Castro Theatre regulars know to come early.

They know to sink deep into the plush red seats and to to savor the intricate details around them: golden woodwork, the art deco chandelier, a pair of unexpected murals on the theater’s side walls.

But mostly, they know to listen. Because 15 minutes before each movie showing, the organ music begins.

Rising from the orchestra pit on a lift, organist David Hegarty plays a dramatic tune on the theater’s creamy yellow Wurlitzer. He started playing at the Castro 36 years ago — before the current organ was even installed in the space.

Hegarty practices the Castro's signature song, "San Francisco." (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)
Hegarty practices the Castro’s signature song, “San Francisco.” (Olivia Allen-Price/KQED)

And he’ll be around after it’s gone, too. The Wurlitzer that has entertained audiences for 30 years is up for sale.

The Castro Theatre doesn’t actually own the organ, and the man who does has decided to move from the Bay Area and sell the instrument.

“It’s been considered one of the finest organs in the country,” says Hegarty. “It’s been a great pleasure for me to play it all these years.”

Hegarty is the president of the Castro Organ Devotees Association (SFCODA), a nonprofit working to bring a new organ to the Castro. For a time, they considered purchasing the current Wurlitzer.

“Unfortunately, this organ, having been played constantly for over 30 years, is wearing out. It needs a total rebuild, which is very expensive,” he says. “Recently we’ve received a donation of a very fine pipe organ that doesn’t need all of this refurbishing.”

Though some parts of the organ have been donated, SFCODA still needs about $700,000 to complete the organ and install it in the theater. They are working to raise money through private and corporate donations, grants and public funding. An Indiegogo campaign ends on Sept. 25.

The new symphonic organ will have seven keyboards, 800 stop tabs and 400 ranks — for those of you not versed in organ lingo, that’s really, really big. It’s so big that if the organ were made only of pipes, it would nearly fill the 1,400-seat theater. But because it will incorporate digital technology, the new organ will fit into the same space as the current Wurlitzer.

After it’s finished, Hegarty says, the Castro’s new organ will be the third largest in the world — behind only the Macy’s Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia and the Boardwalk Hall Organ in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“If you took the sound you hear in the Castro at the present and envision a symphony orchestra sitting up there with the organ, that’s the sound you’re going to hear from the new organ,” says instrument designer Allen Harrah. He’s been a pioneer in melding digital systems with all-pipe organs, and is designing the new organ for the Castro.

Built around a theater organ core, the new instrument will have the capability of sounding just like the current Wurlitzer, Harrah says. Additional classical pipework will give it a wider range, and an advanced digital system will make the virtual sounds of many other instruments accessible.

“These virtual sounds are extremely highly developed recordings of the actual instruments that are stored in massive amounts of memory,” says Harrah. “It’s very, very difficult to tell that they’re not the real thing.”

Listen to David Hegarty playing music from “2001: Space Odyssey” on an organ similar to the one planned for the Castro. An organ is the only instrument being played here, though it sounds as if a whole orchestra may be at work:

If all goes well, SFCODA hopes to have the new organ in the theater by spring 2015. If the current Wurlitzer sells before the new organ is ready, Hegarty plans to bring an organ from his house to use temporarily. So fear not, Castro patrons, the music will not stop.

Author

Olivia Allen-Price

Olivia Allen-Price is an interactive and engagement producer at KQED News. She has previously worked at The Baltimore Sun and The Virginian-Pilot. Talk to her about running, curly hair and playing the ukulele. Reach her @oallenprice or by email at ohubertallen@kqed.org.

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