An organ transplant for the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer | KALW

An organ transplant for the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer

Nov 30, 2015

Several pipe organs have inhabited the Castro Theatre over its 93 years -- but since 1982, the sounds of the Mighty Wurlitzer have defined the cinema.

Most evenings, David Hegarty’s the one tickling the ivories as guests arrive for film screenings.

“We've played the organ every night, nearly, for all these years," Hegarty says. "It just creates the essence of the Castro Theatre." 

“The song 'San Francisco' has been the Theatre's theme song since before I came aboard. And we bring the console down to that every night.”

Hegarty’s been at the Castro longer than the Wurlitzer, and remembers the organ when it was small. But then it grew. Almost like a living organism.

“We started playing it when it was only about a third of the size that it was going to end up," he says. "And it continued to get larger as the years went by, as people installed more pipes."

A full pipe organ like the Mighty Wurlitzer is actually much larger than the keyboard onlookers see.  At the Castro, the pipes crawl under the floor and into the walls. From behind the golden grills that flank the movie screen, the organ’s wail winds towards the theater’s art deco ceiling and bounces into its gilded balcony.

“There's a lot more to the organ than meets the eye. There's a huge mechanism behind the scenes. Hundreds and hundreds of pipes ranging in size from 16 feet to the size of a pencil,” Hegarty says.

Once moviegoers take their seats and the house lights begin to fade, the whole console -- Hegarty and all -- sinks down below the Theatre’s velvet-draped stage. Hegarty’s left foot swings back and forth across the organ’s lighted pedals as he and the Wurlitzer descend in the dark.

The sound of the Wurlitzer is so iconic, many Castro regulars couldn’t imagine a film experience without it.

But now, they’ll have to. The Wurlitzer is no more.

“The Wurlitzer was removed a couple of weeks ago,” says Hegarty. “The intricate leather components had worn out, and it was going to be a major operation to refurbish it.”

You might say it was suffering from partial organ failure. And though many of its pipes remain embedded in the Theatre’s walls, the Wurlitzer’s now being harvested for parts.

“They've been removing various sets of pipes for the last few months. We wouldn’t have wanted to play it with any less,” Hegarty says.

In the Wurlitzer’s place, atop the hydraulic lift, sits a small loaner organ. But it feels a bit like the Theatre has rejected the transplant. After one of its first performances, Hegarty pushed the button to send it down below the stage. It wouldn’t budge.

Projectionist Michael Anders remembers the night well. “You think you've seen everything in this job and then, you know, there's always some weird thing that's going to happen,” Anders says.

The organ was stuck in front of the movie screen. Someone in the audience started yelling, “Refund!” Anders had to think on his feet.

“I changed some lenses in the projector so I was able to show the film over the top of the organ. It wasn't the optimum way to show the film, but at least people got to see it,” Anders says.

Now, the old-fashioned Castro Theatre is expecting a new-fashioned organ. It’ll be custom built and part digital. Seven keyboards and 800 switches will activate both the old pipes and new speakers embedded in the theater walls. According to Hegarty, fans of traditional pipe organs won’t be disappointed.

“A lot of people are concerned about the fact that it won't be a total pipe organ anymore," says Hegarty. "But I can vouch for the fact that the listener will not be able to tell which sounds are coming from the pipes and which are coming from the speakers."

The organ will be programmed with the sounds of nearly every other instrument in existence, to be activated with the flip of a switch.

“There's no limit," says Hegarty. "It can sound like the whole symphony orchestra."

Castro old-timers will be happy to know that the new organ will include digital samples of vintage ones. Which means on some nights, it’ll simply sound like the Mighty Wurlitzer they’ve loved for all these years. 

In the meantime, the little loaner organ will carry on. And the Castro Theatre is expected to survive its organ transplant.