Wurlitzer maestro celebrates 40th season after banishing lockdown doubts

Robert Wolfe is celebrating his 40th season playing the Wurlitzer organ at the Thursford Collection, near Fakenham

Robert Wolfe is celebrating his 40th season playing the Wurlitzer organ at the Thursford Collection, near Fakenham - Credit: Danielle Booden

Norfolk's "King of the Keys" is celebrating 40 years of performing his Wurlitzer organ wizardry - after overcoming doubts over whether his career would continue after lockdown.

Robert Wolfe has performed an estimated 15,000 shows to more than three million people at the Thursford Collection, near Fakenham, since beginning his summer residency in 1981.

His talent and showmanship have won him fans around the globe as one of the world's leading theatre organists.

And the museum is celebrating his dazzling career with a steam gala day on August 22, which will feature three of his high-energy performances, along with visiting steam engines, vintage automobiles and mechanical organs.

Mr Wolfe said he was "overwhelmed" to reach such a milestone - but he revealed he had doubts over whether he would play again after the lockdown cancelled his performance calendar, and knocked his confidence.

"From the first time I ever played here I fell in love with the place, and every season I have done since I could not wait for the next season to happen again," he said "I just love the whole atmosphere and the people who come here.

"To be able to come here and play the organ twice a day is the highlight of my day, particularly after the pandemic.

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"Coming back here a month ago was a very nerve-wracking experience. After 18 months away, could I possibly continue to do do what I had previously done for so many years?

"I definitely had those feelings of anxiety. It was very daunting, and the first day I was extremely nervous and uncomfortable, wondering if I could get my confidence back in talking to an audience.

"People who know me know I am fairly friendly, but also a little on the shy side. I did feel in the pandemic that I had lost confidence and would find it very hard to play in front of several hundred people again.

"I was in two minds whether I wanted to carry on, but as soon as I returned here, after the first day I settled into it like nothing had happened.

"The reality is it made me appreciate what I had learned all those years ago, and why I play the organ for a living, which is my love of the instrument and my love of music.

Robert Wolfe playing the Wurlitzer organ at Thursford

Robert Wolfe playing the Wurlitzer organ at Thursford - Credit: Danielle Booden

"To have that back in my life, you cut off back into the music and enjoy the moment - and getting that confidence back was a fantastic feeling."

Mr Wolfe is originally from Bedfordshire, but said he is proud to call Norfolk home. He lives in Thorpe St Andrew in Norwich with his partner and business manager David Cates.

His musical passions were sparked after receiving a Bontempi electronic organ as a Christmas gift from his parents when he was 12.

He found he could pick tunes out by ear - a talent which launched a career which later took him to Blackpool Tower ballroom as a teenager before he was invited to start the Wurlitzer shows at Thursford in 1981.

For many years, he also toured Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada during the winter.

Thursford's Wurlitzer organ which has been played for 40 years by Robert Wolfe

Thursford's Wurlitzer organ, which has been played for 40 years by Robert Wolfe - Credit: Danielle Booden

He will celebrate his 60th birthday during his 40th summer season at Thursford - and he has no plans to retire any time soon.

"There are very few venues to play at, so I have been lucky to hold on to Thursford as long as I have," he said. "It is like a close-knit family to me.

"As long as I can keep doing it, as long as I am fit and well enough, I will keep playing here."

WOLFE AND WURLITZER GALA DAY

Robert Wolfe's 40th season at Thursford will be celebrated with a special gala day, harking back to the golden age of steam. 

The event on August 22 will feature visiting exhibitors ranging from live steam engines, stationary engines, pipe organs, tractors, vintage vehicles - and three live performances from the resident performer on the famous Wurlitzer organ, which was originally installed in a cinema in Leeds in 1932.

One of the visiting exhibitors coming to the Thursford gala day

​​​​​​​1932 Fowler showman's road locomotive 'The Lion' is among the visiting exhibitors coming to the Thursford gala day - Credit: Bonhams Auctioneers

Mr Wolfe said: "The whole idea is to recreate how Thursford used to be in its heyday of the 80s and 90s when they had the element of steam, and such a terrific amount of visitors.

"We wanted to recreate that atmosphere, the excitement of steam coming out of these engines outdoors, and children and families coming to see exhibits that they have not seen before.

"Perhaps a different generation will enjoy listening to the organ, and may come back again - and we'll need that, if I'm going to be here for another ten years we do need people to come back and listen to me."

A de Jonker organ, one of the visiting exhibitors to the Thursford gala day

A de Jonker organ is among the visiting exhibitors coming to the Thursford gala day - Credit: Alan Smith

A vintage fire engine is among the visiting exhibitors coming to the Thursford gala day

A vintage ex-Norwich City turntable ladder fire engine is among the visiting exhibitors coming to the Thursford gala day - Credit: Kevin Kiddell


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