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Pipe Dreams

David Hegarty
Ken Richardson

Piped-in Music: Organist David Hegarty

David Hegarty keeps the art of the pipe organ alive at the Castro Theater

By Teresa Bergen

Musical trends change all the time. But decisions to dispense with a ukulele or add another guitar are nothing beside the tumultuous history of the theater organ. These huge instruments require space, installation and upkeep, as well as musical skills few people possess.

The Bay Area is lucky to have more than its share of pipe organs installed in theaters, as well as several gifted individuals who can play them, with the Castro Theater boasting one of the best organs in the country, and one of the few that is played every night.

David Hegarty, the Castro's full-time organist, is remarkably modest and distinguished for a San Francisco celebrity. When asked about his local fame, he smiles discreetly and admits to often being recognized on the street. "It's a unique position for an organist," he says. "Even on the concert circuit you don't play to this big an audience, usually."

The Castro's organ is played during intermission before the last two shows of the night. The theater organ, an adaptation of the classical organ, was created to replace pit orchestras and accompany silent movies. When talkies came, organs were relegated to intermissions. Their heyday was in the '20s, and by the '50s their popularity was on the wane, with most organs removed from theaters by the '60s.

Then a strange thing happened. In the '70s, certain pizza parlor owners decided theater organs were the perfect accompaniment to family dining, and pipe organs began their comeback.

The Castro Theater's original organ was installed in 1922. But like most theaters, it joined the organ removal trend when old-time music went out of style. The Castro remained organless until the early '70s, when then-owner Mel Novakoff decided his traditional-style movie house needed a special touch. He rented an electronic organ and placed its speakers in the pipe chambers. This was the organ on which Hegarty began his 18-year (so far) gig at the Castro.

A few years later, around 1980, the Taylor family approached the Castro, seeking a home for their pipe organ. The Castro agreed to take it on, thus beginning a three-year remodeling adventure. The new organ was bigger than the original, so the pipe chambers had to be overhauled and a new room built to house the larger blowers. "The organ was restored to absolute pristine condition," Hegarty said.

The console of the new organ was built in 1925, and was installed at the State (now Palms) Theatre in Detroit. The pipework was gathered from various Wurlitzers around the country. Like the Castro's organ, Hegarty, too, is from Michigan. He began playing accordion at age 7, then organ at age 14. By the time he was 15 he was playing in churches. Hegarty has managed to turn his early interest into an astounding career. He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree, and did doctoral studies in classical organ. Now he teaches workshops around the country on his Intro to Organ Playing method book, composes and publishes church music, and plays at the Castro almost every night, as well as performing in local churches and concert halls nationwide.

According to Hegarty, Jesse Crawford is the man who invented the theater organ style. "We all emulate him," he said. "He played at the New York Paramount in the '20s." Hegarty's personal role model is radio and TV organist John Gart. "I emulate his style more than anyone else's," Hegarty said.

He got to know Gart in his old age, and inherited Gart's whole library of original organ music. When Hegarty plays at the Castro, he tries to match his intermission selections with the movie. "In the case of musicals, it's handed to you," he said.

Hegarty tries to find some musical connection--theme music, songs in the mood of the movie, music from the era when the movie is set. "After you've played these for years, you begin to remember songs that showed up even incidentally in movies," he said.

Hegarty has seen a lot of films, his favorite being Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, both for the picture and the soundtrack. Every performance ends with the Castro Theater's theme song, "San Francisco." "I don't know how many thousands of times I've played that song in the last 18 years," Hegarty says, smiling good-naturedly.

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From the January 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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