A Mighty Wurlitzer Player

Michael Guillen August 1, 2007

I have lost count of just how many times I’ve heard the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Castro Theatre introduce a film with a rendition of “San Francisco,” rousing audiences to clap along; but this has become such an inherent aspect of my San Franciscan moviegoing experience that it’s impossible for me to imagine elsewise. It certainly is an experience I have taken for granted for many years and only recently — as I have begun to explore the intricacies of film culture in the Bay Area — have I become motivated to appreciate it more fully.

I’m grateful to Tod Booth for steering me towards Edward Millington Stout, III, and encouraging me to speak with, undoubtedly, the world’s foremost theatrical organ restorationist. Stout invited me to visit his home and studio in Hayward, California, where we talked about several of San Francisco’s great movie palaces of yesteryear and the organs he has come to intimately know, as if they were personalities. Among our discussion were a few select comments on the Castro Theatre and its Mighty Wurlitzer that seem particularly relevant as the Theatre turns 85 this month.

SF360: Tell me about the Mighty Wurlitzer at the Castro Theatre.

Edward Millington Stout, III: My partner Dick Taylor — who I can’t praise highly enough — he and his brother are the actual owners of the Castro organ.

SF360: So the Castro Theatre rents the Wurlitzer from them? How does that work?

Stout: Yes. They lease it from them. I was the consultant and I did all of the tonal finishing on the organ when it went in.

SF360: Well answer me this, are there a lot of different varieties of theatrical pipe organs? The ones most people usually think of are the Wurlitzers.

Stout: Sure. They became the Kleenex. They became the generic name. A theater might have some other brand but the general public referred to it as the Wurlitzer — “Let’s go down and hear the Wurlitzer” — because Wurlitzer, they developed the instrument to begin with. The name Wurlitzer, the House of Wurlitzer, was the greatest merchandising firm of musical instruments in the history of the world. The Wurlitzer Company manufactured and marketed every musical instrument known, including orchestral harps. They were sought after. Their pianos were of medium grade — they weren’t great pianos — but their pipe organs were absolutely the very best and they were brilliant at marketing and promoting. ‘Gee, Dad, it’s a Mighty Wurlitzer!’ and all of that business. They knew the value of marketing and knew how to do it.

But there’s another side to it. Like certain automobiles are more comfortable to drive, the Wurlitzer organ consoles themselves were very comfortable to play. Everything was located, the design was symmetrical, the balance and the elegance of the console, and everything in their consoles was of the very highest quality so that the leading organists who had a greater level of sensitivity