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The movies’ one-man symphony


Courtesy of David Hegarty

The curtain falls. The house lights turn on. From the Stanford Theatre’s front stage emerges the Mighty Wurlitzer organ, its sonorous tunes rising until music captures the entire room. The music is at once dreamy and immensely powerful, so powerful it sounds as if an entire orchestra were on stage. But it is only one man, with his swift gestures and dancing fingers, creating this symphony. The star of the show is David Hegarty, prolific composer and master organist.

Hegarty has worked at the Stanford Theatre on University Avenue for the past 12 years of his career as a theater organist, playing on Saturday and Monday nights before and after the 7:30 show. He is one of three organists at the Stanford Theatre. For the past 32 years, he has also played at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre – these days, he serves as senior staff organist there, performing nightly. He plays more than 400 intermission concerts and around 30 full-length concerts per year.

One hour before the regular Saturday night movie, Hegarty met me under the red flashing lights of the Stanford Theatre’s marquee. Seated upstairs on the theater’s couches, he appeared right at home. Dressed in an elegant brown suit, with his full white hair and handsome demeanor, Hegarty looked ready to perform.

Hegarty is one of few organists who specialize in theater music, and he attributes the reason for his profession to Alfred Hitchcock. At the beginning of his career as an organist, he concentrated on church organ performances and religious music, like most other organ players. Then, one night while waiting to perform between shows at the Stanford Theatre, he felt deeply inspired by Miklos Rozsa’s music for Hitchcock’s 1945 mystery thriller, “Spellbound,” and vowed to shift his specialty.

“The older I got and the more I played for theaters, the more I realized that that’s where my love was, the theater,” Hegarty said.

The Stanford Theatre is the perfect environment for Hegarty to explore his passion for musical scores from celebrated classics. The theater recreates a Hollywood picture palace, only screening films from the 1920s to the 1960s. It first opened in 1925 and is currently operated by the Stanford Theatre Foundation, run by David Woodley Packard.

“I love this theater because Packard’s taste in movies is the same as mine,” Hegarty said. “It’s a real gift to this community to have a theater that specializes in classic movies. The idea is to go back in time.”

The theater attracts Stanford students, cinema lovers and older generations hoping to recapture the past.

“My favorite part of this experience is the organ playing,” said Carol Tan ’13, a member of the Stanford Film Society. “It’s so unexpected, and so very powerful,”

Hegarty said he hopes to enhance the experience of the screenings by carefully choosing songs that relate to the films. On Saturday night, for Hitchcock’s 1946 film “Notorious,” he played the “Notorious” theme and a snippet from “Funeral March of a Marionette,” the theme song for the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

“I’m particularly interested in Hitchcock, so I’ve written out the themes to most of his films to try to set up his films appropriately,” Hegarty said.

Carving a Niche

The theater organ is unique because it can precisely imitate the sounds of other musical instruments, including drums, cymbals, chimes and wood harps. During the silent film era (pre-1930), the theater organist played throughout the film, providing the musical score. But when “talkies” came along, organists shifted to performing during intermission, which is now Hegarty’s specialty. Currently, many theater organists choose to specialize in the silent era.

“But I start where they leave off – preferring music from symphonic film scores by the great studio composers of Hollywood’s golden age,” Hegarty said.

Since the scores for most films are not published, Hegarty has to learn pieces by ear. He watches movies, absorbs the music and he keeps a thick notebook of themes he’s sketched for numerous films. He replays or transforms the music, often creating elaborate organ suites to capture mood of the film. Hegarty arranges movie themes for concert performances and actively researches film music.

“I have carved out a unique niche for myself as a concert organist who plays music from the movies,” he said.

Hegarty was originally inspired by his father’s passion for music. His father was a talented musician who played the trombone in dance bands, played the guitar and sang. His father bought him an accordion at age 7, which Hegarty quickly mastered. At age 14, Hegarty decided to start playing on a home organ, and he fell in love with it. He majored in organ performance in college and later received a master of music degree.

Near the completion of his doctoral degree at the University of Cincinnati, an editor from Lorenz Publishing who was impressed with Hegarty’s organ compositions offered him a job as a full-time editor and composer. Hegarty took the job and served as the editor of The Sacred Organ Journal before later publishing with Broadman Press, Sheet Music Magazine and Hegarty Music Press, among others.

Learning from Hegarty

Students come from as far as Reno to study with Hegarty, the only active theater organ teacher in northern California.

“It’s a craft that is not taught in colleges,” Hegarty said. “The skills and traditions have been passed along from organist to organist through the years.”

One of those students, former engineering professor Harry Garland Ph.D. ’72, now plays as one of Hegarty’s assistants at the Castro Theatre. Garland describes Hegarty as a brilliant, kind and supportive teacher.

“I’ll never forget my first lesson,” Garland said.

Garland had prepared film music for a classical organ, but not for the theater organ, before he took lessons from Hegarty.

Hegarty patiently showed him, step by step, how to make the piece suitable for a theater organ and how to transform the work “into something truly beautiful,” Garland added.

Hegarty demonstrates his passion for music and devotion to the craft through his performances. Garland sees Hegarty’s energy night after night, in hundreds of performances each year.

“He has an enormous repertoire of film music at his fingertips, and always plays in a way that enhances the theater experience,” Garland said. “He has fun playing the instrument, and the audience is able to share in that joy.”