Bill Field, Organist and Host at Old Town Music Hall for More Than Half a Century, Dies at 80

Field had presided on the "mighty Wurlitzer" nearly every weekend since transforming the El Segundo theater into one of the world's most unusual and magical revival houses in 1968.

Bill Field, organist and owner of
Courtesy Old Town Music Hall

Bill Field, who played a vintage Wurlitzer organ nearly every weekend for 52 years at Old Town Music Hall, the L.A. area’s longest running film revival house, has died at age 80.

Field, who had suffered from strokes and prostrate cancer, died June 28 of what was described as natural causes. Although his performing pace had slowed in recent months, he was still playing host for each program at the venue until it was forced to close due to the pandemic in March.

Old Town Music Hall was — and in Field’s absence, may continue to be — a sort of out-of-body experience for lovers of early 20th century film and music in southern California, offering a portal into another world from behind an unassuming facade in sleepy downtown El Segundo. What Field created was an experience you couldn’t really have anywhere else in the nation, much less elsewhere in greater Los Angeles. That became especially true after the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax in Los Angeles turned into the Cinefamily and mostly stopped showing silent films … although, even when it had competition as a regular showcase of 1920s cinema and music, Old Town Music Hall always marched to its own 2,600-pipe tune.

“You knew you were walking into somebody’s dream bubble,” said Janet Klein, a performer of early 20th century songs who would perform concerts at Old Town Music Hall on non-film nights. “And if you were invited in to perform there, you just felt it, because this is an uncommon place.” Klein headlined the last concert there in March before the theater was forced to close down due to the pandemic, with Field on hand greeting patrons, as ever. “We were all so lucky to be there. I always felt that with places like this, it was my mission to not just promote our show, but  to be like a pied Piper to people, like “’Will you please follow me to this place? You need to know about this place!’ And, you know, just share the luck.”

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Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo Don_Holtz

Field and the late Bill Coffman, known as “the two Bills,” opened Old Town Music Hall in 1968 inside a neighborhood movie house, El Segundo’s former State Theater, using it as a place to house and showcase their dream acquisition, a full 1925 Wurlitzer they’d bought a decade earlier that had once sat inside the demolished Fox West Coast movie palace in Long Beach. The two men took turns nightly before Coffman died in 2001, and then Field carried on alone, presiding as host as well as house organist for elaborate programs of vintage films and music that took place four times per weekend (Friday and Saturday nights along with Saturday and Sunday matinees), 49 weekends a year.

In later years, Field’s health problems caused him to drive a scooter up the aisle and slide himself over onto the bench of the mighty Wurlitzer. After his entry, things proceeded as they always had: Field would begin a long medley of vintage tunes with the curtains closed, before they opened to reveal the thousands of pipes or percussion pieces in all their glory, many painted with fluroescent paint so as to glow in the dark and have their movement illuminated. The instrumental medley would give way to an audience sing-along of early 20th century standards, followed by a silent short subject or two. After intermission, if the main feature was a talkie (Old Town Music Hall generally programs films from the ’20s through late ’50s), Field would take a break; if not, he would return from greeting patrons in the lobby to tackle a full-length silent film — as always, without benefit of sheet music, for shows that sometimes ran to the three-hour mark.

“It was a magical environment where you didn’t just have the film, but you had all that live music,” says Steven C. Smith, the author of “Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer.” “And it’s not just a fossil or preserved-in-amber place. It was this joyous, colorful place where young people could become excited about classic film in a way that really isn’t possible just watching them on television. When his music started up, all these different instruments would light up, and it felt like something out of Disneyland. You didn’t go just to see the films, but for the overall experience of the sing-alongs and the candy-colored lighting and the communal sense of us all participating in something actively, versus passively watching something.”

Jerry Beck, regarded by many as the world’s leading expert on animated films from Hollywood’s golden-age, had presented many animation programs at the theater in recent years. “Bill was a great guy — gruff exterior with a heart of gold,” says Beck. “He was so proud of that Wurlitzer organ and committed to putting on the best show possible. He introduced each show and played for the crowd as if each and every show was the first and only performance. The term ‘master showman’ fits, and he was a legendary figure here in Southern California. To say he’ll be missed is a massive understatement.”

William Wellman Jr. had done six events at Old Town Music Hall with Field. “Each one was special.,” says Wellman. “Having Bill Field play for my father’s films— ‘Wings, ‘Nothing Sacred’ and others — was memorable.  Bill was a great guy and a film lover extraordinaire. The Old Town Music Hall is a wonderful place to enjoy movies, and I sure enjoyed being there.”

Lara Scott, a radio personality on the L.A. oldies station K-EARTH 101, had in recently years taken it upon herself to become one of the unofficial ambassadors for the theater and Field’s efforts there. “When I discovered Old Town Music Hall eight years ago, I was so excited to find a place showing classic films on the big screen every weekend,” Scott says. “But even better than seeing the films was talking to Bill before and after them. He introduced me to stars like Jeanette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy and Lillian Gish and gave me a great Old Hollywood education. My son started coming to the theatre with me at age 3, and Bill got a kick out of talking to him about Flash Gordon and Laurel and Hardy, and telling my son what it was like in Los Angeles when he was a boy and there were glamorous department stores downtown with live music while you shopped. I will miss Bill so much. He was a truly special person, and I hope he knows that what he created is going to help keep classic film alive into my son’s generation and beyond.”

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Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo Chris Willman / Variety

James Moll, a documentary filmmaker, has helped Field out at Old Town Music Hall for years, both on the practical matters of running the theater and the more involved business of fundraising. Moll, who has won an Oscar (in 1999 for directing “The Last Days”), two Emmys and a Grammy (for a Foo Fighters documentary), will be a key guiding light keeping the venue going in the absence of Field.

“My connection to Bill goes back to the ’70s,” says Moll. “Bill introduced my mom to my stepdad in the mid-’70s. I remember my first visit to the theater at 11 years old, seeing Bill play the organ while those curtains parted and I was awestruck by all the colors, trying to figure out what I was looking at. I see kids’ faces in the theater these days, and I know exactly what they’re feeling.

“Old Town Music Hall provided a major classic film education for me, and for so many others, particularly for the silents,” Moll continues. “Bill was a master at accompanying silent films. His sensibilities definitely shaped how I use music in my own films. I truly believe that F.W. Murnau would have loved what he did with ‘Sunrise,’ because he was so attuned to what the filmmaker was conveying with the story and characters. He ebbed and flowed with the picture, sometimes bringing the score down to a bare minimum, and often total silence. He knew how to make an audience lean in. And anyone who heard Bill accompany the 1925 versions of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Ben-Hur’ knew they were hearing something special. It’s such a shame that he would never allow a recording of his accompaniments. He felt that the organ accompaniment should be live in order to get the whole experience.”

Although it would be difficult to imagine many organists being able to step in for four taxing shows a week at a non-profit, Moll says the Wurlitzer is in good — and surprisingly young — hands.

“Over the last two years or so, Bill mentored a 24-year-old aspiring organist, Edward Torres, who took a strong interest in the Mighty Wurlitzer and in the art of accompanying silent films,” Moll says. “For many months before Bill passed away, he asked Edward to play the shows. Edward has become a great talent in his own right, and has committed to helping continue Bill’s tradition by taking Bill’s seat at the keyboard of the Mighty Wurlitzer. In 2018, we celebrated the theater’s 50th anniversary. With any luck, Edward will be here playing a show for the theater’s 100th anniversary, carrying on Bill’s legacy.”

Although fundraising was a challenge even when the theater was up and running, much less in the closure that all face right now, Moll believes the venue is set up for a bright future. “Bill was always surrounded by people who loved him and loved his theater. He made it a non-profit in 1991, and today there’s a dedicated team of volunteers who are committed to keeping Bill’s vision alive. It’ll be around for a long, long time.”

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Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo at night Chris Willman / Variety

Field was born on October 4, 1939 in Los Angeles to William Thomas Field, chief electrician for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Gertrude Sara Hopkins, a secretary for the LAUSD. He got his start as a performer at the downtown movie palace the Los Angeles Theatre, playing organ preludes even as a pre-teen. Later he performed at churches and ice skating rinks, before he and Coffman procured the rare find of an actual Wurlitzer, as Fox was divesting itself of theater organs from the urban movie palaces that were being rapidly demolished in the early ’60s.

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Bill Field, organist of Old Town Music Hall Old Town Music Hall

Smith, who was at Klein’s performance at OTMH in March, its final night before the lockdowns, remembers his first visit to Old Town Music Hall well. “It was in 1981 when I was 16 and I was seeing ‘Naughty Marietta,’ the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald musical. And I got to talking with an older gentleman who was sitting behind me, and I gradually realized it was Meredith Willson, who wrote ‘The Music Man.’ It made an immediate and lifelong impression to me that you could go to a screening in a revival house and sit beside someone who wrote one of the masterpieces of Broadway musicals. It kind of attracted that crowd, at that time — people who had made the work, and weren’t just there to see the movie.”

Klein did not discover the theater until the late ’90s, after she’d already become enamored of the Silent Movie Theater’s programming to the north, and was able to add it to a list that sometimes feels all too short of shrines to L.A.’s entertainment heritage.

“Old Town Music Hall and the Silent Movie Theatre were just those places where you could just see that somebody had this vision and put up this business, and ‘what the heck is that,’ you know?” she laughs. “They were places that were taking their passion for, in Bill Field’s case, theater organs and old films and ragtime music. And they built an unusual dream, like nothing else on the landscape. I think there are always some people that are on the lookout for things that are not the stuff of the day, of the culture at large, and are looking for something else. Nowadays, if you had any inkling, of course, you can look up online and maybe find a community and a niche interest group. But these are places that came up before that and kind of created a hub and people one by one sort of found out about it. You feel like it’s a place where you can maybe find your tribe.”

Continues Klein, “Every time I’d go there, you’d definitely see this community of younger people that were around the theater that were helping to take care of the place, helping Bill to get the promotions out or take the tickets and sell popcorn. My last gig before everything shut down was March 8. We all knew that there was this (coronavirus) thing looming on the horizon, and we talked about kind of trying to inoculate ourselves with joy. I’m so glad Bill was there. He was in great form as usual, making lots of jokes and just holding court in the front of the theater. And now I’m so happy that we had that time together just before all this happened. He had had strokes before and scared everybody; we went ‘Oh, no, what’s going to happen to everything now?’ And he’d bounce right back and be right back in there working, probably before he should have. You always felt like he maybe didn’t think that the place could run without him at the helm. But I think that organically it happened, and he did surround himself with people who really care about the theater.  I think it seems like it might actually be okay.”

El Segundo was not always the easiest place to convince entertainment industry folks from the west side/east side/Valley axis to get down to, at least before Hollywood production began discovering the city, which especially downtown can seem like a quaint land that time forgot. Old Town Music Hall seemed like even more of a Brigadoon by being on such a quiet time capsule of a street — a time capsule of which era, it isn’t always easy to identify, because one of the features of being able to see ’20s, ’30s and ’40s films there is being able to stop in at one of the region’s few tiki bars, the Purple Orchid, for a ’60s-style chaser before or after the film.

One of the many younger entertainment-biz people who developed a deep passion for Old Town Music Hall is Charley Feldman, an animation writer who just worked as a staff writer on the first season of Disney Channel’s “The Owl House.” She evangelized for the venue in a big way, by having her friends fill the house for her wedding.

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Wedding at Old Town Music Hall Michelle Pullman of Rad and In Love

“We will never forget his rascal scooter rolling through the aisles, plunking himself on his stool and then him springing to life on that giant, colorful beast of an organ — just the coolest,” says Feldman. “I can’t believe Bill won’t be there the next time we go.

“I fell in love at Bill’s theater. My husband and I are not religious, so when we were discussing sacred spaces for us to get married in, we really only had one place in mind. We went on an early date to see ‘Casablanca’ there, and have gone many times since, particularly for Halloween and Christmas to see the kitschy decorations and the themed movies. When we approached Bill to get married there, he let us know that we were one of only a handful of people to want to get married at the Old Town Music Hall, which I still can’t believe. Even more unbelievable was how involved Bill was in making this day special and personal. He told us the previous wedding had a man in a monkey suit, and asked if we would do something like that. We didn’t have a monkey suit, but we did have a traveling jazz band. He personally wanted to play the organ for us to walk down the aisle and he had wonderful suggestions about which songs were right. We incorporated the sing-along portion of the usual Old Town screening, but Bill curated it so that they were all love songs. He played for our entire wedding as we all sang together in the seats. It was exactly what we wanted, a wedding that wasn’t passive, that involved our community and introduced that same community to a place that meant a lot to us. Bill didn’t know us, and he did all this for peanuts.

“We just had to schedule it for one of the three weekends a year the theater was closed, because the show must go on (the other 49). Bill loved sharing films so much that he only closed on Christmas, Super Bowl, and 4th of July weekends,” Feldman says. “It is with no small irony that he is taking this (Independence Day) weekend to be at peace.”

Field is survived by his longtime partner, Danny Tokusato, and two sisters. Funeral arrangements are pending at Green Hills Memorial Park in Palos Verdes. A virtual service on the web is being planned. Donations to the non-profit venue in Field’s memory may be made through the website: www.OldTownMusicHall.org.