Once the world's largest theatre, the Gaumont State has been an important Kilburn's architectural and cultural landmark for nearly seventy years.
The Gaumont State is born
The idea of building one of the largest cinemas in Europe was born about 1933 by H&G (Tower Bridge) Ltd, but the plans, although approved, were not acted upon. Soon afterwards, however, architect George Coles, FRIBA, of Strand, produced designs which initiated action for building a palatial place of entertainment at 197-199, High Road, Kilburn. Coles was also a designer of more modest cinemas, such as the Savoy at Willesden Green.
The builders were the three Hyams brothers. They were known by the staff, in order of seniority, as Mr.Phil, Mr.Sid and Mr. Mick. They were to manage the cinema from the beginning and much is due to their innovation and diligence through the years. Mr. Phil died as recently as 1998 at the grand age of 102.
During the construction of the State, the Hyams brothers ran out of money, but fortunately, help was at hand. CMA, a subsidiary of Gaumont British Picture Corporation, contributed, hence the name, Gaumont State.
The vast edifice, in Italian Renaissance style, was ready for the grand opening on 20th December, 1937, with Henry Hall and his Orchestra, Alfred van Dam and his State Orchestra, Gracie Fields, Larry Adler, George Formby, Carroll Levis, Vic Oliver, Stone and Lee, a military band and Sidney Torch at the Wurlitzer organ. There was seating for 4,0004 and standing room for a further 4,000.
Patrons for the 9d (4p) seats entered through doors round the side in Willesden Lane, whilst the main entrance and ornate foyer was reserved for those paying 1/6d (7.5p), - a large amount in 1937. Gentlemen were required to wear a bow tie as they entered the opulent and spacious foyer, lit by two magnificent chandeliers. The lights are replicas of hose at Buckingham Palace, the larger one having 125 lamps (Buckingham Palace has 80 lamps) and 8,000 pieces of crystal. Soon this is to be lowered to facilitate cleaning, rewiring and regilding. The lofty ceiling is decorated in salmon, turquoise, gilt, with friezes in gilt on cream. There is a magnificent Italian marble double staircase winding up to the Round Lounge where only the 1/6d audiences were allowed. The ceiling is completely patterned in terracotta, turquoise and gilt, with gilt roses. The original branched lights are at present in the Ahtenaeum Hotel. Hopefully they will be returned.
The Gaumont State 130ft tower is a landmark and was lit up at twilight. During the war it was camouflaged as it was far taller than any other local building. A gold and green dome tops the incredibly large auditorium.
At the rear of the curved balcony, now curtained, was standing room for 4,000 patrons. The front centre balcony seats were where the royals sat, looking down on the stage and cinema screen. The original and superior blue and gold curtains were removed and cut up to refurbish other cinemas, and have been replaced by a dark draped curtain. There was a row of 'dancing fountains' for the floor and stage shows, which is still there but not currently useable. Spotlights that shone down from the front of the balcony, also remain, although they are blocked off.
The Largest Original Wurlitzer in Full Working Order in Britain
The Wurlitzer organ and the State are though of as one. The organ rising from the depths evokes powerful memories of many who were privileged to experience a State performance. The complicated, and then state-of-the-art mechanism for moving the consul still exists and performed three actions - to raise the consul sideways and turn it facing front, to raise it facing backwards and revolve it to face the audience, and to raise it facing front and then turn backwards. This magnificent instrument was built by the Wurlitzer Organ Company of De Kalb, Illinois, USA at a cost of £28,000. Today the price of an equivalent instrument would be about £800,000.
The Wurlitzer has four keyboards and can produce many additional sounds to that of a church organ. 1,200 pipes, from one inch to thirty-two feet in length, are hidden behind the ornate gilded high art. With 2,000 electro-pneumatic motors and 1,100 miles of electric cable, this unique 16 rank organ is powered by an enormous 15 horsepower generator. It is one of only a few Wurlitzers remaining in the country today.
When the average wage was £2 to £3 a week, Sidney Torch's salary as resident organist was an astronomic £250. His understudy was Luis Mordish, from Wembley, who played the instrument during the period 1937-1940. He was also pianist at the Palm Court, Grosvenor House Hotel, and the first TV organist.
The person responsible for maintaining the building at present, and for staff health and safety, is David Neale, the House Engineer. He was employed as a rewind boy in August 1959, left in 1967, and went to work for Pinewood Studios in 1970. During all this time he kept maintaining the State Wurlitzer and in 1980 returned to Kilburn as House Engineer. His love of Wurlitzers ismore than proved, as, over the past 40 years, he has helped preserve 48 cinema organs, giving loving care and, even more, precious time.
The Present Day
The theatre, which has been used for a vast range of entertainment, was restored by Top Rank in 1985 and is now a luxurious Bingo Club.
Today, the memories of the State's glorious past are kept alive at open days (for example, during London's regular Open House weekends), with David Neale playing the Wurlitzer, and there are occasional morning and afternoon concerts.
The State is now a Grade 2 star listed building and thus has some protection.
Juliette Soester - Sept. 2000
Reproduced from the Journals of the © Willesden Local History Society , all rights reserved
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Brent Heritage website 2002