My very last story for my student publication at San Francisco State University. Farewell, 3rd floor Humanities! It’s been a good run.
If you’re in the city, pick up the print version, or check out the digital edition at http://www.sopdigitaledition.com/xpressmag/. There are pictures and stuff.
It is lit like a desk: a reading light skims the top of the console. Daily, David Hegarty punches in and sits down to work, staring fixedly at the documents in front of him, just a cog in a big, big machine. He has been doing this job for the last thirty-one years. And he would not have it any other way.
Patrons of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco have come to expect one thing with their classic movies – a musical introduction by David Hegarty. He comes and goes quietly before almost every evening show. A few minutes before the movie begins, he emerges from behind a black curtain and takes his seat at The Mighty Wurlitzer, the theatre’s in-house organ. He strikes a chord, and suddenly the entire building seems to turn on.
The Castro is closed today, so he is sitting in front of the organ in complete darkness. The only light is the one above the organ console, and the faint shadows of cars on Castro Street creeping through the open door at the back of the theatre. “I don’t have the key to turn the lights on in the house,” he says.
He is a small man – not tiny, but in comparison to the Wurlitzer, anyone can seem diminutive. He is quiet and humble. Everything he says is just barely above a whisper, almost as if he is afraid to disturb the sanctity of a silent, dark theatre.
“I find the organ works best with Broadway; show tunes,” he says, flipping a few switches and drifting into a song. The organ in front of him has four steep tiers of keys, surrounded by a circular panel filled with a dizzying array of buttons and toggle switches. After receiving a degree in Organ Performance and a Master’s in music, he knows his way around a theatre organ. Even when he is surrounded by pitch black that morning, he is snapping switches and pressing buttons like a NASA engineer.
The sound The Mighty Wurlitzer makes has a dreamy, ghostly quality to it, only made dreamier and ghostlier by the dark. The keyboards he plays are connected to a towering collection of pipes on either side of the theater by huge tubes that run under the stage. Hegarty is still captivated by the noise it produces after thirty-one years. Sometimes he will begin a song to demonstrate the settings on the machine, and disappear for minutes at a time.
There was a time when theatre organs were everywhere – before sound was introduced in the twenties, movie houses were built around them. Now, the Bay Area is the last organ outpost before hitting the Pacific. The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto and both
The Paramount and The Grand Lake in Oakland still have working theatre organs that get regular use. Hegarty has played them all.
Known primarily as the man behind the music at the Castro Theatre, Hegarty has been the head organist since 1978. From his work at the Castro, he has emerged as the go-to guy for the theatre organ in San Francisco. His only job is to play and teach the organ. “I mostly play in churches, and theatres like this one,” he says. “Sometimes I’m hired out for parties and whatnot.”
Hegarty migrated from the Midwest thirty years ago. He was working full-time as a composer in his native Michigan when he decided to leave for California. “I came out here in 1976. It was a nice excuse to get away from those Michigan winters,” he says, allowing himself to crack a smile. “Also, this is just such a colorful place to live.”
He also considers himself a ‘film music historian,’ something that propelled him into the theatre organ world. “I greatly admire the film composers of the early twentieth century,” he says. In Hollywood’s infancy, composers from Eastern Europe began fleeing to the United States to escape Nazi terror. “Many of them settled in Hollywood, and began contributing scores to films.”
Every night, Hegarty deals directly with the ghosts of these composers. It is his job to decide the pre-show playlist. “If it’s a movie that has famous music, there are certain songs I need to play,” he says. “I will rent the movie, listen to the music, and write it out.” Sometimes it’s not so clear. “Often times there are movies that have very little music, or music that isn’t recognizable to people,” he says. “I try to find a link between the movie and the music. If I can’t, there are always great standards that I know people enjoy – Cole Porter and such.”
As soon as he got to San Francisco, he began looking up “influential people” in the Bay Area organ community. Now, some say, he is one of them. He is the only organ instructor in Northern California. He currently teaches seven students, one of which comes all the way from Reno to work with him. “There are no real academic programs for the organ, you just listen to organists that you admire,” he says. “You never really stop learning. It’s a genre of its own – you learn it over time.”
Hegarty is a very lucky man. He has found a way to spend his entire adult life getting paid to do something he loves. Hegarty is a fixture at The Castro–he has been there so long that some people take him for granted. “They come to expect me. Sometimes I get a crowd that isn’t as appreciative, but when I get a good, lively audience, it’s really quite a thrill.”