At most movie houses, you grab a snack, find your seat and wait for the film to begin. At Disney’s El Capitan in Hollywood, things are different, and you can tell by the first chords of “Hooray for Hollywood” that are coaxed from the theater’s 83-year-old pipe organ by Rob Richards, who celebrates his 15th anniversary at the iconic theater this spring. For 30 minutes prior to each screening, Richards serenades the audience with classic Disney tunes — after piping out his signature song.
Love at first sight: When Richards was 14, he stumbled on an old theater pipe organ. “The instruments drew me to them,” he says, and the feeling never subsided. He left college to study under Lyn Larsen at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Ariz., which housed what some claim is the biggest Wurlitzer theater organ in the world. After 14 years as an understudy at Organ Stop, Richards decided he needed a change.
In on the ground floor: He heard a rumor Disney was putting a pipe organ in the El Capitan, and landed the job before the instrument had even been installed. It turned out to be the original Wurlitzer from San Francisco’s Fox Theater in 1929. “This job is magic to me,” says the 58-year-old Richards. “It’s all my passions brought together. The pipe organ, music, film, performing.”
Whistling while he works: When it’s time to start playing, he’ll usually play whatever comes to mind. However, he always performs songs in Disney chronological order. If he starts with a song from “Snow White,” he’ll proceed into more recent Disney history. Does he ever get tired of the same pool of selections? “Everybody has a song from a Disney movie that they remember,” Richards says. “So I’m very lucky that I have that language with which to work.”