When Kevin Grunill was 12-years-old, a bout of glandular fever kept him home from school for six weeks.
Two weeks into his quarantine period, feeling better and more than a little restless, he began tinkering regularly on a Magnus Chord Organ his parents had in the corner of their bedroom.
Though he had no way of knowing it at the time, that was to be a pivotal moment in his life. That 12-year-old would go on to become organist at Blackpool’s legendary Tower Ballroom and one of the world’s leading experts in cinema organ restoration.
“I was bitten by the bug the first time I played,” Kevin says simply.
“I started music lessons and my parents bought me my own organ, which lived in the alcove under the stairs.
“I was 15 when I started playing in all the local clubs. My dad would take me, as I couldn’t drive, and the concert secretaries always thought he was the musician and I was just tagging along. ‘He’ll have to sit in the corner quietly with a drink of pop,’ they’d tell my dad, who would say: ‘That’s fine, but you’ll be in for a quiet night if he does!’”
Kevin, who grew up in Barnsley, quickly began to make a name for himself as a performer. When he turned 21, as a birthday present, he was offered the opportunity to visit the Tower Ballroom and play its world famous Wurlitzer organ.
“Little did I know that two years later I’d be back there as resident organist,” says the 44-year-old.
“Tower Ballroom is the pinacle of a career so I got to tick that off my bucket list nice and early. The other big ambition I had, which I turned my focus to next, was to own a cinema organ.”
Organs were used regularly in cinemas throughout the UK from the early 1900s to the 1960s, when a change in tax legislation meant it was no longer tax deductable to provide musical entertainment.
“Most cinemas switched to playing records then,” says Kevin.
“These marvellous musical machines, which had cost a fortune to buy 50 years earlier, were suddenly being demolished and sold for scrap. Luckily, quite a few were rescued and preserved by enthusiasts.”
And Kevin’s dream of owning a cinema organ was fulfilled in 1994 when a Compton organ, originally built in 1937 for the Paramount Odeon Theatre in Birmingham, came up for sale.
“I was 22 and it took all my savings, but I bought it and set about restoring it,” he says.
“I realised that it was going to cost about £30-40,000 to restore, and I didn’t have that kind of money, so the only way to do it was to learn how to do much of the work myself. That’s how the organ building side of things began for me - looking at how original makers built it, respecting what they did in the 30s and replicating the same techniques.”
Along with a team of friends, Kevin lovingly restored the Compton - a job which took about four years - and set about installing it at Penistone Paramount Cinema in 1999.
“It’s still used there every single week, for silent films, concerts and presentations,” says Kevin.
“I love that this incredible piece of machinery is still used for the very purpose it was built for back in the 30s and the restoration work ignited another love for me. I’d always been fascinated by the big, breathing mechanics of the cinema organ, and - though I’m still more widely known as a performer - my main passion today is for the mechanical side of things.”
Along with a group of friends and fellow enthusiasts, Kevin founded the Penistone Cinema Organ Trust and, in the past two decades, the group - which now has 26 members - has restored and installed over 20 more cinema organs throughout the UK. They have also begun developing replica parts for the organs, which are in incredibly short supply, and they now sell these all over the world.
Their latest move has been to open The Astoria National Theatre Organ Restoration & Heritage Centre, in Barugh Green in Barnsley. The centre, which opened three months ago, has a working Wurlitzer organ, offers facilities for learning and practicing, and hosts a weekly tea dance as well as regular concerts and private parties.
“The Astoria is our headquarters, Kevin says.
“We restore organs there and offer a place for people to hear them in all their glory. After all, that’s what it’s really all about, giving these beautiful instruments an appreciative home.”
Visit www.theatreorgan.co.uk for details.