Get in your car and drive South. Past the airport, but not by much. Start out early so you can grab a burger at Woody’s, or the namesake sandwich at Johnny’s Pastrami — both on Sepulveda. Stay focused.
You’ll know El Segundo from the smoke stacks and Keno parlors (with their disreputable stenches and opium-den environs). The parking lot is confusing, because of all the illogical prohibitory traffic bumps. You’re bound to roll over a few, distracted as you are by the mural which advertises “Old Town Music Hall – Home of the Mighty Wurlitzer.” Well, that it is. Turn off The Miracles and step out of the car. It’s traditional to do a little tap dance.
The sales counter is run by a kindly, plump woman who may or may not be in fine mental health. It’s possible she merely has a speech problem. I know how that can be. Her innate kindness, though, and the fact that she’s selling tickets for five dollars suggest that she is totally off her rocker. Buy a Snickers bar and make eyes. She’s excited, you’re excited. It’s gonna be a good day.
Wind your way past the sparse crowd of geriatric loiterers and chicken-hawks. You will be a marvel to all, as you have all your original teeth and your shoes are on the right feet. Ignore all the praise, admiration, and stilted introductions for now. You will see these people again. Go in through the front doors, under the never-changing marquee, do a 180, and sign the mailing list. Enter the theater.
This is the Old Town Music Hall. It is a labor of love for two gentlemen named Bill — hereby known as Old Bill and Fat Bill. Old Bill is deaf, and plays the organ. Fat Bill is blind, and runs the projector. Sit down in the comfy, slidy chairs (which I helped nail in, one lazy summer, as part of a high-school “community service” requirement). Sit in the front very front… there are no drawbacks. Take a look around — look at the mighty organ, the gong, the red curtain, the many-sized RCA dogs like Russian nesting dolls, the grand piano that once belonged to… who, exactly? Eddie Cantor? Something. If it’s a silent movie, DO NOT SIT NEAR CHILDREN (they need the titles read to them.)
Old Bill emerges on the stage to make a speech. Start clapping — no one else can see or hear him. He’s wearing rainbow suspenders and has big white teeth (a lot of those, here.) He’s cute, and making fun of you. Bill’s speech goes something like this:
“Welcome to the Old Town Music Hall. [picks out audience members, incl. you, gives specific heckles.] These characters have been here before… How many of you are here for the first time?”
“How many of you are here for the last time?”
“The movie today, [“Gold Diggers of 1933”] was
made in [1933.] Who knows what was popular in ? [note: Irving
Berlin is ALWAYS a good guess.] That’s right, Irving Berlin. He had
a hit song that year called [“In Your Easter Bonnet,”] so… we’re gonna start with
a little medley of [Irving Berlin,] followed by a Laurel and Hardy
short called [“Upper Berths,”] and then we’ll break for intermission,
when you can go up to the concession stand and get your prescriptions
Well, the gong sounds and the lights go down and Bill starts to play. What sounds! When I hear that organ I am fooled into thinking I’m at home in the universe. As the playing begins, the red curtain behind the Wurlitzer parts. The innards of the organ appear– massive pipes, percussive instruments, glockenspiels and tambos — all painted in day-glow colors. This moment is never less than transcendent.
If it lasts 15 minutes, it’s too short. There’s too much to see and hear.
The gong sounds again, triggered by yet another concealed button on that submarine-like instrument (he must have a button that makes it fly away in case of emergency.) The square, white projection screen descends mechanically from the ceiling. The sound of a slide-projector clicking and shuffling slides.
A hand-painted slide, vintage 1928. “Everybody Sing!,” or a similar sentiment. Oh, and do! “All Together Now!”
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the tune– the words are up there on the screen. Song after song, with Bill’s organ providing the melodies and lush filler that beats any karaoke echo for covering up participatory shortcomings, the slides go something like this:
“Everybody Sing!” [cartoon of man with megaphone]
“Let Me Call You Sweetheart”
“Sing Like the [cartoon of a devil– Jarret always laughs at this one]”
“The Whiffenpoof Song”
“Watch Your Step!” [cartoon of dog attacking a man in the aisle of a theater] “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie”
“Let’s End With Something We All Know”
Are there tears in your eyes? Sure.
Laurel and Hardy. Well, I like ’em. Laurel and Hardy span the era of silents and sound films, so you don’t know what you’re going to get. There are defenders of either. If it’s a silent, you will have live accompaniment. I am a fan of silent comedies and enjoy seeing anything I haven’t already seen. My friend Bret balks at the absurd, alien pace of the L + H talkies. “They were so clearly silent comedians! They didn’t know what they were doing in sound.” I believe that it was in the talkies that L+H achieved mastery of their form and were able to state most clearly their bizarre aesthetic claim. It’s really about timing, and the addition of a fixed-speed camera helped them define their stately, ritualistic march. Anyway, Laurel and Hardy. You’re in for two reels of them, so buck up.
It’s time for intermission. Sign the mailing list again. Talk to Bill. He’ll introduce you to a few nostalgic hangers-on; folks at death’s door, mainly. The kind of person the Soviets liked to have as their supreme leader. Make friends, shirk friends, reject clammy advances. Huddle. Most folks are taken care of by their children, but there’s always the oddball who’s on the flip side of the coin, taking care of his own mother, and never gets out of the house. AVOID. Everyone gets a stalker. Jarret always got this one smiley woman– about 3 feet tall and shrinking. Bill adored her, huggin’ her up and introducing her to everyone. She was from East Germany.
WOMAN: I’m from East Germany!
JARRET: Oh, that’s great!
WOMAN: I’m from East Germany!
JARRET: Oh, yeah? How long have you been here?
JARRET: I’m from Brentwood.
WOMAN: They took my piano away.
Then there’s the feature: the program as advertised, the film you came to see. Could be silent, could be sound. Bill and Bill are music fans, not cinephiles, so this is really a secondary attraction as far as they are concerned. Could be obscure Harold Lloyd, could be “In the Good Old Summertime.” Sit back, kick up, hiccup, repeat. Sip a soda, saratoga.
Tap dance with Bill. Shake his hand. Turn the car keys. Roll over some bumps. Play the Miracles, wave goodbye. Play Keno.
Bill Coffman died in 2002. Bill Fields (“Fat Bill”) now plays the organ for the majority of shows. The place is still running, thank God, but always going through tough financial times. Who goes there? I bought a seat there once, as a fundraising effort, and dedicated it to Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards. The plaque never appeared, but the OTMH lives on.