26 May

Sidney Torch recalled by Lewis Williams

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Much has been written about Sidney Torch in recent years, although there have been few personal reminiscences from people who actually knew him. Thanks to one of America’s leading organists, RFS member LEW WILLIAMS, we can fill in a few of the gaps which reveal Sidney in a new light. Lew is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, where one of his near neighbours – and a good friend – is ANGELA MORLEY. More of that later: first of all we’ll let Lew set the scene with a few reflections on the great composer.


A London couple who were on very friendly terms with Sidney Torch received a phone call from him one day in the early 1970s,  inviting them to come down to Eastbourne and get his organ records, as he was going to chuck them out otherwise.  When they arrived, Mrs. Torch met them at the door and said quietly, "You know, of course, that we don't talk organ in this house." So during tea, the conversation was decidedly steered in other directions. Apparently, Elizabeth Torch, a BBC producer who married Sidney in the early 1950s, did not much care for the cinema organ, as per Torch's own comments towards the end of the third instalment of his interview (see later in this article).

When Mrs. Torch left to do a bit of shopping, Sidney said "Right, now, what ever happened to so-and-so (an organist)?  Is such-and-such an organ still intact?"  Perhaps he regarded his cinema work as an early indiscretion and was still curious about what was going on.

Some years later, during a 1990 visit to the UK, our London couple showed me a poignant letter Sidney had written, lamenting his wife's recent passing and his own poor health, notably back trouble.  It wasn't long afterwards that I heard from another longtime UK friend, telling me that Torch had taken his own life.  According to the newspapers, a shotgun was involved, and a note was left behind.

It is somewhat telling to know that, while Torch had a grand piano in his Eastbourne flat, the lid was down, the keyboard cover locked, and the whereabouts of the key were unknown.  He was much happier talking about his dogs. According to one source, he said, "You must understand that music was my business, and I have now retired."

Another incident occurred during an orchestral rehearsal. During a break, the musicians were milling about while Torch was chatting with someone.  Some prankster who had found one of his old organ 78s quietly put it on the player and started it.  After a few notes sounded, Torch started a bit and said, "Hello. What's this?"  He wandered over to the gramophone and watched the rapidly spinning disc, then reached down and took the tone arm up.  Removing the record from the spindle, he looked at the label for a moment, broke it over his knee, dropped it on the floor, and wandered back to his conversation as though nothing had happened.

Tony Moss, who was one of the founders of the Cinema Organ Society, met Torch in the bar at Broadcasting House in the '50s or '60s.  They had an amiable conversation until Tony mentioned organs. Torch drew himself up and inquired, "Oh, are you an organ fan?"  When Tony replied that he was indeed, Torch said "Well.........I'm not."  And that was that.

A final anecdote about the conclusion of Sidney Torch's long career in music: One of Torch's colleagues relates how he came to retire in the early '70s. When the post of conductor with the BBC Concert Orchestra opened up, Torch felt that he was sure to be appointed.  It ended up going to someone else, and apparently Torch decided that he'd done enough conducting.

On the way to the Friday Night broadcast that same evening, Sidney said "You know, this will be my last broadcast."  Indeed, at the conclusion of the signature theme, as soon as the light on the conductor's desk went out, Torch turned to the audience and said "Ladies & gentlemen, I have conducted my final broadcast.  Good night."  He then snapped his baton in two, laid it on the music desk, and walked off.

Editor: In May 1972 Sidney Torch was interviewed by two American organ enthusiasts, Judd Walton and Frank Killinger. They were arranging to issue a 2-LP collection of his 1930s organ recordings, and were hoping to get some background information from him about his pre-war career. The following extracts are taken from transcripts of the interview which were printed in the ‘Journal of the American Theatre Organ Society’ in October 1972 and February, March & April 1973. They are reproduced with due acknowledgements, and special thanks to Lew Williams. Judd Walton sets the scene…

One of the main objectives in going to England was to meet Torch. Over the years reports had been received that this would be difficult, if not impossible. Several contacts were made without success, and as my visit neared an end, it began to appear that the meeting would not be possible. On arriving at my Hotel in London from a trip to Scotland, however, a note was waiting for me with the message, "Please call Mr. Torch". The following Tuesday we met for lunch at Verrey's in Regent Street for two hours of delightful conversation. I was accompanied by Frank Killinger who was in London for the summer.

Mr. Torch was very gracious, hospitable and kind and proved to be as I had expected, a very warm, generous and considerate person. Above all he was forthright in his opinions and is truly an individual musically. The meeting was the highlight of the entire trip — without exception.

He gave us his approval of the reissue of his organ recordings on Doric label, and offered his help in any way possible. At a later meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Killinger, he provided many pictures from his personal collection for our use.

(K) You started playing professionally at 14?

(T) I got myself a job when I was 14 by attending an audition for orchestras in a very large complex of London restaurants run by the well known firm Lyons. They must have built lots of restaurants; 3, 4, 5 floors of restaurants, always on the corner and they were called Lyons Corner Houses. Of course, we used to have nonstop music for nine hours a day on every floor. Therefore, we used to have three bands on every floor and if there were four floors, they employed twelve orchestras. Each orchestra was about twelve or fifteen strong. It was a pretty large employment of musicians. Mind you, the pay was very, very poor in those days. I gave an audition as a pianist in one of these things. I had a black jacket, striped trousers, a bowler hat and an umbrella. I was only 14. I thought myself quite a guy because I looked older. There were about 300 musicians applying for jobs and the audition piece was Tchaikowsky's 1812 Overture. I played rather well as a child, so I rattled off everybody's cues. I played the violin part, the bassoon part, the tuba part, all on the piano. I wasn't popular but I got the job. That's how I started. I was one week out of school and I got five pounds a week. In those days, that was a lot of money.

(K) Did they have any sort of a musicians union at that time?

(T) Not as effective as they are today. Today, of course, it's 100% closed shop as it is in the States. In other words, if you're not a member you don't play. But in those days there were two unions. There was one which was called the Normal Average Player and there was another one called the Association which was only intended for the better players, the top players who commanded all the best work. Ifyou belonged to the Normal Union, the musicians union, you were less of a performer. It was a sort of snob value of course. If you were a member of the Association you could get five shillings extra, you know, this sort of thing. But, of course, that's all done away with now, there's no such thing. Everyone belongs to the same union.

I did all sorts of things. I went on tour with a musical comedy to play the piano and this is where I first got my appetite for conducting. One evening the manager of the company came to me and said that Jack (that was the conductor) is sick, you're conducting tonight, and vanished, you know, like that! That's how I became a conductor. I don't remember much about it. I just remember going there and the entire orchestra saying to me: go on, you can do it. I was about 16. But I just had to do it. Everything was red. I remember there was a red stage with red people on it and red music in front of it and a red orchestra to the left and right of it. Sounds like the charge of the Light Brigade, doesn't it. But we must have all finished together. To this day I couldn't tell you what happened. I was unconscious then, I still am. But that's how I became a conductor.

(K) A conductor has special frustrations. When you get a large orchestra and everybody's not doing their bit because maybe they're not feeling up to it, you suffer accordingly. Right?

(T) Part of your job is to make them do their bit. Of course, you can't always get the same degree of good performance. To get a good performance not only must you be feeling well and up to performing yourself, but every individual member of the orchestra must be feeling fit as well. Then you may get a good performance. But if there are 100 people in the orchestra, the chances are against you getting this thing. But it does happen and you operate that anything over 50% is good. If you go below 50%, this is when you've got a dud in front of you. And of course, we are all human, we can all make mistakes, and sometimes if you're feeling exceptionally well and on top of the performance you become rash. This is when you do make mistakes.

After I had this taste of conducting, I had an offer to play the piano in the cinema in the days of silent films. It was a very large orchestra in the largest cinema in London. Most of the people who played in this orchestra in those days, if they are still alive, are stars in their own right. We've all got a feeling towards stars. We had one of the first Wurlitzer organs in England or inBritain in that cinema.

(W) What cinema was that?

(T) A cinema named the Broad which was in a suburb of London called Stratford, in East London. It had something like about 3,000 seats in the days when most cinemas were 400 or 500 seats. The first one of the very, very large cinemas. Anyway, we had an American organist named Archie Parkhouse, who was a demonstrator for the Wurlitzer Organ Company and had been sent over by Wurlitzer to England for the installation of this organ and to demonstrate how it should be played and to teach English people how to play it. He said to me, "Why don't you learn to play the cinema organs." So I said, "Well, I don't know how." He said, "Well, you ought to because I've seen talkies come in the States and I'm sure they are coming over here and you'll be out of a job." I said, "Well, I don't want to be out of a job. How do you do it?" He said, "Sit down here, put your hands on there, put your feet on there and I'll be back in 10 minutes, I'm going for a smoke." The film was running and there I was stuck with an organ which I didn't know how to play. Sure enough, the orchestra did get the sack, and I was kept on as assistant organist, I used to stay there night after night, hours and hours of practice and experiment — that's how I learned the organ. No one taught me, I learned it by necessity.

In those days we used to have two organists because we used to sit there waiting for the film to break down, so that you could jump in quickly and play something. But there was a snag to it. You know, Wurlitzer organs or in fact any cinema organ has to have an electric motor to give the necessary power to the keyboard and the pipes. Ifthis motor is allowed to run for an unlimited amount of time, it burns out like any electrical motor. So you have to switch it off. Of course, in the way of the world, every time you switch it off the film broke down. Every time you let the motor run the film didn't break down, so in the end the management decided it was a waste of time having a second organist because sure enough as soon as he switched off the motor the film broke down. By the time it was running again the film had restarted. So they said to me, "You're finishing at the end of the month."

Archie Parkhouse, this American — very kind to me, said "Don't worry, I'll give you an introduction to some of my friends." He sent me to see them and the organist at what was then the Regal Marble Arch which today is the Odeon Marble Arch. A very famous cinema in the old days, it was so elegant that all the linkmen and the reception men inside wore powdered wigs and white stockings, in the manner of footmen. He sent me to see the organist there, a very famous man, the late Quentin Maclean. He gave me a letter of introduction to Maclean. I went to the stage door and said I wanted to see Maclean. The stagedoor keeper said, "You can't. He doesn't see anybody without an appointment." I left the letter and when I went back, the receptionist called me over and said, "You're wanted on the phone." It was Quentin Maclean who said to me, "Why didn't you wait and see me." I said, "The stagedoor keeper told me to go away." He said, "I badly want to see you. Can you come back?" I went back and he said to me, "Look, I've got to go to Dublin to open a new cinema and I badly need someone to fill my place while I'm away. Can you do it?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Come back at 11:00 tonight and I'll show you how this organ works." It was the biggest organ in England. Five manuals. Frightened the life out of me. He showed me how to play it and I stayed there all night. The next day they offered me the job as pianist and assistant organist. So I wasn't out of work again. Mind you, I don't think this is talent, I don't think it is luck. It's a combination of talent and luck but the other thing was that I was prepared to sit there all night and practice until I had mastered it.

(K) You had tremendous self discipline on that.

(T) Not only self discipline. It was my main chance. I wanted to succeed. If you want to succeed you can. That's how I became an organist.

(W) How long were you there?

(T) 1928 to 1933 or 1934. About 6 years. I was assistant to Quentin Maclean then I was assistant to his successor who was Reginald Foort. When Reggie Foort left I was given the job. In those days. I used to do organ broadcasts twice a week, three quarters of an hour each one. Twice a week, 52 weeks a year, broadcast all over the world. Today everything is recorded in advance. In those days we used to broadcast on what is now called the BBC Wurlitzer. I used to get up at 2:00 in the morning, go down to the theatre, broadcast, come home again. You didn't go by your time, you went by the time of the country of reception. If you were broadcasting to a country which was eight hours behind, that was just too bad.

(W) Was it during this period you made your first cinema organ record?

(T) The first cinema organ record I made, two records, I think or three, I'm not certain were on a label called Regal Zonophone.

(W) How did this come about?

(T) Columbia used to record the orchestra of the Regal Marble Arch. I had to do an arrangement for a record and the arrangement was a selection from the music of the "King of Jazz" which had never been known in this country - brand new. Shows you how far back that is. I was given the sheet music, the American copies of the sheet music, to make a selection. Anyway, I did, and we recorded it. The Columbia manager, A and R man said, "That's a good arrangement. Who did that?" Somebody said, "He did." So he came up to me and said, "I'm going to do things for you. You're playing the organ too, eh? Would you like to make records?" I said, "Of course." That's how I got a record. From there I graduated to Columbia and then I graduated to Decca after that.

(W) What was your next organ post after the Regal Marble Arch from which I understand the organ is now removed, unfortunately.

{T) A very famous cinema in North London called the Regal Edmonton. They opened that and they offered me the job so I went there. Then after that I went on tours opening up new cinemas along the way. I went finally to the State Kilburn which was the biggest Wurlitzer in the country. I opened that and stayed there until the war came. Then I went into the RAF and stopped playing the organ.

(K) You did some fantastic records on that Regal Edmonton (Christie organ).

(T) You think so. I look back on them now and I think they're pretty corny compared to what could have been done.

(K) You may think so, sir, but we in the States think differently. There isn't anyone in the States, past or present, that has equaled the records you made on the Edmonton or the Kilburn.

(T) That sounds very nice. I wish I thought that too. I listen to them very occasionally. About once every 5 years I take one out and play it and then I blush and put them back again — quickly, I don't think they are nearly as good as they should have been. They may have been advanced for those days.

(K) They were. Well advanced. But they still stand up today.

(T) Yes, but technically, I think they sort of fell between lack of ideas and too many ideas. In other words, they came halfway between that. In some instances when I look back on them I think to myself, why didn't I think of doing so and so. And then I look back and I say why did I attempt to do so. It was a dangerous life you know.

(K) Like the "Flying Scotsman".

(T) It was made up on the spur of the moment.

(K) That was a fantastic record.

(T) Yes, but you see there is no tune there at all. It's just a couple of traditional Scottish tunes put together. And the whole thing is a fix.

(K) Right, but it just flows like water.

(T) Well, it's made up. It's improvisation. Every time I played it, it was different, because it simply had the tune of Loch Lomond or Annie Laurie, then I improvised on that. This was not difficult.

(W) Weren't most of these recordings your arrangements?

(T) Oh, every one of them were my arrangements but they were not written down. They were practiced until they were in my head.

(W) The only record, sir, that I have broken in my collection, and I have several thousand records, was your recording on Columbia, "Teddy Bear's Picnic". I had a very dear cat that became frightened and knocked it off the table.

(T) The cat shows remarkable taste.

(K) I have a complete collection of your records, except the Zonophones.

(T) They are not good. These were very early days when I was experimenting and when the recording companies were experimenting. You know, the ultimate recording of a cinema organ has never been mastered to the extent of recording an orchestra. I believe that Jesse Crawford finally made records in a sound proof chamber with no sound except what he got through the can (headphones). He couldn't hear the pipes because they were outside. Is this so? I have been told this.

(K) I don't know. He did a lot of recording in North Tonawanda.

(W) No. Not the recordings.

(K) He did the player rolls in North Tonawanda.

(W) He recorded basically on five organs. The Paramount studio, the earlier style F in the Wurlitzer hall in New York, the Special style 260 in Chicago and a style E on which he made Valencia with 7 ranks.

(T) You're much more learned about cinema organs than I am. I had forgotten all this.

(W) I have one in my home, 2 manual, 14 ranks. Two Tibias, a Wurlitzer Musette.

(T) I wouldn't have thought, judging by your appearances, you live as dangerously as all that. And you play it yourself?

(W) Strictly for my own amazement.

(T) Well, that's the only way to do it. It's a very dangerous instrument because it is the easiest thing on the cinema organ to be vulgar. It's also terribly simple to be loud. The difficulty of playing the cinema organ is to restrain yourself and show good taste.

(W) Mr. Torch, you have just reiterated what I've been trying to say for so many years.

(T) Well, I'm honored that we think alike, but I am sure it's true.

(K) Crawford has this feeling.

(W) Precisely right!

(T) Have you ever played any of the British organs, Compton or Christie?

(W) Yes, it has been my pleasure to have done that this visit, about 24 of them.

(T) Wild horses wouldn't make me play a cinema organ and on 24! You're a brave man.

(W) I have been down to Southhampton which I disliked with great intensity, it's a Compton. Yesterday I heard the State Kilburn which is as near our large American organs as I've heard even though it is only 16 ranks. I had a great night at the 8 rank out at Clapham. I loved the Gaumont in Manchester. The Odeon or former Paramount is a typical Publix No. 1.

(T) I like the Odeon in Manchester. It's very good. Henry Croudson used to play that. Great little organ. Most of these including the British ones always remind me of a bison getting out of the swamp. You said what a marvellous bass it had. Now this is indicative of most cinema organs. They all had a terrific rolling sound from the bottom register. There wasn't enough personality on top, registration, you know. All tended to be voiced — everything was voiced for the Tibia sound.

(W) This is right.

(T) This is why I liked playing the Regal Marble Arch, because this was limited to legitimate organ in its voicing. It had nothing to do with the action or unit system. In other words, you could get staccato authority, not only in the actual key performance but the staccato of the sound. The pipe would go ‘eep’, like that.

(W) Was that your favorite organ?

(T) No, but I think there was a lot to be said for it. It, of course, had this straight side to its nature. Most cinema organs tend to have the same sort of loud rolling noise throughout the entire arrangement of the instrument right from the 2' down to the 32' and it had this. I think although it's a necessary part of the cinema organ, it is a trap for the unwary performer. It's like having an orchestra composed of players, all of whom have a very large vibrato. Imagine all those strings vibrating together. This isn't very good. I think that the voicing over here has tended in this country to be much too sticky sentimental. At least what we care to think of as being sentimental in those days.

(K) The Regal Edmonton, on the Christie, had a lot of brilliance and snap to it.

(T) That was my voicing. In the "Bugle Call Rag", that organ goes ‘daddle daddle dup’. You try and do that on most of the Compton organs or most of the Wurlitzers in this country and it goes ‘buooh buooh go buooh’.

(W) Without tremolos, still?

(T) Makes no difference. It's the voicing of the stops and the location of the chambers. You know, in sound, I don't have to tell you in some cinemas the site of the chambers is very detrimental to the sound. You get this backwards and forwards roll. You know I haven't talked about cinema organs in 25 years.

(K) This is why we are so thrilled because you are talking about it to us.

(T) I very rarely talk about anything to do with that side of my career. I have as my orchestral pianist a very famous organist, William Davis. He is probably the best player in this country today. We sometimes talk about it and he imitates me sometimes. We have an electric organ which we use in the orchestra and when I'm least expecting it, he'll play my old signature tune. But that's the nearest I ever get to it.

(W) I heard it yesterday - Douglas Reeve at the State Kilburn programme.

(T) They don't play it like I used to. I used to do 1 or 2 glissandos. They try and do a glissando every time. We all copy Jesse Crawford who invented the glissando as far as I know.

(W) He said that he did.

(T) I believe this because I never heard it before he did it. But then like everything else in a cinema organ, it is the discretion with which you use it which is important. The trouble is this, when they finally can play loud, they play loud all the time. By the time they can do glissandos, they do them all the time. All these things are very valuable. These are the points that make up a cinema organ — the ability to do these special tricks which only a cinema organist can do. If you use them all the time, they are no longer tricks.

(K) This is where the taste comes from. This is what you had and were very advanced when you did it.

(W) If you will permit me to say so, you were so far ahead of any other artist on this instrument.

(T) I think this only proves how bad the others were. It doesn't prove that I was good.

(W) On the contrary, I believe it does prove how good you were because to this day in our opinion and those of us in America who have listened, it hasn't been touched.

(T) Is there the market and is there the opportunity today? You see, when I played it, it was at the peak of popularity. The cinema organ was something for which people actually carne to the cinema. They came to see the film, but if two cinemas had the same film, they would go to the one in which Sidney Torch was playing. Not because it was Sidney Torch but because it was a cinema organ — it was an added attraction. But is this a true thing today? People go to see a film because there is violence or sex or sadism.

(K.) But, strangely enough, even today if we get a top-rank organ, like the Fox Theatre in San Francisco a 5,000 seat house, we might fill it. George Wright gave several special performances there at which that house was packed.

(T) Yes, forgive me though, but this is a special occasion, the specialized taste, but if he were running three performances or four performances a day, seven days a week, and George Wright appeared every day, would this mean a difference? That's the point I'm trying to make. You see, in the day I played this was an asset - it meant something. People went because somebody was playing the organ at a specific place. But today they won't do this. Therefore, it is very difficult, if not impossible, certainly unfair, to compare the two days. I have had many, many years of people writing to rne and say, "Play again, record again." But I don't believe myself that that justifies the concept. I think it is probably better to be a legend in somebody else's mind and I think if they heard me today they wouldn't think as much of me as they did when I was there. Of course, it's something I won't buy. I don't subscribe to it; I don't think I was good. I think I was disappointing. Mind you, I've got grey hairs now and I'm not perhaps as sharply defined, I feel, and this is what in retrospect I see as missing. But then I was young and my only excuse is that because I was young I didn't have the right idea.

(K) Well, you had the right ideas all right, because as Judd said, they were so far advanced than anything else we made at that time.

(T) I suppose you've got to judge it by the context of what happens every day. But I think myself that most people made up for talent with sheer noise that they loudly passed as a substitute. And they became vulgar because of this. It was so easy to be vulgar, it is so easy to be loud.

(W) The organ became their master instead of them mastering the instrument. This happens today.

(T) Well you know, it's very, very true the second loudest noise you can make is silence. If you have a terrific crash the next loudest thing is to stop entirely and make everybody wait for it — and then silence, the impact is almost as great as the loud sound.

(W) They don't know when to take their hands off the keys. We wish we had some of your orchestral music available on radio in the States.

(T) Yes, well you see, these things are a matter of commercial assessment, in the first instance. The rate of pay for orchestral musicians throughout the world is very, very high now, so therefore, the initial cost of making tapes of orchestral music is exceptionally high. And no company will set up to do this unless it is assured of a reasonable risk in getting at least a return and at the best a profit. Now, as you must know (you are in the recording business), classics are duds, as you buy a subsidy. It's the subsidy on the pop records that pay for the other side and in the end it's all a figure in the books, isn't it? It depends on which side of the ledger you are going to put these things on.

(W) That's right.

(K) How did they record your organ records? I understand they had a van that went around to the theatres.

(T) Yes, they had a recording van which they would bring around and go up on the roof. With a bit of rope, they would hang a microphone, let it dangle down and trust their luck. If it didn't go right we would all break for a half an hour while the rope was shifted to another place. This happened on every session. No one ever found the right place for the microphone because it entirely depended on what you were playing and the registration. Of course, I am not an expert on microphones although I've spent my life recording, but it seems to me that we have lost this thing of having one microphone balance the sound as it is played in the studio or in the home, from the viewpoint of one pair of ears. After that I am fully in accord with boosting this or boosting that for the purposes of getting something mechanical to sound as if it were live. Today they have 27 microphones. Everybody has a microphone. But there's no one microphone that gives you the overall sound. This is the one thing, of course, we used to try and do with the cinema organ, but if you played quietly it was too far away, and if you played loudly it was too near. If you used the reeds it was too violent; if you used the flutes it was too mellow. You were always in trouble; the engineer was always coming to say "Can you boost bar so and so; can you take down bar so and so". You never played as you really wanted to, because in those days we didn't have the ability to record four bars and cut it in. It was all wax and you had to start from the beginning to the end, what is more, when the van came out there was only storage space for 70 waxes and the hot cupboard. As you know, the waxes had to be kept at a set temperature. So that you would get this thing; the telephone would ring, the recording engineer would say to you, "You had better be good this time because this is the last wax!" If you didn't get that one right your session was over and you got nothing. As you didn't make anything except royalties, it was up to you to see that it was in the can.

How you manage today is quite a different matter. You go in there for the whole day and you record four bars at a time and then you fake it out. You would have what, seven channels, eight channels. We had one channel and the wax and the diamond would cut it like that. We used to blow the needle, blow away the surface wax, and off you'd go. And if someone came into the theatre and dropped a pail (one of the cleaners came in while we were recording and dropped a pail). People used to come in the middle of a record and say. "Hey, where is the gas meter?" Or the electric meter.

(K) How many takes, may I ask you, did you have to do on the average number?

(T) Very difficult to say. You see, in those days, we used to make at the most three waxes in a four hour session. Frequently we only got two. Shall we say that the van carried perhaps twenty waxes?

(K) Probably, Yes.

(T) So you might get perhaps six or eight, or even ten takes, frequently you would only get the first half a minute and the batter would go. "Sorry, the needle jumped". The wax has got a pop in it, you know, a bubble or something like that. You might touch something. A cinema organ can be very difficult you know, you touch it with your cuff, something squeals. It has to be played like that. It has to all be done away from the keys.

(K) Because I listen to those, and I never know a clinker, I never knew a wrong note.

(T) Well, the whole point is you don't expect to hear a wrong note or a click or something on any other form of recording. You choose to comment upon the cinema organ in this way because you are used to hearing that performance and you hear clinks and long notes and stumbles that you shouldn't hear. There is no reason at all why the thing shouldn't be played well, but it requires good players.

(W) Your work on the State Kilburn was rnarvellous.

(T) Well, that was the highest point I reached, really in technique, but it still was unsatisfactory. It had a terrific lag, you know. The distance from the console to the chambers was something like about 80 or 90 feet. The lag was such that it was quite a second or two, so you had to play purely by touch. You didn't listen. You must learn to keep tempo despite it. For a stranger it can be terrible. But then it is part and parcel of the technique of playing this instrument. If you are not prepared for a lag in sound you shouldn't play the cinema organ — or any organ. It is an instrument that lags behind the actual execution. Its very nature is such. And over the distance it travels from where you actually touch the keys to where the pipe speaks and to when it comes back to ears. This is what is so frightening about electronic organs today. They are quicker than you can play. Everybody can play fast now. The thing to do is to play fast. I don't think you should confuse good playing with technique. It's rather like confusing good driving with speed, you know? I mean, just because you drive fast you're not a good driver.

(W) Mr. Torch, may I say you are one of the most modest individuals I have met.

(T) Nonsense, I'm a realist. It isn't a question of being modest. I don't think myself or anyone has achieved the high standard of performance that can be achieved on that instrument; Idon't think there has been enough time, effort or money devoted to it. The State Kilburn had more service time and more practice time devoted to it than any other organ in the country. The tuner, the service man lived with that organ 24 hours a day — lived around the comer. You could always get a thing put right or improved, the balance, the weight on the tremolos, which were always being remounted. We were always searching for the ultimate. Should we shift this reed an eighth of an inch or not? I think it would go much further than that, but it takes time and money and patience.

(K) Which of the theatre organs did you like best of those you played?

(T) The Wurlitzer, Gaumont State Kilburn. I had more say in that organ than any. This was the best achievement I think, that Wurlitzer had over here. It was the keenest, cleanest sounding organ in this country.

(W) What was the date of finality of your work on cinema organs?

(T) 1939-40. It was in the first six months of the war.

(K) Then you went in the Air Force?

(T) Right. I could see when I was in there that there was no possibility of cinema organs ever being revived again. It was obvious.

(W) May I interject, sir. What is your definition of good musicianship? — Artistry in music?

(T) I don't think it can be defined!

(W) May I ask a very personal question? Do you feel you have musicianship in your work with the orchestra and —

(T) Not by any means enough. Ah, I'm not, I hope, as vulgar as most of the people who delve in music. And that is especially what it is for. I've yet to hear someone who wasn't vulgar. See, they play wrong harmonies, wrong tempos, wrong rhythms, wrong melodies. Organists seem to have a fixed idea in their head that anything can be juggled because they are playing the cinema organ. You don't have to play four beats in a bar because the composer said so. You can play five because it's cinema organ. You don't have to play a chord of C major. You can play F major if you like, because it's cinema organ. You don't have to play the right pedal note, you can play any pedal note you like because it's a cinema organ. You couldn't do any of these things if you were playing some cathedral? I'm forever damned in my opinion of other cinema organists, aren't I? You see, here is the ultimate proof of what I have been saying. Right! You have to take the uppermost out of the orchestra; you have to take stops out of the orchestra purely and simply to protect the listener. This is the wrong way to protect the listener. You should protect the listener by ensuring that the person who uses the instrument has sufficient savvy, good taste, whatever it is to be able to have these things but not to use them all the time.

(K) It's like giving a brain surgeon's kit to a boy.

(T) It's maddening! Your words are final proof of what I have tried to say. This instrument has been badly performed by people who shouldn't be given the opportunity to use it. This doesn't apply to everybody. Of course,there are good performers. I don't even know their names today. There always will be good performers but they are the very tiniest minority. This applies to painting or anything else.

(W)May I say, realizing that you have to get on, that I deeply appreciate this opportunity to meet you, sir.

(T) It was very nice and I've enjoyed it very much.

 Editor: Sidney Torch mentioned his first arrangement – "King of Jazz" – on Columbia DX 72, recorded in 1930 at the Regal Cinema, Marble Arch. This is included on the recent Guild Light Music CD "British Cinema and Theatre Orchestras" – GLCD5108. A few parts of the published interview have been omitted for space considerations, but other editing has been minimal.

This article appeared in "Journal Into Melody" June/July 2005.

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.