For 23 1/2 years, he's made Castro Theatre's pipe organ hum

Carol Ness, Chronicle Staff Writer
Photo by Gina Gayle
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, February 18, 2002

San Francisco -- When the rousing strains of "San Francisco" burst from the Castro Theatre's celebrated pipe organ, it's show time in the city's campy heart.

mmAnd chances are, it's master organist David Hegarty up there pulling out all the right stops and delivering the Jeanette MacDonald tune that's long been the movie house's theme song and signal for the lights to go down.

"I don't know how many times I've played that," Hegarty said the other day. "But I still like it. It always has that feel."

And it always gets cheers, as Hegarty rides the restored Wurlitzer down to the floor.

Any way you figure it, Hegarty has to have played the song thousands of times in his 23 1/2 years at the Castro. Since bumping up to chief organist in 1985, he's been playing five, six, even seven days a week, often two mini-concerts a day before and between movies.

Audiences love him, even if they do chatter right through his breezy medleys. The ease with which he runs through show tunes and popular standards disguises how hard he works.

But Hegarty is one serious musician. The organ isn't just how he makes his living; it's his life.

His small Noe Valley house functions as a music studio, with four organs, an electronic keyboard and piano -- not to mention the stereo-video equipment, six remotes, two computers, thousands of CDs, shelves full of Hegarty's favorite movie scores -- and a shrine to his idol Alfred Hitchcock, whose movie "Spellbound" features Hegarty's all-time dream score.

Black curtains and red mini-blinds -- closed, all the time -- create a world apart, devoted to his music and his partner, actor Lenny Moors.

Far from being a lone organ fanatic, Hegarty is part of a thriving American subculture that reveres the old art of theater organ music -- and has saved it from extinction.

The Bay Area has "more world-class theater organs than any area in the country," Hegarty said. He's played them all and appears twice a week on the one at Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre. He also plays classical and church organs, and composes for the organ.

If organs are retro, consider that Hegarty started out on the accordion as a boy in Scottsdale, Ariz. He taught himself the organ, earned college and graduate degrees in classical and church organ music in the Midwest, and then fled the heartland for gay liberationist San Francisco in 1976.

A new taste for show tunes and the scores from movies of Hollywood's Golden Age soon followed, and a spot on the bench of the Castro Theatre's organ seems almost inevitable.

Instantly acquainting himself with the Bay Area's organ scene, Hegarty was invited to substitute at the Castro within weeks of arriving. Then, the theater had an electronic organ; the huge Wurlitzer, pieced together from parts found around the country, replaced it in the early '80s and Hegarty has played it more than anyone else.

Earning his living at piano bars and socialites' parties back then, Hegarty honed his repertoire. He can summon hundreds of songs from memory, a seven- page single-spaced list that runs from "Alice Blue Gown" to "Zip-A-Dee-Doo- Dah" and is heavy with Cole Porter, Gershwin, Jerome Kern. And that doesn't begin to cover the music he samples to tailor each 15-minute concert to the film about to screen.

For a recent showing of "Funny Girl," Hegarty focused not on star Barbra Streisand but on the entertainer she plays in the movie. Amid the chatter, fans clapped when he rolled into Brice's signature "Second Hand Rose" and other songs from the movie, along with tunes that evoked Broadway.

"I intrude in their consciousness now and then," Hegarty said.

Often, sheet music for movie scores can't be found. So Hegarty watches on video or DVD, writes out the songs and then arranges the music for the organ.

"I never liked the Beatles until 'Yellow Submarine' was shown," he said. Dedicated as he is, though, he learned the theme song and a few others -- and the audience roared its appreciation. And, now he's a Beatles fan.

He brings the same enthusiasm to his other gigs -- which include classical and church music. The first weekend of every month, he performs a pops concert on the symphonic organ at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

With Moors working more in New York nowadays, Hegarty is spending about 10 days a month there. He has his eye on Radio City's big beauty of an organ, one of the few theater models he's never tried out.

"That's a goal of mine," he said.

 

David Hegarty is best known in the Bay Area as the organist of the Castro Theatre since 1978. He also plays regularly at the Stanford Theatre (Palo Alto) and at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. He is a prolific composer/arranger, and, as a concert organist, he specializes in his own transcriptions of film music from Hollywood's Golden Age.

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