Off-Ramp

There's a 2,600-pipe organ hiding in El Segundo -- Bill Field and the Mighty Wurlitzer at Old Town Music Hall

Robert Garrova/KPCC

Bill Field at the helm of the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Robert Garrova/KPCC

Bill Field and John Reed-Torres admiring the Wurlitzer.

Photo by DonHoltz.com

The "Mighty" Wurlitzer at the Old Town Music Hall

Photo by DonHoltz.com

The entrance at the Old Town Music Hall, complete with Laurel & Hardy figurines.

Photo by DonHoltz.com

The 188-seat theater at Old Town Music Hall.

Photo by DonHoltz.com

Built in 1921, the Old Town Music Hall's theater has 188 seats and huge chandeliers.

Robert Garrova/KPCC

John Reed-Torres playing the Old Town Music Hall's 92-note Bösendorfer piano.

Robert Garrova/KPCC

The insides of the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Robert Garrova/KPCC

Some of the Wurlitzer's 2,600 pipes. They range in size -- from a pencil to 16 feet.


For more than forty years now, the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo has brought theatergoers silent movies, ragtime concerts and grand organ performances. The place is a living museum. Decorated to match the silent movie theaters of the 20s, the theater has huge chandeliers, ornate molding, and thick golden curtains that slowly pull back to reveal a massive 2,600-pipe Wurlitzer organ. 

The theater puts on concerts constantly, and all of their silent movies are accompanied by organ music. But even if you're just going to watch Casablanca,  you still get to hear the pipe organ before the show. 

The Hall's history goes back to 1968 with the "Two Bills" -- Bill Field and the late Bill Coffman -- musicians who shared an interest in classic American music and pipe organs in particular.  

Field is 73 now. He gets around in an electric wheelchair, but he still attends every show. Before each movie, he plays a song. Field's fascination with pipe organs started at an early age, when his grandmother would take him downtown to Barker Brothers to hear the organ they had in the lobby there. 

"I thought it was quite grand. I became very enchanted with the sound and always wanted to have an organ like that," Field says. 

As Field got older, his interest in music and the organ grew. He'd made friends with Bill Coffman, a fellow organ enthusiast. The two decided to go for the holy grail of pipe organs: the Mighty Wurlitzer

"The Fox West Coast Theater chain was disposing of all the instruments they had at that time. The West Coast Theater in Long Beach had the largest and the most intact," Field says. So, Field and Coffman had their Wurlitzer, but now they needed to set it up. Luckily, they knew the right people to help -- two older gentlemen who worked for Wurlitzer, the company. 

"They built theater organs and they basically taught us everything we know about building, restoring," Field says. 

Field and Coffman took their newly bought Wurlitzer and set it up at a relative's studio so they would have a place to play it. But the wurlitzer needed a real home -- a place where they could play for the public to enjoy. 

After some searching, Field and Coffman found their theater -- an old silent movie house built in 1921 that had since been used for everything from storage to community meetings. 

"We saw an add in the Daily Breeze newspaper 'theater for rent.' We were looking for larger quarters to put the organ in anyways so we rented it, dismantled the organ, brought it up and put it here," Field says. 

The Old Town Music Hall's Mighty Wurlitzer is like the fun uncle of the music world. Instead of keeping the mechanics of the organ enclosed like some theaters do, Field uses glow-in-the-dark paint and black lights to show off its insides. The Wurlitzer doesn't just play music. Mallets on stage dance, hitting chimes and drums of all sizes. Literally, it's got all the bells and whistles. It does everything from thunder sounds, to gongs, to rain -- all controlled from the seat of the organist. 

Fields's also an educator at the hall, inspiring generations of kids with the Wurlitzer, classic movies and Ragtime music. 

John Reed-Torres heard about the theater from a friend a couple of years ago and has been volunteering ever since. Torres is 22, but he knows his way around the theater as if it was his own. He says working at the theater has taught him a lot about how a theater operates, but he performs at the music hall too. A piano player, Torres even formed a concert group called the "Young Ragtime Masters" in which all of the performers are under 25. 

"It's opened a lot of windows of opportunity for me too for performing around the country. Like, next month, for example I'm playing in St. Louis because they heard me play and invited me to play there," Torres says. 

James Moll found inspiration in Field's Music Hall too. He's an Academy Award-winning filmmaker who's worked with Steven Spielberg. He remembers coming to the Old Town Music Hall when he was a kid.  

"My parents first brought me here when I was about twelve years old and Bill Coffman and Bill Field, the founders, used to bring me up on stage to play Ragtime piano. And I never left," Moll says. 

According to Moll, many Angelenos may not even realize the Old Town Music Hall exists -- Moll doesn't want it to be an insider's secret anymore. 

"People who've lived in Los Angeles their whole lives don't know about Old Town Music Hall," he says. "And that's hard to believe because this place is a gem. I grew up coming to films here, and even as a kid thought, it's these old black and white movies, what is this? But then I grew up to be a filmmaker. And I credit that in large part to growing up, essentially, here in a movie theater and seeing those films. I hope more young people start to embrace this."

Sitting at the helm of the Wurlitzer, Field makes a whole stage full of bells, cymbals and whistles dance with color, while the pipes of the organ hit you in the chest with sound. The Wurlitzer is no doubt a feat of mechanics. But, when Field plays it, it doesn't look mechanical at all. 

The Old Town Music Hall is located at 140 Richmond St. in El Segundo. Visit their website for a schedule of upcoming concerts and movies.

 


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