Bill Coffman, a ragtime keyboardist who helped buy a Wurlitzer pipe organ as old as he was, acquire an even older movie theater to house it, and then turn the combination into the popular Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, has died. He was 75.
Coffman died last Friday while napping at the theater as he waited for his business partner, Bill Field, to present an afternoon program. Melvin D. Horowitz, an attorney and friend, said Coffman died of complications from cardiac and pulmonary disease.
Gigantic in sound and size, the mighty Wurlitzer that Coffman and Field restored over a period of years literally inhabited the 188-seat theater the two men bought in 1968. In 1995 the California Assembly declared the Old Town Music Hall a living museum for silent film, classic talkies and old-time music.
Born in Mena, Ark., Coffman taught himself to play piano by watching and listening to automatic player pianos and matching his fingering to the keys as the ivories were depressed by signals from the perforated music rolls.
Encouraged by an aunt to pursue music away from his strict, religious family, he became a nightclub pianist and organist. For 16 years, he entertained six nights a week at a bar in Wilmington called Sirocco.
Eventually, he became intrigued by the pipe organs built by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Organ Co. in the early 1900s to accompany silent films. And in the 1950s, he was able to study with Jesse Crawford, who had accompanied silents in New York’s Paramount Theater and later retired to Los Angeles.
Coffman met the younger Field, an organist for churches and skating rinks, through Field’s teacher in 1958. That year they paid $2,000 to rescue the Wurlitzer from the former Fox West Coast Theater in Long Beach, where it had been installed in 1925.
Like others of its dwindling kind, the massive one-man band--about 16 feet wide and 30 feet tall with 26 ranks of 1,600 pipes, 268 instruments and 244 keys on four keyboards--was modified to include sound effects needed for soundless motion pictures. Included were horns, bells, sirens, whistles, gongs and gizmos to duplicate such sounds as horses’ hooves, machine guns, surf, rain and smashing crockery.
“It isn’t the volume that makes the pipe organ so striking. It’s that you’re hearing the music live,” Coffman told The Times in 1982 during a demonstration of his restored Wurlitzer. “It’s sort of like a 1925 computer.”
The American Theater Organ Society has estimated that about 7,000 of the special instruments were built before talkies replaced silent films, and that by 1995 fewer than 300 still existed.
After Coffman and Field bought their Wurlitzer, they gathered available parts from similar organs at Los Angeles’ decaying Paramount and United Artists movie palaces, an old Chicago theater and a condemned Los Angeles church.
As they worked on the massive machine, Coffman and Field hauled it around to shopping centers and other venues to test their improvements in improvisational concerts. Then they found the vacant old State Theater--vintage 1922, at 140 Richmond St., El Segundo--and moved in.
They opened for business in 1969, with Coffman typically playing an introductory piano and organ concert of ragtime and early 20th century popular music. Sometimes he would play while the audience sang along on such songs as “Bill Bailey,” “My Gal Sal” and “Shine On Harvest Moon.”
Then, while Field took over the organ to provide the background “orchestra” and sound effects for the featured silent movie, Coffman would introduce the 1927 classic “Wings” or the 1925 Lon Chaney version of “Phantom of the Opera.”
Coffman ran the projector, sold refreshments and even cleaned the bathrooms.
Coffman is survived by a sister, Lou Bass of Mena; and a brother, Mark Coffman of Alameda, Calif.
Services are pending.
Memorial donations can be made to Old Town Music Hall Inc., 140 Richmond St., El Segundo, CA 90245.