OTMH is home to the Mighty Wurlitzer
By Amber Petty LosAngeleno.com
With only 306 theater organs still in use worldwide, El Segundo’s Edward Torres is among the few musicians who’ve mastered the almost-forgotten instrument.
The sounds of an organ fill the air as its multiple keys ring out Christmas bells, car horns and chirping love birds. While El Segundo’s Old Town Music Hall transports visitors to the 1920s, the person bringing the old-timey music to life is only 23. Behind the 2,600 pipes sits Edward Torres, who’s committed to keeping the dying instrument alive.
“Most people I connect with, in terms of things I like, are in their 80s,” Torres says.
Wearing sharp khakis and a sedated Hawaiian shirt, Torres’ calm presence makes him seem older than his years. He started playing piano around age 7 and found himself drawn to the music of the golden age Hollywood films he’d watch with his grandmother. Then, things shifted when he saw a Youtube clip featuring the founders of the Old Town Music Hall.
“I took one look at the organ and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that looks like a lot of fun,’” he says.
While most 13-year-olds were combing Youtube for skateboard fails, Torres became entranced with the ancient instrument.
Theater organs are a different beast from the church pipe variety or the at-home Hammonds most people are familiar with. The Music Hall is home to the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” a massive theater organ that was made to mimic the sounds of a full orchestra. Though they were common in the silent film era, the Mighty Wurlitzer is one of only 306 theater organs in use worldwide. The American Theatre Organ Society lists about 110 active organ players and Torres says he’s one of three people under 30 in all of Southern California who studies the instrument. Even at the Music Hall, which shows silent and classic films following a short organ concert and audience sing-a-long, Torres and owner Bill Field are the only people at the theater who know how to turn the Wurlitzer’s 260 switches into mesmerizing music.
Despite years of studying piano, Torres’ first performance with the Wurlitzer wasn’t such a magical experience.
“It was a horrible thing!” Torres says with a smile. “I didn’t know what I was doing at all. There’s a video of it which I plan to burn one day.”
It’s understandable that his recital was a bit of a disaster. There’s almost no sheet music available for theater organ. That means organists have to transpose piano music from the ’20s and ’30s, which not always easy to find or play by ear. Torres does both and after nine years of practice he can play modern tunes on the fly — his “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid” is especially good — and he knows all the old favorites by heart.
From 1968 to June 2019, Field or his partner Bill Coffman — who passed away in 2001 — played every show at the Music Hall. For the past few years, Torres played some opening numbers on the organ, while Bill took over to accompany the silent films. This summer, Torres had the spotlight to himself for the first time.
“I was nervous as heck the first night,” Torres says. “I was about to have a heart attack. I told the audience, ‘Please refrain from throwing any tomatoes or vegetables at me.’”
Torres says that taking the reigns at his cherished music hall was an important responsibility. “My biggest worry was that people would think I’d be just like Bill Field,” he says. “The difference is Bill started playing when he was 18, so he had 60 years of experience on me.”
No tomatoes were harmed during Torres’ debut. The audience loved the performance, all 70 minutes of non-stop music and left happy, Torres says, evidenced by the many compliments he received from the crowd. Though Field will still play as much as he can, Torres is now a lead organist and the key to continuing the theater’s success for the next generation.
When he’s not behind the keyboard, Torres is a full-time student at Santa Monica College. He also teaches piano and helps out on the business side of the Music Hall. Torres doesn’t dream of performing on Wurlitzers around the world or somehow score a Top 40 hit via theater organ. He just wants to do his part to keep the Music Hall going, honor old-time music and spread the joy of live theater organ.
“The two people in the building that know the music are me and Bill,” Torres says. “It’s a part of history that needs to be preserved and presented for the future.”
Torres can’t quite put into words why he’s so enamored with a time period that came decades before he was born. But his eyes light up as he sits down at the organ to play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” or “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
“It’s just fun!” he says.