This charming man: Meet theatre organist Neil Jensen

Neil Jensen and the Wurlitzer, Image credit: Mick Ross

This story first appeared  on former NRMA site Living Well Navigator  on March 18, 2015. Images by Mick Ross.

Picture this. You’re seated in a gorgeous art deco cinema, and suddenly below the deep crimson theatre curtain a space in the stage opens, and up rises a man dressed in a suit, playing a magnificent orchestral pipe organ.

The grand sound fills the whole cinema, it’s spellbinding and if only for a fleeting moment, you are treated to an authentic cinema performance, as it was back in the ’30s and ’40s.

Anyone lucky enough to have seen a film at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace, which opens with the playing of their famous Wurlitzer organ, will be sure to recall the smiling face of Neil Jensen, the cinema’s much-loved resident organist.

The longest-serving theatre organist in Australasian cinema theatre history, Jensen has held the role at the art deco cinema in Cremorne since it first reopened back in 1987.

“I was here during the original installation of the organ! I oversaw the installation and have overseen two major rebuilds of the organ during that time,” says Jensen of the exquisite Wurlitzer Hope-Jones orchestral pipe organ, which was made in 1925 and features 12 ranks and 1000 pipes and instruments. “Before that, I was the marketing and sales director for the Hammond Organ Company in Australia, and then got involved in more of the performance side of it.”

Orpheum 16
The Wurlitzer, Image credit: Mick Ross

Starting as a pianist, before moving on to the organ, and later the theatre organ, Jensen taught himself to play the complex Wurlitzer organ. Laughing, he explains: “I Googled ‘How do you play the Wurlitzer organ?’ And up came all these YouTube links.”

Jensen plays the Wurlitzer before select screenings on the weekends, at the Orpheum’s Wednesday morning movie luncheons and at special live events – such as the five annual performances the Orpheum hosts with 18-piece band The Mell-O-Tones, who specialise in authentic arrangements of music from the ’30s through to the ’50s.

He notes there has only been two occasions during his 28-year tenure when the Wurlitzer shows didn’t run to schedule – once when a staff member tripped over a lead and a second time due to a heinous traffic jam.

Neil takes the stage, Image credit: Mick Ross
Neil takes the stage, Image credit: Mick Ross

While Jensen is resident organist, he is also the caretaker of the Wurlitzer organ, overseeing its restorations over the years but also modernising elements of it, such as implementing computerised control systems.

The nature of such work is highly specialised, so it’s not surprising to learn that Jensen also runs a music emulation software business. “It’s a whole virtualisation for an organ three times this size [of the Wurlitzer] for PC and Mac. It’s marketed on the net under Keymedia Productions.”

Funny and charming, Jensen is highly amiable, qualities that have seen him invited to play at organ concerts around the world. These same qualities are also sure to help clients connect with him in his other role, as a working part-owner of Sydney-based funeral business Men In Black. (Yes, that is a cheeky cinematic reference at work in the name there).

“Most people slow down as they get older,” reflects Neil, smiling. “But I only seem to be getting busier.” Indeed.