If you have ever wondered what it would be like to go to a movie in the 1920s, you do not need a time machine—just a ticket to Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo. And at ten dollars a ticket to see a film, it is a tad more economical than the time machine option.
Also, the theater has something the twenties did not: Bill Field, the owner, organist, and host.
When you step through the curtain off the lobby and into the theater, the first thing you will probably notice is the massive pipe organ that takes up almost the entire stage, all the way to the ceiling.
Old Town Music Hall bills itself as the home of the Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ, and the easiest way to describe it is that it is kind of like a one-man band. It’s 30 feet wide, 16 feet tall, with 1,600 pipes, 268 instruments, and 244 keys. Sitting at the console, Bill can play something like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or “God Bless America,” and you’ll see tambourines shaking and drums pounding, all controlled by him.
And there are sound effects, too! The Rudolph Wurlitzer Organ Co. built pipe organs in the early 1900s to accompany silent films, and tricked ‘em out with things like gongs, whistles, and thingamajigs that can make sound effects like rain. It was cool to hear a horn honking during a W.C. Fields short involving a wild ride through Downtown Los Angeles.
Aaahhh, yes…the short before the movie. You know how when you go to a movie these days, and there are so many commercials and previews that you’ve finished your ginormous buttered popcorn before the film and anything exciting actually starts? That is not the case here.
Arrive early (there is plenty of free street parking), and bring cash or a check for your tickets and snacks (they do not take credit cards). Grab a movie and concert schedule on the way in (the theater also hosts live concerts twice a month on Sundays), get some of the best salty popcorn EVER and a macaroon, and say hi to Bill in the lobby. At show time, Bill will take a seat at the organ and tell you something fun about the movie you are about to see.
The first film I (Lara) saw at Old Town Music Hall was 1923’s THE WHITE SISTER, a silent film starring the delicious Lillian Gish as the hottest nun in the history of nuns, and the dashing Ronald Colman and his mustache. Bill talked about how Ms. Gish stepped out from under D.W Griffith’s shadow to work with director Henry King on this film and how it was filmed in Italy, and then played some of the big hit songs from ’23, including “Mexicali Rose” and “Who’s Sorry Now?”
Then, it was time for the sing-along. I have a voice that should be heard by NO ONE, EVER, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, but that didn’t stop me from belting out “Shine On, Harvest Moon” (“I ain’t had no lovin’ since April, January, June, or Julyyyyyyyyy”), and I encourage you to do the same.
It was in the early 1960s when Bill first had the idea to recreate a 1920s movie-going experience. In fact, the seed was planted even earlier than that! As a child, Bill used to go to Downtown Los Angeles every day with his grandmother, who watched him while his mom and dad were at work. He would beg his grandma to take him to the Barker Brothers Home Furnishings Store, not so he could jump on the couches, but so he could hear the pipe organs that were played there.
Bill received a small organ for his eighth grade graduation present in 1954, and began attending concerts and studying the musicians while also taking lessons. He then bought a tiny movie projector that he saw in the toy department at Bullocks and started collecting films for it, with one of the first being a Hopalong Cassidy movie.
After high school, Bill Field met fellow organist Bill Coffman, who would be his business partner until Mr. Coffman’s death in 2001. The two spent $2,000 to rescue the Wurlitzer that’s currently in Old Town Music Hall from the Fox West Coast Theater in Long Beach, where it had been since about 1925. It took a year to repair the organ and then a year to set it up in a space they rented from Mr. Fields’s aunt that they decorated like a mini-theater.
They began presenting Sunday afternoon programs with the same Music/Sing-along/Short/Feature format that is what you can see at Old Town Music Hall today. A few years later, they needed more room, and saw an ad in the Daily Breeze that the historic State Theatre (build in 1921) in El Segundo was for rent.
Old Town Music Hall opened for business in 1968 with pipe organ concerts, and then tried adding in some classic movies. They found that silent films were not such a big hit with the kids at that time, but musicals were. The first movie they showed was ROSE-MARIE with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald (a picture of the two hangs in the lobby), and it opened to a line around the block.
You will want to visit Old Town Music Hall because:
- They show some of the best movies EVER, and it’s a great value for ten dollars. There’s also something about seeing a classic movie on the big screen that can never be duplicated at home. And these are movies that deserve our focus and attention. Without special effects to rely on for excitement, it’s all about the story and the dialogue. Plus, does it get any better than Rudolph Valentino in a close-up that’s many feet tall? If you have ever attended one of the theatre’s Valentino Film Festivals, you understand why crazed female fans once climbed the gates at Paramount Studios to get to him (the gates have since been fortified), and why even today women fight over him in the comments on YouTube.
- You will probably be introduced to a star or movie that you are not familiar with and might not normally DVR; that’s how yours truly found out about the aforementioned Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who were a huge onscreen superstar duo that made lots of musicals in the thirties and forties, and possibly had a hot off-screen romance.
- You will find a wonderful sense of community at the Old Town Music Hall. It’s just FUN to laugh and gasp at a great movie with other people, and then discuss it in the lobby afterwards. After I sobbed my way through 1940’s BITTER SWEET, I entered the lobby looking like Alice Cooper with mascara everywhere and screamed at Bill, “Why didn’t you TELL me?” To which he chuckled and pointed to another lady with a tear-stained face who was walking quickly to the restroom and said, “Hey, she’s crying, too!”
There were no tears, however, as Bill and I sat in the darkened theater one muggy afternoon in August for our interview, and he was all smiles as I asked him about his hopes and dreams for the future of Old Town Music Hall, which has been providing great family entertainment for close to fifty years now: “Just that we would be here, and that we would continue.”
Old Town Music Hall
140 Richmond Street
El Segundo, CA 90245
For a complete schedule and showtimes: www.OldTownMusicHall.org.