It might be hard for today’s internet savvy, Facebook obsessed, One Direction followers to understand, but Blackpool was once home to a superstar who was loved the world over.
His name is Reginald Dixon, and during his 50 year career he was up there with the recording greats, Victor Silvester and Bing Crosby. Reginald is most famous for being the Tower Ballroom organist, and his BBC radio broadcasts from the venue in the 1930s went out as often as five times a week. It’s no wonder the public voted him most popular organist in a national newspaper poll, where he won more than double the votes of his nearest rival.
So it was only right that Dixon be asked to perform when the Opera House unveiled its new Wurlitzer organ. The opening ceremony of the new Opera House was held on the afternoon of 14 July 1939, with star of the time Jessie Matthews doing the honours. Horace Finch and Reginald Dixon demonstrated the Wurlitzer, which is reputed to have cost £5,000 – a fortune at the time. The first actual performance took place at 8pm that evening, with George Formby taking to the largest stage in England.
The Opera House instrument was the last new theatre organ shipped to the UK from America by the Wurlitzer Company – who hailed it as their finest ever UK installation – and it was used for many solo concerts, as well as accompanying orchestras and shows. Following a long spell of disuse, it was restored in 2008 by Cannock Chase Organ Club, and has since been presented in a series of concerts, with some of the world’s most renowned theatre organists performing.
The latest in that series of Reginald Dixon Memorial Concerts is on September 4 at 2pm, when Nicholas Martin will play the Opera House Wurlitzer. Nicholas, one of the UK’s leading organ and keyboard entertainers, is now in his 33rd year of playing professionally. And Blackpool has played a huge part in that career. His earliest recollection of becoming fascinated by organ music was in 1969, when he overheard the Wurlitzer being played in the Tower Ballroom by Reginald Dixon himself. It became Nick’s ambition to perform at the famous venue and on that instrument – something which he achieved at just 17, and he then proceeded to play there seven days a week during the 1981 and 1982 seasons.
Nick has played worldwide during his career and has a wide fan base. But Blackpool means a lot to him, as he explained to me:
It’s great honour it is to have been asked to perform a ‘tribute to Reginald Dixon’ at the Opera House. Reg has always been my musical inspiration – ever since first hearing recordings of him (on the Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer) when I was nine years old. What a musical icon he was – and continues to be in the memories of many old fans.
The question is often asked, did Blackpool make Reg, or Reg make Blackpool? I for one will always believe in the latter, though his immense popularity was certainly helped by Blackpool being the UK’s favourite holiday resort.
All the music I’ll perform at the concert will consist of items instantly associated with the great man – and played in his unique and rhythmic style. Come along for a memorable afternoon of organ music. Long may the memory of ‘Mr Blackpool’ live on – I know it will with me for forever!
The Cannock Chase Organ Club began in 1989 when Steve Tovey purchased the organ from an old Picture House in Douglas, Isle of Man, and installed it in a barn in Hazel Slade, near Cannock in South Staffordshire.
They are now one of the busiest organ clubs in the UK, running around 240 organ events each year, and are currently installing an organ in the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, some 43 years after the Wurlitzer was removed.
The organ at the Opera House hadn’t been used for several years and was in need of restoration work when the club approached the Winter Gardens management to restore the organ and present a series of concerts on it. There have been quarterly concerts presented on it each year since 2008.
A Tribute to Reginald Dixon MBE, performed by Nicholas Martin, is at Blackpool Opera House on September 4 at 2pm.
Wurlitzer image from Cannock Chase Organ Club Facebook page.
Cover image from bbc.co.uk
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