David Hegarty

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May 11, 2015

How I See San Francisco: Castro Theatre Organist David Hegarty

There are few people with a deeper connection to the Castro District than David Hegarty. For more than 30 years, he has played the mighty Wurlitzer organ in the landmark Castro Theatre, and over the past year has lead a campaign to build one of the largest organs in the world at the theater (estimated for completion in the summer of 2015), which will allow daily performances to continue and expand educational opportunities.

How long have you been playing at the Castro now?
I started playing in 1978 as the assistant organist and I became the principal organist in ‘83. So it’s been about 31 years as the primary organist.

How has the neighborhood changed in the past 30 years?
Oh my. It changed in the ‘80s considerably as a result of the AIDS crisis. A lot of the joyful enthusiasm of the gay scene changed its tone during that time. And since then, it has picked up in kind of a different way. When I first came here it was the Polk Street district that was the real exciting gay scene and Castro was just kind of gaining impetus at that point… It’s not the same little neighborhood that it was. It seems like it’s becoming more of a popular destination for the general public, although, fortunately we’re still keeping the gay central flavor to it… It’s changing as we speak with all the new streetscape construction: the new trees, the Rainbow Honor Walk and the large sidewalks. Now, when the huge festival crowds spill out of the theatre, the sidewalks are wide enough to accommodate everybody. The Castro area is really a very safe, beautiful, and festive place to visit.

Do you have a sense of why it is that something as anachronistic as a theater with a live organist continues to thrive in arguably one of the most tech-savvy places in the world?
(Laughs) Well, there is something about the tradition of the theater organist from the silent movie days… there’s something about a theater that has a real organ in it that is fascinating to people. And our effort here is to not lose any of that tradition, but to bring the functionality of the organ dramatically into the 21st century.

What is your favorite spot in the neighborhood to grab a late-night bite to eat?
Definitely the Sausage Factory — it stays open late and is always fun. For daytime and early-evening dining, one of my favorite places is the Cove, right across from the theatre.

When you have an out-of-town guest visiting, what are your favorite things to take them to see and do?
I tend to take them to see parts of the city like Macondray Lane (Barbary Lane in Tales of the City), or Fresno Street between Grant and Romolo Place, where Foul Play was filmed. That is just the essence of San Francisco.

One of my favorite movies is Vertigo. And I know where every scene in Vertigo was filmed. I take people on Vertigo tours. Unfortunately, the house where Jimmy Stewart lived in the movie, near the foot of the crooked part of Lombard Street, has been remodeled and no longer looks familiar. But all the other locations that Hitchcock chose are still a joy to see. Don’t miss Fort Point, where Kim Novak jumped into the Bay! I love that kind of San Francisco cinematic history.

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