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."
Many of the Paramount's competitors did not fare nearly as well. "I can't tell you the exact dates when some of the more beautiful houses were torn down, but I think the Orpheum was the first of the big houses to go, and then the Denver Theater after that. The Denver Theater [which was located across 16th street from the Paramount] went down in the late Seventies. It was designed by Rapp & Rapp of Chicago, and it was a gorgeous theater inside."
For Castle, seeing the destruction of these old gems was especially difficult. "What went through my mind first of all was: How can we save these buildings? And if we can't save the theater, how can we save the organ? But in that period of time, there was a strange thing happening throughout the United States. In the early 1950s, an organization came into being known as the American Theater Organ Enthusiasts [it later changed its name to the American Theater Organ Society], and people began buying the organs out of the theaters and putting them in their homes. There was a wake-up call for the organs, so at least they were being salvaged."
In the mid-Eighties, the Paramount Foundation took over the management of the theater and began leasing it out for shows on a night-by-night basis. But the live concerts and other events that have helped to keep the distinguished facility open seldom require Castle's services. "You can't play this organ for people who are coming to hear rock music," he admits. "It has to be a crowd that has a little bit of knowledge of music other than rock."
Does that say something about the artistic sensibilities of the younger set? "It says that their education concerning classical music and music that was prevalent from 1900 all the way up to 1950 is of no use or value to them," Castle replies. "That's a strong statement, but if you say you can find a sixteen-year-old who will go to an organ concert, you're out of your mind. And that's one of the problems."
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The local chapter of the American Theater Organ Society is doing its part to change this state of affairs. The group is currently installing the organ from the late Aladdin Theater, once located at the intersection of Colfax and Race, at East High School. "The hope," Castle says, "is that if we can reinfuse a little bit of theater organ in kids, maybe they'll get a spark of desire to learn more about it, to hear it more and bring it back." The Society also sponsors a small number of performances each year at the Paramount, during which national and local artists get a chance to try out the Wurlitzers.
"I feel that this style of music is important enough that it should be maintained for future generations," Castle says. "Younger people, and even older people--they don't know the theater organ anymore. It sort of died before the war, and it wasn't used that much after the war. We used it here, and some other theaters around the country did, but before that they were heard everywhere. Every theater that had an organ used it all of the time, and the instrument itself needs to be saved, because it's a wonderful form of music. It's a form of music that--and I don't want to get into trouble with your readers--is an alternative to the current popular music.
"The organ is a one-man total instrument," he adds. "What we have here is an entire musical entity all unto itself. It doesn't need anything else to be complete, and I think that's one of the great things about it. But not enough people hear it, and when you take it away from the people who might come hear it, it loses favor. And it loses acceptance with people."
In spite of this situation, Castle is hopeful about the prospects for his chosen instrument. "I think it will always live," he says. "It's never gonna die in San Francisco, it's never gonna die in New York City, and it's never gonna die in other parts of the country. Hopefully, it won't die here in Denver, either, but it could, because right now the Paramount Theatre is the only public venue for a Wurlitzer. If something happens with the theater that we can't control, it's gonna go.