The 2,600-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer organ at Old Town Music Hall makes for a theatrical experience like no other
By Christina Campodonico
Going to the movies nowadays can be a luxurious experience, complete with reserved seating, dinner service and cushy leather seats, but few places can boast of screening films with live musical accompaniment on a giant, glow-in-the-dark pipe organ.
The Old Town Music Hall in downtown El Segundo — where a 2,600-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer organ coated in neon paint has brought silent films to life every weekend for the past 47 years — is one of those places that can feel a bit off the beaten path, even if it’s in your own backyard.
Stepping inside feels like entering a time warp. Two ornate chandeliers dangle
from the ceiling of the 188-seat theater. Portraits of whimsical women rendered in the Art Nouveau style swirl on the walls like nymphs caught in whirlpools. The organ’s console, or keyboard, stands illuminated center-stage. A halo seems to hover above it.
A red theatrical curtain covers most of the Mighty Wurlitzer’s mechanical massiveness, but when Old Town Music Hall’s surviving founder and organist Bill Field starts to play, the lights dim, the curtain’s drawn back and a neon lightshow stirs into motion. Glowing orbs the size of tennis balls bounce on top of a xylophone and against a pitch black backdrop. Tiny mallets strike into the darkness, making bells ring. Rainbow-rimmed shutters, hung like vertical blinds, fan open and closed while bellowing horns sound.
Listening to Field play Christmas classics like “Silver Bells,” “Silent Night,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the Mighty Wurlitzer is a truly magical experience, unmatched even by modern cinematic tricks and special effects.
While the organ itself makes a big impression, Field and his volunteers suspect that many locals have yet to realize what’s going on inside the music hall’s brick façade.
“People could live four blocks away and they don’t know about it,” says usher and volunteer Roger Chaussée.
Well, now you know.
The local non-profit theater screens vintage silent and sound films on weekends and hosts jazz, ragtime and organ concerts throughout the year.
The theatre gets especially decked out for the holiday season.
This weekend the Old Town Music Hall hosts a selection of Christmas comedies, a carol sing-a-long and screens “Scrooge,” a rarely seen 1922 silent version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
To ring in the New Year, the theater throws an annual New Year’s Eve Celebration party and screens a feature film, the title of which is kept secret until the night of the event.
The Old Town Music Hall wears mystery well, as does its champion Bill Field, 76, who’s the kind of guy who doesn’t mind flying just under the radar, too. In fact, he feels like the silent films are enhanced when his hand in the story is almost unseen, his influence over the music nearly unheard.
Field improvises almost everything he plays, making up music for everything from comedic shorts to dramatic features as the movie rolls along. He doesn’t memorize or practice a thing — just watches the screen to make sure the music he plays fits the movie’s mood and that sound cues are hit at the opportune moment.
Field recalls one time playing the music for a silent version of “Ben-Hur.” In one scene a beautiful woman rests on a chaise lounge, while servants fan her with palm fronds and a couple of women play harps. Field put the harp sound on the Mighty Wurlitzer and played it in time with the women strumming the harp strings. At the end of the movie a friend of Field’s came to tell him what happened in the audience.
“There was a friend of mine sitting in the back there, listening, and he heard an old gentleman tell his wife, ‘My, she plays well,’” recalls Field with a laugh. “A lot of times I hear the comment, ‘Oh, you were playing the organ? I forgot the organ was up there!”
When things are done well, the music and the movie become one as though the organ’s not even present.
That’s why Field takes going unnoticed as a compliment.
“When I’m playing the organ, the audience is so captured into it that the music and picture melt together,” he says. “You could drop a pin in there.
It’s so quiet.”
Except for the music, of course.
In many ways, the Old Town Music Hall was made for the music.
When Bill Field and his late friend and fellow organ enthusiast Bill Coffman, known as the “Two Bills,” first purchased the 1925 Wurlitzer pipe organ from the Fox West Coast Theatre in Long Beach, they stored it in a small studio in Los Angeles. But soon they realized they would need a bigger space to accommodate their new acquisition.
They found a 1921 building on Richmond Street in El Segundo that used to be a silent movie theatre and restored it to its former glory, founding the Old Town Music Hall in 1968.The Mighty Wurlitzer has resided there ever since.
“So we moved it here and set it up in the theater and then said, ‘Well, as long as the organ’s here and we have to pay rent, I guess we’re going to have to do something to help pay the rent,” recalls Field.
So came the idea to hold organ concerts and film screenings on the weekends.
While the Old Town Music Hall’s origins were primarily pragmatic, Field’s devotion to the theater has been a decades-long labor of love. Field worked banker’s hours at an ice rink on weekdays and then played at the theater on the weekends to keep the passion project afloat. His partner also played at cocktail lounges and clubs before retiring. The Old Town Music Hall became a non-profit in 1990 and is supported by donations, ticket prices and volunteers like James Moll, who continue to be entranced by the Mighty Wurlitzer’s magic.
Moll, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who has been working with the theater on and off since he was in high school, remembers first coming to Old Town Music Hall in the 1970s and being struck by the organ’s powerful sound.
“I remember being a 12-year-old kid sitting in the theater, prepared not to have a good time, probably thinking I would be bored, and I remember the lights going down and the curtain opening and the sense of awe of hearing the pipe organ for the first time,” recalls Moll.
“I’ll never forget that moment.”
For Moll, Field’s caretaking of the theater over the years is as much an art as his masterful ability to improvise on the organ.
“Bill is a visionary in many ways by creating this theater,” says Moll. “The way I see it, his theater is his art.”
The Old Town Music Hall’s Christmas celebration happens at 8:15 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8:15 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 18, 19 and 20) at 140 Richmond St., El Segundo. Tickets are $10.
The theater’s New Year’s Eve celebration is from 8:30 p.m. to midnight on Dec. 31. Tickets are $20; reservations required. Call (310) 322-2592 or visit oldtownmusichall.org.