Chance key to musical career

RICHARD PARR Mention the Thursford Collection and most people think of the Christmas Spectacular. But during the summer there are two daily shows featuring top organist Robert Wolfe.

RICHARD PARR

As a 14-year-old organist Robert Wolfe visited the famous Thursford Museum in Norfolk and approached founder George Cushing to ask if he could have a go at playing the Wurlitzer.

Mr Cushing happily agreed and that gesture was to lead to a relationship between Robert and the museum that has continued for 25 years.

Tonight, the champagne corks will pop when Robert plays the Wurlitzer in a concert to celebrate his silver jubilee.

John Cushing, owner of the museum, said: "I feel proud of the fact that, in having both Robert Wolfe and Phill Kelsall at Christmas, I employ two of the best organists in the country."

Little did Robert realise at the time, but that first brief encounter with George Cushing was to be the start of a long career entertaining the summer visitors at Thursford.

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Before he took up a full-time post as the resident organist, Robert, at the age of 16, became the youngest person to be part of the team playing at the famous Tower Ballroom at Blackpool.

He remained there until he was 19, occasionally coming back to play at Thursford for one-off concerts. Thursford had never had a regular organist, and Robert readily accepted when he was asked if he would like to take on that role.

"Having been at Blackpool for three years and it being essentially the British home of the Wurlitzer, it was a tough decision to give that up. I was part of a team there but at Thursford I would be on my own as the resident organist," he said.

He now enjoys the split system of being at Thursford during the summer season and then being able to take up engagements at home and abroad during the winter months.

Despite being at Thursford for 25 years, Robert says it is always changing and he is playing to new audiences every day.

It is a demanding routine: he has two shows a day, six days a week.

"It varies all the time and people ask for different music and different requests all the time and there are coach parties of senior citizens, and in the school holidays there are children among the audience.

"I aim the programme that I play to suit the age group and these days Disney songs and music from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are particularly popular."

Many people have been coming to hear Robert play for the whole of the 25 years and have become firm friends.

"We get quite a lot of people that come two or three times a week and others come back each week and they ask for special requests, which I try to include when I can," he said, adding that he hoped to see many of his regular supporters at tonight's pre-show open-air reception.

He also revealed he was essentially self-taught.

"I played at my local church and had my own electronic organ at home and when I was about 14 I got access to a couple of theatre organs. I do read music but I play mostly by ear," he said.

"My parents bought me a keyboard when I was 12 and I found that by listening to the radio I could pick out tunes easily and play them on the organ or keyboard and that's how I started - it wasn't something I thought about taking up as a career.

"By the age of 14 and 15 I was playing for local organ societies. When I was 14 I was on holiday and I asked if there was any chance I could play on the Wurlitzer.

"Someone heard me playing and suggested I came for an audition, and after that they asked me if I wanted to play full-time," he recalled.

He now lives in Norwich and considers himself to be very lucky to be able to play the Wurlitzer at Thursford every day because there are not many places left where organs can be played.

"This Wurlitzer, which came from the Odeon cinema in Leeds, is one of the largest in Europe and, alongside the instrument at Blackpool, it is considered one of the best and it is being continually maintained and restored.

"It is like an old friend to me and it becomes part of you."

An outdoor pre-concert reception starts at 6.30pm tonight, with the concert starting at 7.30pm. Tickets at £7.50 are available from the box office on 01328 878477.

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