Castro Organists: Playing on the Job
By Fontaine Roberson

As you snuggle into your seat at the Castro Theatre, popcorn in hand, the strains of San Francisco on the organ make you feel as though you're at a grand event, not just a Friday night movie. You can gaze up at the ornate theatre ceiling and let the organ's music transport you to a bygone era. There's a palpable excitement in the air as the last chord rings out and the audience breaks into applause.

With their backs turned to their audience, the organists who play night after night may not be familiar faces, but they are certainly popular figures at the theatre. David Hegarty, the principal organist, and Bill McCoy, who fills in for him regularly, are both highly trained performers and composers who have been lending an air of pomp to the theatre-going experience at the Castro for 20 years.

Hegarty holds a Master's degree in organ performance and has taught and performed across the U.S. He composes piano, organ and choral music and founded his own press for publishing church music and educational materials. He plays for events and parties all around the Bay Area.

McCoy worked as a musical director at his local Lincoln, Nebraska station, playing for live television shows at the beginning of his career. After coming to the Bay Area in 1964, he played the organ for Golden State Warriors, Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants games, until the live music was replaced by electronic or recorded tunes.

The theatre organ was originally designed as a replacement for live orchestras, so the sound is imitative of orchestral instruments, and tends to be very rhythmic. "With pipes on both sides of the theatre, it's the original stereo experience, too," says Hegarty.

Theatre organs were popular in the silent film era, but fell out of favor with theatre-goers once "talkies" came around. It was 30 or so years ago that theatre organs began their comeback from obscurity. According to Hegarty and McCoy, pizza parlors gave many of the old theatre organs a new lease on life. Both Hegarty and McCoy got their Bay Area theatre organ start in local pizza parlors before coming to the Castro Theatre at about the same time in the late '70s.

The Castro was not the only theatre in the City that featured live organ music during that period. During the '70s, the old Avenue Theatre on San Bruno Avenue showed silent films on Friday nights, with organ accompaniment.

According to Hegarty, playing at the Castro Theatre is "a job that doesn't feel like a job." But it does require some quick thinking and dexterity, as Hegarty found out one night while dealing with a disgruntled audience member. The woman climbed up on the four-foot high platform, crawled onto the bench with Hegarty and began yelling. Startled, Hegarty pushed the button for the hydraulic lift to lower the platform to the floor. Once down, he nudged the unhappy listener off the bench and pushed the button again to start back up, all without missing a beat. Hegarty remembers, "I was playing Gershwin on the way down, but after getting her off the bench and rising back up on the platform, I had somehow segued into Oklahoma. I have no idea how I did it."

Webmaster's note: Bill McCoy died August 4, 2002 following a heart attack. He was 68.