Thursday, October 27, 2022

THROWBACK THURSDAY—The SF360 Interview with Edward Millington Stout, III

Wurlitzer ad in Exhibitor's Trade Review. 

Launched in 2006, SF360 began as a copublishing effort between the San Francisco Film Society (now known as SFFILM) and indieWIRE. Until its closure in 2011, was the only daily online trade magazine focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area film scene. Susan Gerhard served as its editor and I was delighted to intern for her and to contribute several pieces (index provided). 

Unfortunately, when SF360 went down, so did all of my writing for them, as no online archive (that I’m aware of) was set in place. Hopefully, “Throwback Thursday” will offer an opportunity to re-publish those pieces on The Evening Class

First off, I felt it important to revisit my conversation with Edward Millington Stout, III in the face of the ongoing controversy regarding the future of San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, threatened by the misguided interests of Berkeley-based concert promoter Another Planet Entertainment (“APE”) who announced in January 2022—during an extended closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic—that it had partnered with Bay Properties, the theater's owner, to reopen in January 2023, refocusing on presenting live music, in addition to film, comedy, and other events. At SFGate Amanda Bartlett reported on these developments and the ensuing community outcry when APE made its initial announcement. More recently, community protest against the APE / Bay Properties endeavor strengthened when it was revealed that plans were in place to remove the rake of the theater, all but destroying the ability of film to be projected effectively. 

From a distance here in Boise, Idaho, these proposed changes to the Castro Theatre nonetheless sting sadly as so many of my memories of growing up in San Francisco are specifically situated in the Castro and its historic theater. As a gay man, the Castro Theatre—nicknamed “the Church of Camp” by Gary Morris in his 1996 Bright Lights Film Journal purview—was the site of transformative, filmic subcultural events, such as the unforgettable November 1977 premiere of Word Is Out [official website / PDF press kit / Wikipedia], which galvanized the LGBT community and became an icon of the emerging gay rights movement of the 1970s. As film historian Vito Russo declared in The Advocate: “The silence of gay people on the screen has been broken.” In retrospect, now living in Boise Idaho—where, to date, the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” have yet to be added to Idaho’s Human Rights Act–a sobering poignance accompanies production assistant Janet Cole’s declaration regarding Word Is Out: “People who were alone and hopeless in Idaho, Utah and Kansas for the first time saw realistic and positive images of gay people on screen" [emphasis added]. 

One could argue that the APE / Bay Properties proposed transformation of the Castro Theatre is a commercialized political erasure of my subculture’s history. That’s only one protest to add to the many that have surfaced. 

But returning to the interview at hand, originally published at SF360 on August 1, 2007, I’m grateful now to have added even a small footnote to the theater’s history. 

* * * 

I have lost count of just how many times I've heard the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Castro Theatre introduce a film with a rendition of "San Francisco", rousing audiences to clap along; but, this has become such an inherent aspect of my San Franciscan moviegoing experience that it's impossible for me to imagine elsewise. It certainly is an experience I have taken for granted for many years and only recently—as I have begun to explore the intricacies of film culture in the Bay Area—have I become motivated to appreciate it more fully. 

I'm grateful to Tod Booth for steering me towards Edward Millington Stout, III and encouraging me to speak with, undoubtedly, the world's foremost theatrical organ restorationist. Stout invited me to visit his home and studio in Hayward, California, where we talked about several of San Francisco's great movie palaces of yesteryear and the organs he has come to intimately know, as if they were personalities. Among our discussion were a few select comments on the Castro Theatre and its Mighty Wurlitzer.  

Guillén: Tell me about the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Castro Theatre. 

Edward Millington Stout, III: My partner Dick Taylor—who I can't praise highly enough—he and his brother are the actual owners of the Castro organ.  

Guillén: So the Castro Theatre rents the Wurlitzer from them? How does that work? 

Stout: Yes. They lease it from them. I was the consultant and I did all of the tonal finishing on the organ when it went in.  

Guillén: Well answer me this, are there a lot of different varieties of theatrical pipe organs? The ones most people usually think of are the Wurlitzers. 

Stout: Sure. They became the Kleenex. They became the generic name. A theater might have some other brand but the general public referred to it as the Wurlitzer—"Let's go down and hear the Wurlitzer"—because Wurlitzer, they developed the instrument to begin with. The name Wurlitzer, the House of Wurlitzer, was the greatest merchandising firm of musical instruments in the history of the world. The Wurlitzer Company manufactured and marketed every musical instrument known, including orchestral harps. They were sought after. Their pianos were of medium grade—they weren't great pianos—but their pipe organs were absolutely the very best and they were brilliant at marketing and promoting. "Gee, Dad, it's a Mighty Wurlitzer!" and all of that business. They knew the value of marketing and knew how to do it. 

But, there's another side to it. Like certain automobiles are more comfortable to drive, the Wurlitzer organ consoles themselves were very comfortable to play. Everything was located, the design was symmetrical, the balance and the elegance of the console, and everything in their consoles was of the very highest quality so that the leading organists who had a greater level of sensitivity … there are different levels of sensitivity. There are the Clyde Ferndocks who get up there and hack away with their dull machete and please the audience, of course, and then there are the sensitive artists that every little nuance they feel, they hear, they experience. They can bring more out. Their music is more exciting when they are playing an organ that goes with them. They used to say, "Oh that Castro organ, it plays itself." Now that's about the best compliment an organ man can get, is if some organist of high caliber says, "That thing just plays itself." He's saying, "I can take that organ musically anywhere I want and it wants to go along with me." You see? Then there are other organs, they just fight it. Hence, they're not turned on and the audience doesn't hear their very best. So the leading, very best organists sought to play Wurlitzers because it afforded them the opportunity to play their very best.  

Guillén: Are there many existent Wurlitzers? Somebody was saying to me there weren't that many left. Is that true? 

Stout: I don't know how many are left. It might be 300, something like that? Maybe there's 50 original installations, still in their original home, not very many. A lot of organs were put back into theaters that had them, like the Paramount in Oakland.  

Guillén: How would your categorize the Castro's Wurlitzer? 

Stout: It's a fantastic organ.  

Guillén: I've heard musicians say that it's one of the best they've played on. 

Stout: It is.  

Guillén: When I heard that, that's when I began thinking, "I have taken this Wurlitzer for granted for 30 years." I've just assumed it was standard. 

Stout: No, it's an exceptional organ. Now, when you hear … there's intermission playing when everybody's talking and all of that. You have different levels of musicianship at the console during the intermissions. That's one form of use. Where you really hear it, is where you have someone that's brilliant….  

Guillén: Like Clark Wilson? 

Stout: Like Clark playing a picture. That's when you really hear the Wurlitzer blossom. The nuances and the subtleties are used, not just the slam bang.  

Guillén: Experiencing Clark Wilson playing the score for Seventh Heaven at last year's Silent Film Festival was thrillingly revelatory. It was when I first—as an audience member—became fully aware of the Castro's Wurlitzer. I heard sounds I had never heard before. And it was the first time I remember looking up at the grilling and noticed movement behind the grilling. 

Stout: Do you know what you were seeing? You were seeing the shutters. See, the pipes in a Wurlitzer—or any pipe organ—plays at full volume all the time. The pipes are playing full-throated because they have to. They have to maintain the pressure at the pipe or the pitch would change. So if the pipes are playing at full volume, how in the world do you get dynamic expression? On Wurlitzers the whole front wall of the chamber—12 feet wide, 8 feet high—are wooden Venetian blinds that are vertical and these louvers are 2½ inches thick to hold back the sound. They pivot in the center so they'll open or close and there's a pneumatic motor—a bellow—attached to every single blade. The organist has a pedal that he controls with his right foot—and his foot's always on that—to give dynamics to the music. If they push that pedal open just a little bit, one contact makes and one blade opens and so much sound comes out. They push the pedal further, the second and third blades open and so forth. They can go from no shutters open, which holds the sound back in, or they can open it wide so that all the blades are open and then the full roar of the organ comes out into the room. That's the way they control the volume. What you were seeing—because the grill work at the Castro is very open; there's not much impeding the sound coming out—you can actually see the shutters. They're painted black but you can still see some movement up there and—if you're sitting in the right seat—you can actually see the glint of light on the brass trumpet pipes.  

Guillén: Usually when I've heard the Wurlitzer at the Castro it's been—as you said—intermission music, what I've characterized as ice skating rink music, and I've not paid much attention to it. 

Stout: It's thoughtful grunge and it's difficult for the organists because they know the people are talking. A lot more because the society today has been desensitized. When I was a child, my family had the wherewithal to go to fine restaurants and I was taught at a very young age—certainly by the age of four—to keep quiet, to be respectful of everybody else in the restaurant, and to be a little gentleman "because we don't want to annoy those other people at the table near us." So people talked in a very soft voice all of the time through my childhood. It started to change after World War II when television became prominent and parental guidance started to slip away. We've had six generations now of children who were taught, "Keep your feet off the coffee table!" They're insensitive. It's become an I-Me society. It's a pity because it prevents sensitive people from enjoying certain events.  

Guillén: It's a mannered aesthetic that has fallen by the wayside. 

Stout: The Wurlitzer—or any good theater organ—is the perfect instrument because, first of all, it's one person tracking the action. It's not a conductor waving a stick at a bunch of drunks who would just as soon be somewhere else. They can't respond instantly to changes. The fact is, every house is different. There are warm houses and chilly houses—re: the way the audience reacts—and if you have a chilly house, you're going to play differently. You're going to hype it differently and sell it differently than you would if it's a responsive house. With a responsive house, you can come back down to subtleties at a greater level than you can with a house that doesn't respond much. Sometimes then you'll pour on the coals more. The organist can react because he's hearing how the picture's going over as it's happening. When you've got 30 people you're controlling out there, everybody's doing their very best to stay on cue and stay with the picture. The other thing about the theater organ—and I talked to Dick Purvis about this—because he knew a lot about silent picture playing and, being a composer, he had an insight that was very thorough, and that is that the Wurlitzer has a far greater dynamic range than the orchestra. There is nothing as powerful. There's not an orchestra in the world that has the bass and the power of a Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Period. Amen. End of sentence.  

Guillén: The Mighty Wurlitzer places emotion right into the bodies of its audience. 

Stout: Sure it does! You know why? Because it's moving the floor. The organ itself is coupled to the building. It's physically moving the structure. Those sound waves are so strong that they're literally affecting the building. You feel the sound in the floor. You hear it but you feel the building too because the building is moving with these instruments. That doesn't happen with an orchestra because they can't generate that kind of energy. The Castro Wurlitzer organ is playing on its original nervous system. The relay machine that actually plays the organ, the switching and all the electrical controls that do this complex switching, it's the original 83-year-old Wurlitzer relay. It's in a dressing room beneath one of the chambers backstage. It's like an entire telephone exchange. The electrical system that controls a Wurlitzer organ is very complicated.  

Guillén: You've worked on some of the great theater organs on the West Coast and, I imagine, even elsewhere throughout the world, are they like entities to you? Are they personalities? 

Stout: Oh sure. Absolutely. 

* * * 

FOLLOW-UP: Since my 2007 conversation with Edward Millington Stout, III, the Castro Theatre’s Wurlitzer was removed in 2015 when its creator, Dick Taylor, moved to Sacramento. As detailed to SFGate’s Amanda Bartlett, David Hegarty—the Castro’s resident organist for more than 40 years and the founder of the Castro Organ Devotees Association (CODA)[website / Wikipedia]—had anticipated that the theater’s reopening after the pandemic would involve the implementation of a brand new instrument—the world’s largest hybrid organ, which achieved more than $800,000 in funding through CODA to construct and transport to San Francisco from Zionsville, Pennsylvania. 

“We have been assured that the organ will be installed as planned,” Hegarty told Bartlett. “And there is likely to be some repertory programming between film festivals and events,” but—noting he had yet to meet with the Castro Theatre’s new manager—“It’s too soon for us to know much. … We’re hoping it turns out to be a positive change.”

Thursday, October 13, 2022


Between the vicissitudes of the Internet and the short life spans of independent street magazines, much of my writing of the past decade and a half has evaporated like dew on a summer morning. “Throwback Thursday” provides an opportunity to revisit some of those projects and archive them on The Evening Class, the little blog that keeps on chugging when all those websites with their bells and whistles have long since bit the dust.  

BUMP (acronym for Boise Underground Music Pages) was the brainchild of Sara Konizeski and Molly Seiniger. It was a lively music magazine offered free to Boise’s music-loving community, focused on highlighting Boise’s uncharted live local music scene. BUMP, largely volunteer-driven, provided a free platform that assisted local music lovers and makers to find and participate in Boise’s truly amazing underground music scene by profiling local acts and compiling a calendar of performances at Boise’s venues. 

I’m grateful to Derek Spencer Longoria Gomez for convincing me to contribute to the magazine and I only regret I didn’t write more for them while they were in existence. Under the pseudonym of “Maya”, I interviewed the then-new group Ealdor Bealu for BUMP’s third issue in July 2017. Ealdor Bealu is currently on tour in the Southwest and—as a little shout-out to them on the road—I’m using this week’s “Throwback Thursday” to remind them of their humble beginnings with their first album and the onset of what has proven to be enduring friendships with its band members.

 * * * 

Photo: © Michael Guillén (2022).
"Elder bayloo" is the working pronunciation for Ealdor Bealu, an Anglo Saxon term from the 14th century meaning "necessary evil". By "necessary evil" imagine how it takes a forest fire to convince pine cones to release their seeds to regenerate a new forest. Or the discomfort associated with knitting a broken bone. Or, for that matter, the discomfort associated with any kind of healing, including a broken heart. 

Ealdor Bealu has been together for about two years; its original incarnation for the album being Carson Russell—the band's guitarist, vocalist, and samples editor, art director and album co-producer (let alone their self-appointed "spirit guide"), Rylie Collingwood on bass and vocals, Alex Wargo on drums, bells, chimes, glockenspiel, saxophone and oud, and Travis Abbot on guitars. Wargo has moved on to New York City by way of Texas and Craig Hawkins has joined the band as their touring drummer. 

Their recent performance at the Neurolux on Friday, June 9, 2017 celebrated the release of their debut album "Dark Water at the Foot of the Mountain"; the first time all the songs on the album have been played together as a set and timed to a mesmerizing filmic projection behind the musicians. 

As is so often the morphology of bands in the Treasure Valley, Carson began with Craig and Riley in a party rock band called Mother Shipton. When that project ended, Russell spent the next year upgrading his gear, writing songs and developing early versions of what was to become the filmic projection. In 2015, Carson, Riley and original drummer Alex built up the skeletal framework of Ealdor Bealu, and then that summer brought in Travis Abbott on guitars to round out the group with a fourth member. 

At the album's Bandcamp page, Ealdor Bealu is described as a "heavy psych" band: "With a focus on shifting dynamics from the ambient to the massive and back again, their sound is both minimalist and maximalist with hints at the unknown core of our existence and the world beyond this reality." With blue-shocked hair and an infectious laugh, Riley simplifies the description of the band's sound as "doomy", whereas—with the 50-year anniversary of San Francisco's "Summer of Love" on my mind—this former San Franciscan finds it reminiscent of 60's acid rock inflected as contemporary neo-psychedelia. Carson adjusts that perception to "heavy psychedelia", whereas guitarist Travis Abbot prefers the term "hope metal" or "glitter doom" (gloom). "There's something uplifting to the necessary evil that must exist," he grins darkly. Admittedly, as the band was building up the pieces, they were trying to hit more than just one genre, which might account for why a description of their sound remains assertively protean. 

Craig Hawkins, friends with Russell since third grade, was a sure shot to step in as drummer, and understands that music genres are usually defined by the rhythm or tempo of the music, as well as the tonalities used. Metal often uses aggressive distortion tones, and—if it's speed metal—it's obviously being played fast. The "doom" element reference the slow parts in the songs, which run in cycles, again and again, changing subtly on the second or third cycles. Ealdor Bealu incorporated those elements from doom music, though the band members are clearly not doomy bitter people. Riley, in fact, envisions doom music as a sprawling landscape with jagged rocks, or a dry desert stretching out in all directions. 

The album itself is seamless in the way each song flows into the next, providing an accessible and satisfying listening experience. This was a purposeful focus on Russell's part—to make an album that felt like an entire experience—and it turned out even better than he projected. The idea started out as something the band was trying to do with their live sets. At their first show, they had five songs, which had been crafted not to be "just" songs, experienced separately, but songs that were meant to weave in and out of each other. "Like a Pink Floyd experience," Russell explains, "where nothing either stops or starts; but blends together." From that first show through the experience of recording the album to their more current performances, Russell has been interweaving more sampling between tracks, and more elements between instruments, in an effort to make the music a gestalt experience, unified whole and intact, both in their live sets and on the recorded album. Of course working on the album afforded more time to work towards that goal, which has not been always easy to accomplish live (where volume levels are often not correct or Wargo would keep misplacing his mallets). 

At the Neurolux album release performance, value was added to the experience through the projection of a film montage behind the musicians, whose assemble edit was engineered by Carson. As he was writing the bass and guitar tracks for the band's songs, he was exploring a public domain website where he found available stock footage. As he built a song, he built the film sequence for it, and connected them together for the first set they played more than a year and a half ago. The songs themselves are timed out to the film; but, it's difficult to play a 13-minute song live and have it align second-by-second with a film. Thus, they decided early on not to be concerned with perfection, opting instead for passion. Equally, they decided to share the film on YouTube where the timed alignment between film and music as intended could be experienced as intended, exact and in a way nearly impossible to achieve on stage. In fact, those who attended the album release might be the only audience who will ever actually see the music played front to back timed with the film. The band will probably never do that again, as they are already moving on to new material, and expanding into their next chapter.


Along with digital download on Bandcamp, and physical CDs available at the Record Exchange and their live performances (in a handsome black-and-white six-fold paper case designed by Russell), the entirety of "Dark Water At the Foot Of the Mountain" is streaming free on YouTube where it's tracked to the film. Primary recording took place at The Wizard Hat (Yachats, OR); secondary recordings at Das Schmidt Haus (Boise, ID); and vocal recordings at Cathedral of the Rockies (Boise, ID), where album co-producer Ethan Schmidt works sound. Rylie recalls showing up at the converted church venue Cathedral of the Rockies while their choir was still practicing and feeling self-conscious because she was wearing a panda outfit and eating hamburgers. 

Much of the photography used for the CD cover is from the band's visit to the Oregon coast last year, including an unsettling image of a crab skeleton lodged among rocks. This imagery comports with their music, however, where darkness reveals and introduces beauty, and an uncomfortable sense of constriction opens out into a vast bleak terrain that hints at hope. The traction of the music is desultory, undulent, as if one has wandered to land's end to face an ocean complicated by a hallucinogenic vision. All seems to end, even as it begins ever anew. Or as poet Wallace Stevens once wrote: "Death is the mother of all beauty." There's no question that Ealdor Bealu's premiere project "Dark Water At the Foot of the Mountain" is a ravishingly beautiful accomplishment. 

Having no assumptions, the band was genuinely stoked by how many people came out for the Neurolux album release concert. It was an honor for them to be on the same bill with Red Hands Black Feet and opening act Lucid Aisle (Brent Joel). Boise's Neurolux gig launched the band's northwest tour that took them to the Humble Burger in Moscow, Idaho, then to Spokane, Washington (where their gig was unfortunately canceled due to the headliner act being unable to play), then on to Seattle, and their Oregon gigs in Portland, Eugene and Bend. Russell's personal favorite was Seattle where they played on a bill with Weeed (who hail from Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seattle). Collingwood enjoyed their Eugene gig the most. They were booked into a venue that had been a sorority house in the 1920s, and a commune since the '50s with beautiful artwork all over the walls. Some Eastern Idaho dates are being blocked out for the Fall. 

In Portland, they played the Fixing To where a character who goes by the online handle of "Slowcamera Paparazzi" made a live painting of the band. Although he made live paintings for all the bands on the bill that night, he admitted that he was only there for Ealdor Bealu. He had heard the album and knew he had to see them. His painting was rendered on an LP cover of the Irish Rovers. Collingwood recalls that he had his paints spread around him and a string of Christmas lights around his neck, whereas Abbott was just as amazed that this wet oil painting survived the rest of the tour intact, save a few smudges. One has to wonder why someone would give a touring band a wet painting? An impactical but beautiful thing for a fan to do. 

A shout-out needs to be given to Ealdor Bealu's well-managed "merch" table where—along with the CD for sale—t-shirts and decals sporting Chad Remains' Norse-inspired design of a double-headed snake winding up a great tree (whose roots form the lettering of the band's name) were also on sale. For this reviewer, however, Ealdor Bealu's most brilliant merchandise were sturdy guitar picks with a photo of Peach, Rylie and Carson's pet Australian Cattle Dog/Rottweiler.

Friday, October 07, 2022


In an early scene of Carlota Pereda’s Piggy (2022), the maligned protagonist Sara (in an amazingly brave and assured performance by Laura Galán) is an overweight teen who secretly fantasizes on being able to ride tandem on a scooter with hunky heartthrob Pedro (José Pastor), which she sees other girls do and wishes for herself. But those girls are thin, pretty, and mean. They nickname Sara “Piggy” and make fun of her and her family for operating a butcher’s shop. Yet, by film’s end, Sara achieves her fantasy. She gets to hold onto Pedro’s muscular body while riding on his scooter. So what if it comes at the cost of blood and trauma and isn’t quite the fantasy she secretly wished for? Wishes, after all, come true, not free. 

And the cost is considerable in this uniquely compelling horror thriller based on Pereda’s short film on the same theme. Pereda and Galán negotiate a fine line of exploitation in unflinchingly critiquing the peer group bullying and pressure exerted on body types that don’t fit consensual approval. But just like beauty, isn’t exploitation in the eye of the beholder? Any genre filmmaker worth their salt knows that prurience is a valuable resource to manipulate. By now we all know that it’s politically correct for real women to have curves, but Piggy confronts audiences with the challenge of accepting and feeling empathy for someone who would ordinarily be considered morbidly obese, posing yet again the supposition that morbidity might also be in the eye of the beholder. The adjectives capsize in upon themselves for being so relative and judgmental and, let’s face it, just downright wrong, and admittedly unnecessary. 

How is one to escape this spectatorial conundrum of being caught in a vise of media-endorsed body images that don’t look anything like your own body? Comparison is, after all, the thief of joy, right? It doesn’t matter how goodlooking you are, whenever you compare yourself with others there will always be someone better looking. Always. How, then, is one to be content in their own skin, accepting the body they have? And what if someone who likes your body as it is—a murderous psycho, let’s say—champions the cause against those who don’t? Even if, at first, you’re intrigued they do, though you’re not completely convinced you want them to?

What Piggy succeeds at best through its use of the torture porn genre is exploring all the emotional nooks and crannies of self-laceration; the insecurities and doubts that generate confusion; the way someone can torture themselves. Can you fall in love with a psycho who starts torturing those who bully you? Is it enough to have a common enemy for attraction, even arousal, to happen? And at what point do you forgive those who bully you and come to their defense if need be? Even if it's against the person who came to your defense? 

It's complicated, and Piggy doesn't shy away from all those complicated questions that, really, no body can truthfully answer except the person tormented by them. So after all the shocking brutality of Piggy, it seems absolutely appropriate at film’s end that Sara gets to climb onto Pedro’s scooter, put her arms around him and rest her head on his strong back. That the audience believes she deserves it is attributable to Galán’s fearlessly honest performance and Pereda’s fiercely compassionate direction. 

Of related interest: Alfonso Rivera’s Cineuropa interview with Pereda.