Walking through the crowds of shoppers on Strand Street in Douglas, Isle of Man, I spotted an opportunity to photograph the surviving façade of the Strand Cinema.
My friend John, who’s lived on the island for over ten years, had never noticed it before but immediately clocked, from his intimate knowledge of Manx organs, that it was connected with a celebrated cinema organist, Dr George Tootell (1886-1969).
The Strand Cinema was one of seven Douglas cinemas that made their profits from the holiday trade rather than the permanent population. It opened in 1913, and went over to bingo sometime in the late 1960s.
The Strand has an attractive white faience façade, and when the auditorium was demolished in 1998 the frontage was retained and restored.
Dr Tootell’s connection is interesting. He had begun his professional career as a church organist and music master in schools in north-west England, and worked in North America launching and demonstrating new organs for the Wurlitzer Company.
He held successive posts as a resident organist in British cinemas and wrote an opinionated but practical manual for theatre organists, How to Play the Cinema Organ: a practical book by a practical player (1927).
He had a particular connection with the Jardine organ-building company of Manchester [http://www.organbuilders.co.uk], who installed several instruments to his design when he was resident at the Palace Cinema, Accrington, and at the Kingsway and Stoll Picture Theatres in central London.
In Douglas, Jardines constructed the organ at St George’s parish church where Dr Tootell was resident organist.
It was not, it seems, one of their more fortunate pieces of work: a Manx historian describes it as “a neatly packaged mountain of mechanism and pipework which was doomed as a musical instrument.” [http://www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/music/organs.htm].
The most ingenious feature of this installation was the side door which allowed Dr Tootell to leave St George’s before the end of the service to fulfil his contract to play at the Strand Cinema while his deputy played the final hymn and voluntary.
No-one seems to have raised the slightest objection – or indeed to have noticed – the unobtrusive way in which Dr Tootell contrived to bat for both sides.