High-tech pipe organ to blow minds at famed SF theater

The city's Castro Theatre, known as much for its colorful organ concerts as its quirky film offerings, will house a massive $700,000 pipe-digital hybrid featuring a sample library used in the film industry.

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David Hegarty has been the Castro Theatre's principal organist since 1978, and says he can hardly wait to work the levers and switches on the high-tech organ in its new home. SFCoda

Bad news for San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre, site of many a film festival and celebrity-studded special event: the iconic pipe organ that's entertained audiences there since the early '80s is packing up and leaving town.

Great news for the famed theater: "The Mighty Wurlitzer" is getting replaced by a crazy high-tech pipe-digital hybrid that can reproduce the sounds of the familiar organ, plus those of a full symphony orchestra -- in virtually any musical genre, and in ear-ringing surround sound.

"An all-pipe organ of this magnitude would cost many millions of dollars and would be physically impossible to install in this theater," explains SFCoda, a nonprofit made up of music devotees dedicated to bringing the fancy new organ to life. "Fortunately, cutting-edge digital sampling technology now allows us to greatly enlarge the resources of the instrument and dynamically distribute the sound throughout the auditorium, providing a thrilling surround-sound musical experience in an acoustically reverberatory environment appropriate to whatever style of music is being played."

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An artist's rendering of the new, high-tech organ. (Click to enlarge.) SFCoda

The Castro Theatre, a San Francisco designated landmark, was built in 1922 by theater entrepreneurs who started with a nickelodeon in the neighborhood in 1908.

The single-screen movie house on the city's famed Castro Street has offered organ music since 1922. Just before films and programs start, musicians famously play rousing compositions before dramatically sinking back to the organ pit below stage level on a mobile lift.

The Wurlitzer that's greeted audiences at the theater for the past 30 years is privately owned, and the owner has left the Bay Area, along with the organ console and three-quarters of the pipework. Purchasing and refurbishing available components for the instrument, according to SFCoda, would make far less financial sense than investing in the newfangled $700,000 creation, which is being funded with help from private donations, the Castro Theatre, a grant from the Schapiro Fund in New York City, and a $40,000 Indiegogo campaign now under way.

The new organ, a fully restored Wurlitzer/Kimball theater pipe organ, will feature seven keyboards and more than 800 stops, the part of the instrument that admits pressurized air to the organ pipes. On the digital side, the gigabyte-heavy instrument will rely on an orchestral sample library used in the film-scoring industry. It's expected to be one of the largest pipe/digital organs in the world.

"In short, any musical (or synthesized) sound can emerge from this instrument, sounding totally realistic and under multiple layers of control," SFCoda says.

The Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ, as it's been dubbed, is already under construction in Johnson City, Tenn., under the watchful eye of Allen Harrah, the recognized pioneer of hybrid organ technology who hopes to build his magnum opus in the City by the Bay. But as technologically advanced as the organ will be, it will befit the theater's 1920s art deco styling. The console will still look like a theater organ -- ivory in color like the Castro Theater's time-honored Wurlitzer, with curved stop bolsters and vividly colored tabs.

And, as dramatically expanded as the organ's tonal palette promises to be, it will also be capable of sounding like its musical predecessor.

"The new organ will sound exactly like the Wurlitzer when we want it to, but it will go far beyond the current sonic capabilities, encompassing a large classical organ, and enabling us to create the sound of the symphony orchestra as well," David Hegarty, the Castro Theatre's principal organist since 1978, tells Crave. "This will allow the Castro Theatre to function as major concert venue."

For a sense of what's to come, listen to this KQED clip of Hegarty playing music from "2001: Space Odyssey" on a West Virginia organ similar to the one planned for the Castro Theatre. It's hard to believe that's just one instrument at work.

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About the author

Leslie Katz, Crave's senior editor, heads up a team that covers the most crushworthy (and wackiest) tech, science, and culture around. As a co-host of the now-retired CNET News Daily Podcast, she was sometimes known to channel Terry Gross and still uses her trained "podcast voice" to bully the speech recognition software on automated customer service lines. E-mail Leslie.

 

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