By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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Most musicians regard the view from the stage of the Paramount Theatre to be among the most spine-tingling in Colorado. But for Denver's Bob Castle, the room's sea of crimson seats, its starry sky of ornate architectural details and a jewel-like chandelier serve as mere backdrop for the Paramount's biggest attractions--two Wurlitzer organs that rise up from just beyond the footlights. Castle first made music on them in 1947, and though he has played at the Paramount more often than any other performer in America, the initial enthusiasm he felt while playing them hasn't dimmed.
"Isn't this a beautiful instrument?" asks Castle, 63, before taking a seat in front of the rare treasures. (In the U.S., only New York City's famed Radio City Music Hall can boast of a similar set of twin instruments.) After making sure that the Wurlitzers' knobs, buttons and levers are all in order, he places his fingers onto the first of four sets of keys at his disposal, and suddenly the opening notes of "76 Trombones" pour from the massive pipes hidden behind each side of the stage front. While his hands work their magic, Castle's feet pump a series of pedals and bars, coloring the music as they skip along. The tones are robust and vigorous, the low end humming through the floor as the middle ranges and higher timbres swirl about the rest of the empty building. The ditty's last notes are still ringing when he swivels and says, "What a gorgeous sound."
No one knows these particular Wurlitzers better than Castle. Although he made his living as an investigator for the Denver District Attorney's Office, he moonlighted as the Paramount's organist for decades--and upon his retirement from his main gig in 1993, after nearly forty years on the job, he was able to devote even more time to his musical passion. Today he works as an organ tuner and is an active member of both the American Theater Organ Society and the American Guild of Organists, whose annual convention is taking place in Denver this week. On Thursday, July 2, at the Paramount, Castle is scheduled to offer up one of the highlights of the event by providing musical accompaniment to Big Business, a silent classic starring Laurel and Hardy (call 832-4730 for more information). Of course, he'll be doing so on the art-deco contraption he's been playing for most of his life.
Castle was something of a musical prodigy; at age six he plunked out his first tune on his older sister's piano before he'd taken a single lesson. His parents encouraged his youthful gifts, and a few years later, Castle decided to move from the piano to the organ. His instructor subsequently introduced him to Dick Hull, a part-time Paramount organist who gave Castle a few lessons at the theater's console. The thirteen-year-old proved to be a quick study, and he soon gained the favor of theater manager Ralph Bachelette, who offered Castle a regular seat at the keys. Before long, Castle was doing double duty, serving as an usher and an organist playing pre-show and intermission music.
"The houses were packed back then," Castle recalls. "You couldn't get another person in. All the seats were filled. In those days, this was a two-feature house, with a B-film and then a feature presentation. It was wonderful. I loved it. And in the beginning I didn't get paid to play, either, but I didn't care. Just to be on that organ, that was fine with me."
During the Forties, Denver was home to a number of bustling movie houses, many of which also sported eye-pleasing interiors and music from Castle's peers. Several of the finest, including the Paramount, were owned by a company called Fox Intermountain, but the firm was forced to divest some of its holdings following a Fifties-era anti-trust suit. As a result, the Paramount was sold to another outfit, Wolfberg Theaters. But the sale had no effect on Castle, who sometimes was at the organs seven nights a week. When attendance began to lag, Wolfberg put on live productions that became even more challenging because of the theater's layout. "When this house was being built, talking motion pictures were already a reality, and The Jazz Singer already existed," Castle points out about the theater, which opened in 1930. "But because talkies came out during the construction, there were change orders made in the construction of the theater, and we lost all our stage and all of our dressing rooms."
According to Castle, the theater nearly lost its organs, too. Because the new films had their own soundtracks, the theater's builder, Paramount Publics, wanted to cut the Wurlitzers out of the budget. But Wurlitzer fought the cancellation in court and won. "It's because of that court action by Wurlitzer that we have these organs in this theater," Castle says. "They would have been another thing that was cut from the building, and I would have never been here."
As the years marched on, Castle continued to ply his trade even as times got tougher. As he remembers, "The Seventies were the start of the decline of downtown theaters, and we didn't do an awful lot here with the organ during that time. I can remember days when we showed films to four or five people--and one day when we showed a film to one person. The downtown houses were just dying, and you couldn't afford to keep them open with that kind of attendance. It was sad, because you had to realize that the theater wasn't going to make it, and I always wondered what was going to happen to it. Well, we're struggling, but by hook or crook, we're still here."