You wouldn’t necessarily recognize Bill Field as a workhorse on first glance. Outside his Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, the 73-year old man sits quietly on his scooter, a new addition to his life because of two consecutive falls that injured his knees. He speaks softly and deliberately. He seems to have all the time in the world just to chat.
But Field has spent every weekend for the last 45 years running a theater, doing the job all on his own since 2001, when his business partner and oldest friend, Bill Coffman, passed away. The two men opened the Old Town Music Hall together in 1968 as a non-profit venue specializing in concerts, films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and silent films accompanied by live organ played by Field, himself.
“The Two Bills,” as they were known to friends, shared a love of music and, shortly after graduating from high school, they pooled their money to buy a Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ from the Fox Theater in Long Beach. They rented a small studio to practice in until they discovered that the State Theater, a silent movie house that opened in El Segundo in 1921, was for rent. They moved the organ into the theater in 1968 and the Old Town Music Hall was born.
“I’ve been here ever since,” Field said.
The theater isn’t in perfect condition – there is plenty of maintenance to be done inside and out. But to step inside its doors is to be instantly transported to another time. A magical and romantic time defined by chandeliers, velvet curtains, and the Mighty Wurlitzer organ whose technicolor pipes, drums, bells, and whistles extend to the height of the theater walls. It is a living tribute to classic Hollywood cinema and music, an absolute treasure not only for the town of El Segundo, but for Los Angeles as a whole. And yet most weekends, only about 20 or so bodies fill the magnificent theater’s 188 seats.
Each show at Old Town Music Hall starts with an organ performance, then a sing-a-long, followed by the film. If he’s not showing a silent film, and therefore not needed at the organ, Field will sit in the lobby while the movie is showing, listening to the crowd’s reactions. Most people stop to talk to him on their way out of the theater.
“We used to sell out,” Field said. “When we opened in 1968, our average crowd was age 50 and above. It’s altogether slower now because the audience is different. It’s harder to come by young people that like it. Most don’t care.”
Field can tell many a heartbreaking story about students on field trips to his theater playing video games on their phones during his performances or getting up and leaving because they’re bored. The dwindling crowds and indifferent youngsters may dishearten him a bit, but he remains largely positive and entirely committed to his theater. On Sunday afternoon, he was showing the Laurel and Hardy classic Habeas Corpus.
“Today the audience isn’t real big,” he said. “But they are a real live wire. They’re having a good time.”
And the specialness of the theater is not entirely lost on youth. Field has a loyal following of high school kids that come around to volunteer their time, working the projector and manning the concession stand. He has also found a huge fan in 22-year old John Reed-Torres, a skilled pianist and ragtime composer. Old Town Music Hall is home to the longest-running ragtime festival in the world, hosting its 38th in June of this year.
“We have four pianists come in that specialize in playing ragtime,” Field explained. “They do Scott Joplin and all that. John will be here. He is crazy for ragtime. He’s a real gem.”
Another Old Town Music Hall disciple is James Moll, whose parents met at the theater and were introduced by the Two Bills. Moll has been going to the theater since he was a kid. Bill Coffman taught him to play ragtime piano when he was 13 and soon he was up on stage playing for theatergoers before the show. Field talks about Moll with the pride of a father.
“I had a restaurant next to the theater for a while,” Field said. “He worked in there as a waiter and would run next door to play piano and then run back. Then he went to film school at USC and eventually graduated and made a movie and won an Academy Award. I remember seeing him walking up on that red carpet to get that award. Terrific.”
The fondness is mutual. Moll, a documentary director who won an Oscar in 1999 for his film The Last Days, is currently between films and is happily dedicating his time to help Field improve the theater.
“Bill keeps that place running,” Moll said. “He hasn’t missed a beat. He is always there.”
Moll is helping curate the show schedule, using his relationships with the big studios to expand the theater’s offerings. He wants to add some classic dramas like Wings (1927) and Laura (1944), classic screwball comedies like His Girl Friday (1940), and 1950’s sci-fi features like It Came From Outer Space (1953).
“This place could really use an infusion of community support,” Moll said. “You can’t understand how special this theater is until you step inside. We have to cherish it and take care of it as a community.”
This week, Moll has managed to find a local steam cleaning company and a curtain system company to donate their services to clean and repair the theater. The greatest challenge, however, is getting people in the door. Moll hopes spreading the word about the theater and its devoted caretaker will help.
“Bill talks about the theater and the pipe organ as enthusiastically today as he did when I first heard him talk about it in the seventies. That is passion.”
Field puts it beautifully himself: “I live in my own world, on my own little island here. What else would I do? I enjoy it. It’s my life.”
The Old Town Music Hall is located at 140 Richmond St. in El Segundo. It is open every weekend with an 8:15 p.m. show on Friday and Saturday and a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday and Sunday. All movies are $8 and the schedule is available at http://oldtownmusichall.wordpress.com.