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Bill Field, organist and founder of Old Town Music Hall, dies at 80

Bill Field seated at the Wurlitzer at El Segundo's Old Town Music Hall
Bill Field seated at the Wurlitzer at El Segundo’s Old Town Music Hall
(Courtesy DonHoltz.com)

With Bill Field at the Wurlitzer, the Old Town Music Hall was a time warp that sailed its guests back to the early 20th century when movie houses were gilded palaces and orchestras supplied the soundtrack that film had yet to master.

Field’s love affair with old movie theaters, silent film and the soaring power of the Mighty Wurlitzer was so infectious it attracted a hard-core stable of followers who would show up for an evening concert and a short film or a Sunday matinee at the downtown El Segundo theater.

“For a brief period of time you could leave behind your humble existence and live like royalty,” said Don Manning of the Los Angeles Conversancy, explaining the dreamlike experience of the theater to The Times in 1991.

The music hall closed in mid-March when the pandemic began its march across California. But Field and his supporters remained hopeful that it would someday open again.

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Waiting still, Field died June 28, his death likely a result of a stroke he had suffered as well as prostate cancer, friends said. He was 80.

“When we lost Bill Field, we lost a part of L.A. history,” said Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll, an advocate for the theater and one of Field’s friends. “Fortunately, he leaves a valuable legacy in Old Town Music Hall, which will keep doing its thing for as long as there are people in L.A. who love classic film and music.”

Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo.
The Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo. The music hall closed in mid-March when the pandemic began its march across California. But Field and his supporters remained hopeful that it would someday open again.
(DonHoltz.com)

Field and his friend Bill Coffman found the Wurlitzer at the old Fox West Coast Theater in Long Beach. Full orchestras had long since vanished from the pits at movie houses and now the pipe organs were on their way out as well.

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The two borrowed $2,000 from a credit union to buy the instrument and then put it in storage, where it sat — in pieces — for the next 10 years.

The organ and the two film aficionados finally found a home when a boxy old movie theater on Richmond Street became available in 1968. It had once been home to the El Segundo State Theater and, for a while, a Baptist church.

In came the Wurlitzer, the ruby red carpeting, the majestic curtains, the evocative oil paintings and glittering chandeliers.

Reassembled, the Wurlitzer was a behemoth of an instrument — more than 2,000 pipes and 244 keys arranged on four keyboards along with stopkeys that triggered the sounds of bells, cymbals, trumpets and drums. In short, a full orchestra,

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In the dark, it glowed eerily and then sprung to life when the curtains parted, a musical explosion before Lon Chaney, or perhaps Charlie Chaplin, appeared on the screen.

“You knew you were walking into somebody’s dream bubble,” Janet Klein, a musician who performed at the theater, told Variety.

William Charles Field was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 4, 1939, one of four children in a hardworking family. Both of his parents were employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District — his father as an electrician, his mother a secretary. Though they both worked in a public school district, the couple sent their children to Catholic schools.

Field found his love, his avocation and his future all at once when he wandered through the Barker Bros. department store in downtown L.A. and was captivated by the sound of a pipe organ roaring and dipping in the background as shoppers browsed. By the time he was 12, he had been hired as the organist at the Los Angeles Theatre on South Broadway.

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He never wandered far from the instrument.

“Pipe organs were the soul and sound of the old theaters,” Field told The Times in 2008.

Both Field and Coffman lived simply — Field in his family’s old home in South L.A. and Coffman in a rented room in El Segundo. Field repaired organs for a living, while Coffman got by on a small pension from his days as a musician. But at the theater, both felt rich and rewarded.

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Even as his health declined, Field navigated his way to the organ on a scooter and pulled the audience under the spell of the Wurlitzer before the silent movies and early talkies began to roll.

“We tried to create an escape from the bombardment of modern-day electronic trauma,” said Coffman, who died in 2001. “Organ music does that.”

The lights were turned off at the Old Town Music Hall in March following a showing of the musical “For Me and My Gal” with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Moll said the plan is to reopen the theater when the pandemic loosens its grip and that Edward Torres, a 24-year-old organist who was mentored by Field, will take over the Wurlitzer.

But Field’s presence will linger inside the music hall.

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“We’ve lost a quiet champion of a defining cultural feature of Los Angeles: the music and film industry,” said Tom Bopp, a musician who first walked into the music hall as an 18-year-old classical music student. “Bill Field, by keeping the classic films rolling and the vintage music flowing, nourished the roots of today’s pop culture and kept them alive.”

Field is survived by his longtime partner, Danny Tokusato, and two sisters.


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