Tucked away in the quiet industrial surf town of El Segundo, California, stands a cozy theater that has been around since 1921. Within that theater sits a rare gem, something that most of us no longer associate with movies at all. It’s an organ — a massive one, a 1925 Mighty Wurlitzer, to be exact. And sitting before it, for much of the video above, is Bill Field, the player of this special instrument and owner of this special place.
HOW WE SHOT IT
For our latest film, we used a combination of the new Canon EOS 6D DSLR camera ($1,999) paired with the perfect trio of lenses. Highly versatile and equipped with the latest Canon DIGIC 5+ processor, 20.2 megapixel full-frame sensor and an expansive ISO range (100-25600, expandable to 102400) the EOS 6D DSLR camera proved to be a perfect low-light partner. The story was heartwarming, but required working in a difficult filming environment: an old theater with dark nooks and crannies, deep lighting contrasts and other low-light conditions. To maximize our shots and limited time, we relied on fast glass: the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM for well-framed shots, the EF 14mm f/2.8L IS USM for dramatic wide-angles and the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM for long, panning shots.
A. EF 35mm f/1.4L USM: The speed of the the EF 35mm f/1.4L USM is unparalleled. Paired with the wide ISO range of the EOS 6D DSLR camera, the rig yielded beautiful shots where others would have failed due to adverse conditions. The focus of a 35mm lens provides a perfect frame for just enough context while framing a shot.
B. EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM: An excellent wide-angle lens has a myriad of benefits as part of a shooter’s arsenal, but its greatest ability is providing huge context and information in tight quarters or when a shot from farther away simply isn’t possible. The 14mm frame here made for great dramatic footage.
C. EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM: Buttery smooth, the fixed-aperture 70-200mm lens is a telephoto dream come true. The latest version includes 2-mode image stabilization, which helped with stability while panning for longer shots.
The organ’s home is the Old Town Music Hall, a place that started out as a silent film theater, began showing “talkies” in the ’30s, closed in the mid-60s and was brought back to life by Field and his business partner Bill Coffman in 1968. They entirely refurbished the place (today, it’s a non-profit organization, supported by donations) and then bought its musical centerpiece from another theater in Long Beach.
But why would a movie theater need an organ? As Field puts it, “In the ’20s of course the films were silent, but in reality they were never silent, because there was always music of one sort or the other”. In-house music accompanied the films, providing live scores for an otherwise mute form of entertainment. Some theaters had full orchestras, others just a threadbare piano; the Mighty Wurlitzer, a huge contraption with over 2,600 pipes, four keyboards, 260 switches, a xylophone, marimba, piano, drums, cymbals and a daunting arsenal of controls and pedals, put an orchestra under the fingertips (and toes) of one man, saving theaters from the cost of hiring 20 or more musicians.
Of course, there’s more to Field’s theater than the organ, though it plays a central role. The Old Town Music Hall is one of the last of its kind, a cinema mixed with a concert venue mixed with a ballroom. As we watched Bill play during our visit — each show, talkie or silent, is begun by the archaic trio of an organ interlude, an audience sing-along and a comedy short — it was hard not to wonder at how technology drastically changes the way we go about entertaining ourselves. Of course, the Old Town Music Hall and its Wurlitzer are more than relics of a past age. They’re an ongoing performance of a nearly lost art form, and a reminder of an experience that’s not better or worse than a movie today, simply a different means to the same end: making people happy.