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The Castro Theatre Organ – Ascending Into Greatness

CASTRO THEATRE ORGAN. Photo, Jason Hensley
CASTRO THEATRE ORGAN. Photo, Jason Hensley
Jason Hensley

San Francisco’s legendary Castro Theatre will soon be home to the greatest classical/symphony organ in the world. Last December when I interviewed David Hegarty, popular resident organist at the theatre, the issue was about saving the Castro Wurlitzer. Now it’s about saving the sound of the Castro Wurlitzer – in a new organ.

“The main difference right now,” says David, “is that we started out planning to incorporate at least parts of the existing Wurlitzer into the new organ. That has changed now. The owner of it is going to sell it elsewhere. His price was too high for our purposes, considering that he was taking out part of it and that we would have to completely refurbish the part that he was selling us – which is very expensive. We recently received a donation offer from a theatre foundation back east that has a Wurlitzer the equivalent size which they want to donate to us. We accepted that. It doesn’t need as much refurbishing and what it does need can be done less expensively before it’s installed rather than taking it out and doing it later. So, it’s a much better deal. We’re still going to be preserving the sound of the Wurlitzer pipes per se. We’re also getting a donation of fifteen ranks of really good classical pipes. So, the pipe part of the organ is going to end up much bigger than the existing one.”

Entertainment ventures like this need the energy and feel of a segment produced by Movietone News. “Coming to the Castro Theatre! –– The Organ of The Future!” Such newsreel shorts would have played at the Castro way-way-back – starting from when a movie with sound was still something phenomenal, truly awesome, unimaginable. You had to experience it to believe it.

“Our organ will be roughly equivalent to the two largest organs in the world – the Wannamaker Organ at the Macy’s store in Philadelphia and the organ in the Atlantic City Convention Center, which is probably never going to be completely playable again. The difference is, those are all pipe and ours is using modern technology – combining pipes with digital ranks so that it ends up a lot less expensive and with less maintenance upkeep. And a lot less space! The Wannamaker takes up rooms on all seven floors of Macy’s and ours will fit in the chambers we have now. Using the old technology – the theatre would literally have been filled with pipes. What we’ve been using at the Castro now is twenty-one ranks. A rank is a set of pipes, one for each note of the keyboard. The owner of it was planning to leave us fifteen of those ranks. We are replacing it with another theatre organ of fifteen ranks and adding fifteen more of classical and then another 400 of digital.”

The total cost of the project is approximately $700,000. Last year, when the campaign to save the Castro Wurlitzer began, David secured a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation status from the IRS and established SFCODA - Castro Organ Devotees Association. Having secured sufficient funds, the new console – with seven keyboards and over 800 stop tabs – is currently under construction. David and the designer of the organ, Allen Harrah, are at the helm of a team that includes three board members and others who will be providing digital enhancements to the organ. During the month of August, SFCODA is conducting a fundraising campaign on – a popular crowdfunding source. The goal is to raise $60,000 which would support the next phase of completion.

“We’re also approaching various foundations and philanthropists,” said David. “but this is a way to get the public involved in making smaller donations that really add up. Allen Harrah is the one who has made this possible. He has donated his time and expertise from the beginning. Allen wanted to build his magnum opus and found no better place for it than San Francisco and the Castro Theatre. He is also donating the classical pipes and will be installing them.”

The Castro Theatre is the heart of the most famous neighborhood on the planet. The theatre is home to a wide variety of film festivals, notable premieres, in-person celebrity tributes and holiday concerts. Such annual events as the Noir City Film Festival and Silent Film Festival celebrate the latest developments in digital technology that can preserve and restore films thought to be lost or hopelessly damaged. Attracting international audiences, the only movie palace left in San Francisco provides many resurrected classics with a glamorous second premiere. In addition to the magnificence and versatility of its new organ, the theatre will be installed with a sound system that can alter its dryer soundscape into the loftiness of a symphony hall or with the extended resonance of a vaulted cathedral. With the flip of a switch – the greatest, most bombastic literature ever created for the instrument can now be played in the sound environments for which they were intended. As time goes by, the Castro Theatre is destined to become a favorite venue for the best organists in the world.

“The console is going to be spectacular – with seven keyboards and over 800 stop tabs. That will be extremely attention-getting in itself. We have the most respected console builder in the country, R.A. Colby in Tennessee. It’s already under construction. The console itself is costing a little more than $200,000. The digital part of the organ is being built by Walker Technical Company in Pennsylvania. They are also responsible for building the digital reverberation system which creates the illusion that you’re in very different sized rooms. The technology is the equivalent to having many more pipes in the room. The main thing is that it will certainly be the largest hybrid digital pipe organ in the world. As opposed to the other two largest organs, this will include a complete theatre organ the equivalent to San Francisco’s famous Fox Theatre. With the combination of the pipes and the digital additions, we are duplicating the sound of that organ and making it into a concert organ that can play any kind of concert repertoire. We’re also incorporating virtual orchestra samples that are produced by Audio Impressions. This is used routinely in film scoring. So, we’re devoting one of the seven manuals to the actual sounds of an orchestra – percussion, strings, brass, woodwinds, etc. The sampled organs that are available make it possible to authentically create the sounds you need for all periods and nationalities of all organ repertoire. So, it will be the ultimate teaching machine.”

Now through August, the Indiegogo fundraising campaign includes a variety of gifts that come with your donation ranging from MP3s and theatre tickets, a private lesson on the organ with David Hegarty, and your name on a commemorative plaque in the Castro Theatre Lobby.
Click here for more information.

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