The Compton Theatre Organ

The Odeon, Leicester Square, London opened on the 2nd November 1937 with the Royal Premiere of the film, "Prisoner of Zenda". It was equipped with the mighty 5 manual, 17 rank British built Compton Organ. This incorporated the latest Compton patent, the Melotone unit and provision was made for a piano attachment but this was never installed. The Melotone gives that modulating effect which has an almost haunting, ethereal quality. An unusual feature of the organ is the great rounded glass surround which was designed to blend in with decor and scrolls on the side walls of the art-deco auditorium. The ranks of pipes and percussion instruments are situated in two chambers beneath the 47 foot wide screen.

Jimmy Bell opened the organ but prior to the opening, the late Jimmy Taylor of Compton's invited several famous organists to a preview including the great Quentin Maclean and Reginald Foort. John Hewlett followed on from Jimmy Bell and then, for many years, the resident organist was the popular Gerald Shaw who played for many Royal Film Premieres and did many radio broadcasts. Gerald Shaw gave the organ its name of "The Duchess". The organ is still played for special film showings with Donald Mackenzie (shown in the photo above) at the console and for concerts. The Odeon, which is Rank's flagship cinema, has just undergone extensive restoration and this included major work on the Compton which now should see life through another sixty years.

The 17 ranks of pipes include; Salicional, Bourdon, Vox humana, Tuba, Posaune, Trumpet, French Horn, Diapason, Tibia, Clarinet, Krumet, Gergen, Gamba, Strings, Flute, Nazard and Ocarina.

Picture above, "Music from the Movies", Donald Mackenzie / Odeon.


Gerald Shaw was born in Scotland in 1911. While still a teenager Gerald had three organ lessons with the famous Dr. George Tootell at Marble Arch Pavilion and eventually became organist on a small Compton (2/6) in the Regal in St. Leonards in 1932. He played for the formal opening of the theatre and also gave a daily hour-long recital. He then moved to the Regal, Glasgow, with its larger Compton (3/12), where he gave his first broadcast. Later he moved south again for a short spell at the Astoria, Brixton, Compton (3/13). Shaw then moved back to Scotland to the Glasgow Paramount, later called the Odeon, Compton (4c/10) until he joined the army in 1940.

After the war, Gerald Shaw re-joined Odeon at the Manchester Paramount / Odeon WurliTzer (4/20) for a short period and finished this travelling existence with a residency at what became his base cinema for a time, the Odeon, Swiss Cottage. The instrument there was a Compton (3/8).

During this period the Rank Organisation, which owned these theatres, was expanding its empire overseas. Shaw was sent to open and play at the Rivoli, Cairo on a four manual, ten rank Compton, the only theatre organ in the Middle East, from which he broadcast weekly on Egyptian radio. He had many drop-in guests and it became a sort of "In Town Tonght" show. From Cairo he was sent to the Sao Jorge cinema in Lisbon, Portugal, where he played a three manual electronic instrument which was also made by Compton and called the Theatrone. When he returned to Britain he played at the Metropole in London's Victoria and at the prestigious Paramount / Odeon, Tottenham Court Road, London (Compton 4c/10).

In March 1953 he moved to the largest Cinema Organ (4/37 Christie) in Europe at the Odeon (formerly Regal) Marble Arch, to become its last resident organist. He soon got the instrument back on the radio after twelve years absence. He left in November 1958 to go to Odeon's premier cinema. The Odeon, Leicester Square (Compton 5c/16).

While at the Odeon, Leicester Square, which was England's number one theatre organ job, he could be heard playing for intermissions six days a week for sixteen years. He also played at all the premiers and the Royal Command Performances there. Members of the royal family often used to drop in incognito during the matinees and Gerald always played Queen Mary's favourite song for her. He had a regular series of broadcasts for several years on the BBC on Wednesday afternoons. When Gerald died in April 1974 he was England's last renaining full-time theatre organist, with over one thousand broadcasts to his credit.

Gerald Shaw, Foyer Photograph
Gerald Shaw at the Odeon, Leicester Square Compton

"Sentimental Journey"

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Page design and text 1998 to 2011 Chas Girdwood.