|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, SF360.org 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.
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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.”