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Resident organist at long-running silent movie theatre retires

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Ron West’s name will always be synonymous with the world’s longest-running silent movie theatre in the Noosa hinterland.

An outpouring of gratitude and sharing of happy memories followed the announcement of his retirement in mid-November as the beloved resident organist accompanying the silent films shown in the Majestic Theatre, Pomona.

As the Australian of the Year website states of the 2024 Queensland Senior Australian of the Year nominee, “Ronald (Ron) West has provided the soundtrack at the Majestic Theatre in Pomona, Queensland – the world’s oldest authentic silent movie house – for nearly 50 years.”

He told Sunshine Coast News this week that the decision to retire had come after he contracted a nasty virus that laid him low but “the continued support and affection of the people of Pomona and surrounding districts is fondly appreciated”.

Ron, who celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year, and his late wife Mandy first encountered the historic Factory Street theatre in 1973. Just like the 1977 Australian movie, Ron was a true ‘Picture Show Man’. The Wests introduced the Travelling Film Festival’s first-release and avant-garde films to Pomona audiences in the theatre, then owned by Ernie Bazzo.

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The historic theatre. Picture: The Majestic Theatre

The following year, the Wests bought the Majestic – one of the few pre-World War II picture theatres remaining in Queensland that had not been demolished or adapted to other uses. The unique theatre celebrated its centenary in 2021.

Ron said the appeal of owning and running the Majestic Theatre with Mandy was that “we could do our own thing – no ‘head office’ telling us what to do”.

“Our decisions generally paid off,” he said.

“The enormous pleasure we derived from the success of the Majestic Players (Mandy directed this amateur theatrical group in the 1980s) and the unexpected transition to silent movies are two very memorable highlights.”

The Majestic Theatre’s website outlines the history of Ron’s intrinsic involvement in preserving the grand old building, originally built as a social hall with attached shops in 1921, and his search all over the world for parts for the Compton organ housed within.

“In 1987, Ron West was asked to show a silent movie to a group of travel agents, and since he possessed a print of the 1926 film The Son of the Sheik, starring Rudolf Valentino, he ran the film and accompanied it with his restored Wurlitzer pipe organ, making up the music as he went along,” the website states.

“Word got around, and after several months, the Wests decided to only show silent movies at the Majestic, which gained worldwide recognition as a silent movie house. Six days a week, the Majestic was open to school visits and coach loads of Australian and international tourists.

Silent movies remain the Majestic’s bread-and-butter business. Picture: The Majestic Theatre

“The most popular silent films shown since 1987 include The Son of the Sheik, the original Raymond Longford production of Dad and Dave in On Our Selection, and Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Cooper in The Kid.

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“The current organ console, the only one in a Queensland theatre, is located to the left of the stage and is an electrical 1937 Compton. Its rebuilding commenced in 2006 by Ron West, John Brooks and Don Clark.

“It took six and a half years to restore the organ and was launched on 6th July 2019.”

Ron – determined to leave a lasting legacy after 30 years of preservation and restoration – sold the Majestic to the Pomona community in 2006 at below-market value, on an interest-free loan.

Everything inside the building was included at no cost.

The Majestic Theatre today. Picture: The Majestic Theatre

He continued on as a Pomona Arts Inc volunteer, playing the Compton for the silent movie screenings each Saturday, until the Majestic Theatre Facebook post announcing his retirement following the annual general meeting on November 18.

“Ron was instrumental in bringing silent films to the theatre in the early 1980s which is now the core business of the Majestic,” the post read in part.

“By doing this, he has kept the interest of silent films alive for not just our local community but for all who visit the theatre from all over the country and the world. It is currently the only theatre in the world that continuously screens silent films, thanks to Ron West.

Inside the theatre today: a community space with many uses. Picture: The Majestic Theatre

“Ron also over the years brought artefacts to the theatre from theatres all over the country that were closing down and put those artefacts into the Majestic. Some examples would be the doors which come from the Valhalla Brisbane, the ticket booth glass from the Wintergarden in Ipswich and the organ grill from the Roxy in Parramatta NSW, making the Majestic even more unique.

“We thank you, Ron, for your amazing dedication to the Majestic Theatre Pomona and to arts and cultural development in general. And we wish you all the best.”

The post garnered more than 80 comments and had 56 shares to date.

Former newspaper editor Gail Forrer described him as “such a great gift to the Noosa Shire community”.

And from the other side of the globe, Paul Crofts shared his gratitude: “Wishing you a very happy retirement, Ron. You leave an amazing legacy. It’s wonderful to think that thanks to your dedication, the ex-regal Chester Compton is still going strong, entertaining people and still being used for its original purpose. Truly remarkable. Best wishes from Chester, UK, the original home of the Majestic’s Compton. We salute you.”

Majestic Theatre Pomona president Alison Hadfield said Ron was “definitely a big part of the theatre, having been involved for 48 years and we do miss him a lot”.

“He promises to pop in from time to time and can come and play the organ anytime he wishes and we look forward to that,” she said.

Ms Hadfield nominated him for Queensland Senior Citizen of the Year and while he didn’t win on December 8, he was in the final four nominees.

“I believe what he has done for arts and culture and silent films over such a long time is quite remarkable and deserved recognition,” she said.

Chris Rose, the new organist to accompany the silent movies. Picture: Facebook

While the Majestic now hosts diverse entertainment on its arts calendar – from concerts, guitar festivals and stage productions to fundraisers, special events and private screenings – the silent movie accompaniments will continue with new resident organist Chris Rose: an accomplished musician on a variety of instruments.

“I was so grateful that Chris Rose was able to step in and play the shows,” Ron said.

“As my indisposition lingered, it seemed like the sensible thing to do. It really was bowing to the inevitable.

“I thought that if it’s good enough for Sir Michael Caine – we are the same age – then it’s good enough for me (to retire).”

Ron said he intended catching up with new cinema releases and some older ones he was yet to see, as well as reading many accumulated books.

“Plenty to do. Boredom won’t be an affliction,” he added.

“I hope that (Majestic Theatre) will continue to benefit and entertain people.

“May the magnificent Compton organ continue to thrill audiences for many years to come.”

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