A Conversation with Organist David Hegarty

David HegartyEveryone who loves the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Castro Theatre—raise your hands! The time has come to rescue the most famous theatre organ in the world.

Monday night, December 16th, 7:30 pm, the Castro Theatre presents A Holiday Wurlitzer Extravaganza. General admission tickets are $20, all proceeds go directly toward saving and enhancing the Castro Wurlitzer. Resident organist David Hegarty will be joined by fellow organists Jerome Lenk (Music Director, Mission Dolores Basilica), Benjamin Bachmann (Canon Director of Music, Grace Cathedral), David Hatt (Assistant cathedral organist, St. Mary’s Cathedral), and rising young star, Nahri Ahn.

“Most people don’t realize the Wurlitzer is not owned by the Castro Theatre,” said David Hegarty during our recent interview. "It belongs to a private individual who is an organ builder. He had an arrangement with the theatre back in the late ‘70s to build his big Wurlitzer out of parts of other Wurlitzers around the country. By 1982 we were playing it—a smaller version than it is now. We’ve had some major organists here who consider it one of the finest Wurlitzer installations. But after thirty years of constant use, it needs a total rebuild of its leather components—especially in the console, which are completely worn out. These components are involved with the electro-pneumatic action of the organ. This technology was state-of-the-art back in the ‘20s. But the owner, who is a purist, doesn’t want to do anything that was not of the period. It would take two years to get it back in shape again—and he will not be living here. About a year ago, he let me know he would probably have to remove it unless somebody could buy it. That’s when I decided to try to save it.”

To that end, Mr. Hegarty secured the 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation status from the IRS very quickly and established SFCODA - Castro Organ Devotees Association. “We’ve got the organ designed,” he said, “and we’re working on raising the funds. The concert on December 16th is not only to raise money for it but to create excitement.”

“I have first-hand experience with a huge and phenomenal symphonic organ that belongs to Forrest Burdette Memorial United Methodist Church back in Hurricane, West Virginia. I’ve given six concerts there. It’s one of the largest organs in the world. But since the church is becoming more and more contemporary, they don’t want to use it. The organ was built by Allen Harrah who has two very fine organs here in San Francisco. I’ve been helping him find a place to build his magnum opus here. So, when I found out about this situation with the Wurlitzer, I thought that nothing could be better than to combine our pipe theatre organ with this huge digital organ.”

Back in the ‘70s, Allen Harrah became the first organ builder to successfully combine pipes and digital tone production. Now it is mainstream, the thing to do. Allen works closely with the Walker Technical Company in Pennsylvania—the best of the best in digital reproduction. Many of the largest and most famous organs contain Walker components. Allen also works with the best organ console builder in the business, R.A. Colby in Tennessee.

“We all got together,” said David, “and cooked up this idea to not only save the Wurlitzer—that is, to buy from the owner the pipes and the associated mechanism—but everything that’s built-in so beautifully and is so well installed. The owner wants to keep the console. That’s the part which is the most worn-out. Since we have the idea of expanding it into a major concert organ, it needs a whole new console. So, we’ve designed a phenomenal console with seven manuals instead of four and 800 stop tabs. This will be the most versatile—certainly the largest pipe/digital combination in existence. It will be the equivalent to the Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia, the largest pipe organ in the world. We’ve got a venue here where people love the organ anyway. We’ve got audiences every night. Why not have the 'Wanamaker of the West' right here? An instrument like this will draw people from all over the world.”

It’s a sign of the times. Digital technology and the pipe organ–an instrument which emerged two centuries before the birth of Christ—have been agreeable bed-fellows for a long time. Many of today’s great organists concur that there is no discernible difference in the sound that emits from the pipes and that which is created digitally. During my recent interview with Olivier Latry, titular organist at Notre-Dame in Paris, I learned that not only does the organ in this 14th Century cathedral operate with the very latest in digital technology, it retains the various stops which reproduce the sounds heard within the sanctuary before major upgrades in the 18th, 19th and 20th Century.

“For those who remember the Wurlitzer in San Francisco’s Fox Theatre, we plan to enlarge the theatre specifications of the Castro organ to duplicate the resources of that famous instrument—one of five ‘Fox Specials'—the largest Wurlitzers ever built. So, we are enlarging it as a theatre organ while greatly expanding the specifications to enable authentic performance of every kind of classical organ literature.

“Although the acoustics of the Castro are perfect for the theatre organ, they're much too dry to accommodate classical organ music. That will be solved by use of the latest state-of-the-art digital reverberation that can be adjusted to simulate any acoustical situation, from concert hall to European cathedral. It's even possible to create the illusion that the pipes are reverberating. We also plan to install eleven ranks of Skinner pipes in the chambers, so there will be classical pipes represented—not just digital.”

As a child growing up in San Francisco, a huge number of my Saturday movie matinees were spent within the palace that was the Fox Theatre on Market Street. The feeling of helplessness as I heard the wrecking ball strike the magnificent theatre haunts me to this day. The decision to destroy the Fox Theatre and the vote to replace it with the monstrosity of construction known as “Fox Plaza” will forever remain one of The City’s most catastrophic, self-inflicted architectural mistakes. That everyone will experience the sounds of its magnificent Wurlitzer organ re-created in the Castro Theatre is a dream unimagined—until now. I asked David Hegarty about the current cost of the project.

“Now that the quotes are in for everything involved, we’re coming in at a little under $700,000. If it were all pipes, the estimate would have been well over 20 million. But with what can be done digitally, the sound is exactly the same. Some purists don’t like the idea that the sound isn’t coming out of real pipes. But to my way of thinking and for many of the rest of us, it’s the music that matters. We’re not going to let the organ get away. Don Nasser, the owner of the Castro Theatre is very much in favor of using the space for the performing arts as time goes on. We are thinking of the organ as the centerpiece of that concept and he is behind it 100 percent. We’ve already signed the contract for the $200,000 console and it’s already starting to be built. We’re hoping that it may be installed within a year.”



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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