Cinemafreaque

Dick Loderhose's immense organ keeps an era alive

It's not even 10 o'clock on a Friday morning, but the answering machine in the cramped office of the Bay Theater in Seal Beach is already reciting this weekend's schedule —over and over again for at least an hour and a half now. To have a conversation with Dick Loderhose, you've got to compete with the machine's incessant mumble, and that can be a little distracting for those who aren't used to it. Maybe for those who are, too.

"Who phones a movie house the first thing out of bed?" Loderhose finally blurts out, shaking his head. He sounds a little exasperated. But it's only his roots showing: his deep theatrical voice, his Long Island intonation and the way he refers to the little Bay Theater as a "movie house." Loderhose talks like a guy who gargles straight shots of Ol' Show Biz. It's more than accents and semantics, though. As the only single-screen theater in Orange County, the Bay is a house—especially compared to the massive condominiums that comprise the multiplexes.

Yet it's definitely accents and semantics, too. And resemblance. Loderhose reminds you more than a little of Ed McMahon. In a good way. In a real way. In a way that seems cliché and passe until you realize it won't be around forever—that is, in a precious way. "I'm one of the youngest of the old guys still left," he says, laughing. At 76 years old, Loderhose looks good and sturdy, "especially considering that six-way heart bypass I had a few years ago," he says.

The same is true of the Bay Theater, a remnant of the Fox West Coast chain, which has been sitting near the corner of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway since 1946. "It was one of the last they ever built," says Loderhose, who bought it in 1976 with loose change from selling the five-factory, 750-employee adhesives business he built after he came home from World War II. Loderhose had considered a career in show business. He'd played keyboards since he was six—the family piano, the church organ and finally the mighty Wurltizer pipe organ at the Paramount Theater off Times Square, where he performed under the name Dick Scott.

But he wanted more than music could give him. "I wanted to drive a Lincoln," Loderhose says, "instead of a tractor."

He was in his early 50s when he bought the Bay Theater. It was his retirement present to himself. "That," he says, "and I had to have a place to put the organ."

Loderhose removed nearly half of the Bay's 800 seats and installed one of the largest musical instruments in the world: the sprawling, 50,000-pound Wurlitzer Opus 1960 pipe organ, with a keyboard console that resembles a small stadium and 46 ranks (sets of pipes) that look like a medium-sized forest. Built in 1928, the organ was originally installed in the recording and broadcasting studio on the eighth floor of the Paramount Theater, where it was played on million-selling recordings by the legendary Jesse Crawford.

"Jesse was the guru of the organ," says Loderhose, "but this instrument has been played by every great organist who was in New York during the glory days." Loderhose bought the organ in 1955 and kept it at his Long Island home for some 20 years until packing it to Seal Beach in six trucks. "Now, this little theater has the largest playing pipe organ in the world in a theater that is showing movies full-time," says Loderhose. "The organ at Radio City Music Hall in New York City is a little bigger—only a few ranks bigger—but they don't show movies full-time. This organ is bigger than the ones in the Detroit Fox, the San Francisco Fox—all the Fox theaters. It's amazing."

It is amazing. The size and capability of the pipe organ is a reminder that incomprehensible musical technology is not just a product of our digitalized time. With precisely measured blasts of air through perfectly formed pipes, the Wurlitzer can achieve a mind-blowing assortment of sounds, from melody to special effects. It became the perfect accompaniment to movies of the silent age.

Now, of course, the sounds of the Wurlitzer pipe organ are the stuff of nostalgia. But the instruments were controversial in the first half of the 20th century, replacing more expensive theater orchestras long before the modern synthesizer and hip-hop samples were blamed for thwarting "real" musicians. "It was easier to get one organist to play cheaply than a whole unionized orchestra," says Loderhose.

These days, however, when a live musician is an extra expense, Loderhose has signed a six-month contract with noted pipe-organ virtuoso Jim Riggs for a weekly series of concerts and silent-film accompaniment at the Bay Theater. Riggs, who is taking a leave of absence from his 13-year stint as house organist at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, will play concerts between the Bay's regularly scheduled films on Saturdays and Sundays and will provide the soundtrack to a silent-movie series every Monday night beginning July 9.

Loderhose—who recently purchased 41 silent movie comedy titles starring Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin—hasn't finalized the schedule yet. "I'm leaving that up to Jim," he says. "They are my movies, but it is his show. I was a good organist, but he is great. He's the kind of showman who can do this the way it's supposed to be done."

During a trial run two weeks ago, Riggs performed period standards between screenings of Casablanca, and also accompanied slapstick comedies featuring Charlie Chase and Laurel and Hardy so adroitly that it was easy to forget the performance was live.

"I'm trying to present all my movies the way theaters did years ago," says Loderhose. "We even begin by pulling back a double curtain—the black one opens first, then the gold. Now, with the organ overtures, this is just like Radio City Music Hall."

As meticulously as he is re-creating this bygone era, however, Loderhose prefers that his shows not be characterized as out-of-date. He believes this entertainment is timeless, that there is an appetite for it among modern audiences.

"This is not old-fashioned," he says. "It's just the way it used to be." That's why Loderhose softens as the answering machine in his office continues to recite its litany of attractions. He suppresses a smile, basking in bewildered gratitude as he imagines the groggy, rumpled, cinemafreaques jotting down show times on the other end of the line. If he didn't own the Bay Theater, Loderhose would be one of them.

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