later it is still remembered as an all-time classic concert

In 1974, the Dendy Wurlitzer console was removed temporarily from the theatre, initially for rewiring. It was soon decided to extend the work to encompass releathering of all pneumatics within the console, and the replacement of the combination piston setter board, the last task alone requiring the installation of a new board with 1490 three-way switches and forty cables containing a total of 2200 wires. [Vox, March, 1976, p. 4] The console returned to the theatre in 1975, and the organ was used for an "open console" session at the Easter Convention that year, but without pistons or percussions. The rebuilding work was completed during 1976.

The console in 1975 without thumb pistons

During the late 1970s, rumours began to spring up that the Dendy theatre would close and a new home would have to be found for the organ. [Vox,November-December, 1979, p. 3] In December, 1979, The Herald carried an article about the Dendy organ, concluding with the following sad news:

TOSA (Vic) set up a sub-committee in January, 1980, to find a new home, and to arrange for the orderly removal and storage of the organ when that became necessary; at that stage no firm date for the theatre's closure had been announced. [Vox, January, 1980, p. 7] Uncertainty reigned through 1980, until in October, a startling announcement appeared in a local newspaper in its report on plans lodged with the Brighton Council for the theatre redevelopment project:

The breaking of this story caused some consternation initially within TOSA, as no official discussions had been held over this new plan with the Dendy management, and at the time, TOSA was still seeking a new home elsewhere in the Melbourne area for the organ. [Vox, November, 1980, p. 5] Despite much initial disbelief, the plans to retain the organ in one of the two new cinemas to be built in the complex progressed, and when the David Johnston, John Atwell and Tony Fenelon played the first of a series of farewell concerts on 23 May, 1982, it was an occasion of looking forward to the organ's rebirth in the new theatre. [SA TOSA News, TOSA (SA) Adelaide, June, 1982, p. 10]

In early 1983, the idea of installing the organ in a glass box was dropped:

The organ was removed from the theatre in December, 1983, and demolition of the theatre commenced in January, 1984. [Thiele, John, "Farewell, Dendy Theatre", SA TOSA News, TOSA (SA), Adelaide, June, 1984, p. 3]  By July, work was well in hand on the construction of the new theatre, and TOSA hoped to receive the go-ahead to start installing the organ within the next twelve to sixteen weeks. Meanwhile, the opportunity was being taken to overhaul it. It was not certain whether it would the installation would be completed in time for the theatre's opening. [Vox, July, 1984] The new theatre opened in May, 1985, as the Brighton Village Twin-Cinema One. A progress report on the organ in November of that year stated that the installation of the organ was well under way, and it was hoped it would be ready in early 1986. [SA TOSA News, TOSA (SA), Adelaide, November, 1985, p. 7]This hope was not realised, as the overhaul of the organ became more extensive, and included the installation of a solid-state relay system. In November, 1987, TOSA announced that the organ would be opened on 17 April, 1988. [Vox, November, 1987]

There were two opening concerts on 17 April, 1988, to enable all those who wished to attend to be accommodated in the auditorium, which is roughly half the size of the old Dendy Theatre. Tony Fenelon performed the opening rites, commencing his programme with "On a Wonderful Day Like Today". David Johnston, John Atwell and two young local organists, Kah Kit Yoong and Terezia Kalkbrenner joined Tony in making it a day to remember. [Bertram, Wayne, "The Dendy Organ Re-Lives For TOSA Melbourne", SA TOSA News, TOSA (SA), Adelaide, May, 1988, p.12]

The organ chambers are located on the stage, containing the same fifteen ranks of pipes as in the Dendy (and Capitol), with the console now on the right, not on a lift, but sliding out from the wall.

Dendy organ maintenance team member Cameron Simpson has kindly sent me the following excellent views taken of (and inside) the organ in 2002:

Solo Chamber


Main Chamber - "A Bunch of Diaphones"

The largest Diaphones are on top of the chambers - the "pointy ends" (the beater units) are shown here, with the "octopus" that winds them

Above photographs by courtesy of Cameron Simpson

Like all theatre organs, the Dendy organ requires constant care and maintenance to keep it in top shape.  The Maintenance Supervisor's report for 2000-2001 gives an idea of what is involved:


 Darren Everitt tunes the Saxophone - photo: Cameron Simpson

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