He found keys to his future in the past
There are plenty of odd jobs in Hollywood, but Rob Richards concedes he has one of the weirdest.
As pipe organist at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre, the restored 1926 movie palace on Hollywood Boulevard, Richards is an anachronism.
“Obviously, this is the most bizarre career choice -- to choose to play an instrument that hit its heyday in the 1920s,” Richards says. “Who would have ever thought that in the year 2006 someone could make their living playing a theater organ?”
Earning his wages at the El Capitan makes Richards a “cast member” in the parlance he calls “Disney-speak.” For Friday’s 10 a.m. showing of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” -- which set a box-office record with its $132-million opening weekend -- Richards donned a pirate hat while the 700-pound golden organ console at which he sat was draped with a skull-and-crossbones flag and ensnared in a web of frayed jute. All 18 weekend showings of “Pirates” at the El Capitan sold out.
Richards’ hands danced comfortably on the organ’s four keyboards during his 30-minute pre-movie performance, while his feet swung casually over the instrument’s many pedals. Hovering above him was a 4-foot-tall fake skeleton that grinned out at a crowd of eager Capt. Jack lovers.
“Oh, it’s wonderful!” Juan Ochoa exclaimed as he tilted his head, listening to Richards play the painfully cheery notes of “It’s a Small World.” Ochoa had risen at 3:30 a.m. to bring his three daughters and their two friends from Riverside.
The theme-park trappings of the El Capitan are no deterrent to Richards, who says he’s been a lifelong “animation nut” and fan of the Disney songbook. But his real passion is for what he calls “a lost American art form” -- the organ itself.
“The first time I heard one, I was overwhelmed,” says Richards, 50. “Then the first time I actually put my fingers to the keys of a theater pipe organ, it was like somebody put a key in the ignition and turned it on. I knew immediately it was what I was born for.”
Richards was 14 when he discovered his destiny. He took regular 200-mile trips from his home in Aberdeen, S.D., to the Bismarck, N.D., home of his mentor, a contractor who had rescued a Wurlitzer organ from a Minneapolis theater and then built his house around it.
“I went every chance I could get,” Richards says. “They called me their adopted son because I always showed up at holidays.”
After studying music composition at Northern State University in his hometown, Richards hit the road, playing organ in the few remaining venues that house the instrument.
Many theater organs were lost or destroyed after they began to fall out of favor in the 1930s. The massive contraptions -- the pipes of which can occupy thousands of cubic feet -- were originally designed as cost-saving devices to replace symphony orchestras in movie theaters. But with the rise of talkies, the need for the organs virtually disappeared. The Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., which had built the vast majority of the instruments, stopped making them around 1940.
As a result, pipe organ players dwindled in numbers. Now only about a half-dozen theater organists earn a living playing full time, Richards says. With the pipe organ community being so small, the rumor quickly reached Richards in the mid-1990s that Disney was seeking a pipe organ -- and an organist -- for the El Capitan.
His agent arranged a meeting with Edward Collins, the El Capitan’s executive director and the force behind the restoration of the theater, which had never housed an organ, though it was designed with space for organ pipes.
Richards got the job, and “a combination of luck and persistence” soon brought the top-of-the-line Wurlitzer -- one of the most important remaining theater organs -- to the El Capitan, Collins says. “It’s where it’s intended to be.”
The “Fox Special” Wurlitzer organ was originally housed in the nearly 4,700-seat Fox Theatre in San Francisco. When the theater was torn down in 1963, it was installed in the La Canada Flintridge home of then-state Assemblyman Frank Lanterman, himself a former organist. After his death, the organ found its way to Disney.
Over the course of two years, as Richards patiently waited, 2,500 pipes -- the longest measuring about 32 feet -- were installed in the four organ chambers of the El Capitan.
The organ premiered at the El Capitan in 1999, and Richards has since played more than 4,000 pre-movie shows.
“The theater organ is the soul of an old movie palace,” says Richards. “It’s like a living, breathing thing.”
The strange combination of silent-film-era technology and 21st century Disney-style extravaganza was on display at Friday’s screening as Richards concluded his set.
Ariel Baron, 15, snapped a picture of Richards, who waved at the audience as the last chords thundered and the organ descended into the bowels of the theater. Within minutes, the digital roar of modern-day surround-sound had theatergoers vibrating in their seats.