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Arts & Entertainment

Big organ energy: One of the world’s largest instruments will soon have a home in the Castro

A picture of a large organ stands in a room.
The Castro Theatre’s new organ will be the largest digital organ in the world and the country’s third-largest organ. | Source: Courtesy David Hegarty

A neighborhood that’s always loved big organs will one day welcome the biggest of them all. 

When the soon-to-close Castro Theatre reopens in San Francisco’s Castro District in summer 2025, it will unveil a brand new house organ that could give its current instrument pianist envy. What is expected to be the largest digital organ in the world, the Castro’s brand new, 2,000-pound organ of the future is currently being stored in a warehouse in Center Valley, Pennsylvania.

“It will represent a palette of sounds that exists on no organ anywhere,” said David Hegarty, the Castro Theatre’s organist of 45 years

A man stands beside an organ with an iPad.
David Hegarty, the Castro Theatre organist, played in an instrumental role in planning and raising funds for the Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ, which is the largest digital organ in the world. | Source: Courtesy David Hegarty

Though fans of the iconic theater are emotionally girding their loins for its last night as a classic movie palace on Feb. 4 (the singalong screening of Victor/Victoria is sure to be a weeper), the theater’s organist predicts better times to come under the ambitious, if controversial, ownership of concert producers Another Planet Entertainment. 

That all starts with the theater’s center-stage instrument, The Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ, which will be stacked with seven keyboards and over 800 controls, giving it the ability to play virtually any type of music.  

“It will draw people from all around the world,” Hegarty said. He noted that celebrated musicians like Cameron Carpenter and Weicheng Zhao have already told him they’re itching to get their hands on the new keys.

Despite the controversy surrounding the takeover of the Castro Theatre by Another Planet Entertainment, Hagerty professes to being pleased with the new management. “I feel optimistic about the future of the theater as APE plans to run it,” he said. 

APE’s plans to transform the movie palace into a multiuse venue drew loud opposition last year, with protesters decrying the removal of the cinema’s raked floor to create a concert venue. The new owners have committed to continue screening films at the Castro by employing modular, motorized seating. They also won over some doubters by promising to maintain the beloved pre-show organ concerts. 

The Castro Theatre has been an organ venue from the day it opened in 1922, and the instrument has held the heartstrings of many a San Francisco cinephile ever since. The original organ remained in place until 1962, eventually being replaced by an electronic organ in the 1970s. But the high note was to come next, when in 1982 a Wurlitzer was installed by a family who rented it to the theater. 

“It was considered one of the greatest Wurlitzers in the country,” Hegarty said. 

That organ was removed in 2015 when the family moved out of the area, and Hegarty began raising funds via a nonprofit for his dream of building a new, custom organ for the theater based on the famous and beloved organ from the San Francisco Fox Theater, which was demolished in 1963. In the meantime, he loaned an organ he had inherited from a former student to the theater to fill the musical gap. 

The Castro Theatre's neon marquee that reads "CASTRO" lit up during evening hours as cars pass by.
A new owner's plans to transform the Castro Theatre from classic movie palace to a multiuse venue drew loud opposition last year. | Source: Getty Images

The new instrument, under construction for years, is complete except for some wiring and will be installed in stages when the theater renovations are finished. A freight-trucking company specializing in moving musical instruments will ensure the organ makes the long trip safely from Center Valley to San Francisco. The man overseeing the organ’s buildout, the appropriately named John Carpenter, has been assembling the digital components of the organ with his team at the Walker Technical Company.  

“We’re known in the industry as the best in the world at what we do,” Carpenter said. 

While the organ will be new, the old magic will remain. The organ will still rise from the stage like an apparition on a pneumatic lift. But that lift will be larger to account for the new organ's increased girth. 

“It’s really one of the largest instruments in the whole country,” Carpenter said. 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com