In Memoriam—Allen Harrah

Designer of the “Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ”

We are saddened to announce the death of our great friend Allen Harrah—June 1, 2020—at the age of 85.

Allen had a long history as a designer and builder of fine pipe organs, and he built the first commercially successful combination pipe/electronic organ (Ruffatti/Rodgers) in 1972. In the late 1970s he founded the Harrah / Van Zoeren Pipe Organ Company and later served as president of the Rodgers Organ Company in the mid-1980s. In the early 1990s he headed the manufacturing team that resurrected the classic Mason & Hamlin pianos, built to their original specifications. He has also served as consultant on a number of major organ installations in the United States, Europe, and Asia. In 2005 he designed and built the celebrated 389-rank Harrah Symphonic Organ for Forrest-Burdette church in his hometown of Hurricane, WV. This is the instrument that we feature in our CODA videos as the smaller prototype of our new organ. Al’s last project was designing and overseeing the building of our soon-to-be-installed Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ—countless hours, all pro bono. His friendship, forward thinking, and encyclopedic knowledge of the organ industry has been a major inspiration to us. We only regret that he didn’t live long enough to experience his Magnum Opus at the Castro.

Fundraising Campaign Update

May 23, 2020

Dear Donor:

I am pleased to send you this progress report on the campaign for the Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ. On behalf of Castro Theatre organist David Hegarty, the Castro Organ Devotees Association Board, and the CODA Campaign Committee, thank you for your emotional and financial support. We are working together to bring a great new custom-designed organ, the largest hybrid (precision digital combined with pipe) organ in the world, to the Castro Theatre.

Although many activities have been slowed by current circumstances, this project continues to move forward. The Campaign Committee met via Zoom on April 21, 2020, to review our progress, and I am pleased to report to you: $792,413 has now been raised (with all pledges paid) toward the $1.3 million goal. The November 7, 2019, “Dawn of a Masterpiece” event at the Castro Theatre exceeded our expectations, raising over $200,000 toward completion of the instrument. Honorary chairs Mrs. Diane (Dede) Wilsey and the Hon. Willie L. Brown, and event co-chairs Adrienne Hirt and Jeff Rodman planned a wonderfully entertaining evening that was a great social and financial success.

The new organ has been designed, and the console that ties it all together has been completed. The Walker Technical Company of Center Valley, PA, has been selected to install the digital and electronic portions of the organ, provide the custom speaker systems, and travel to San Francisco to complete the installation of the organ. This process was well underway when the COVID-19 pandemic halted many activities around the world, including the studios at Walker. When work resumes and the organ is completed, $160,000 will be needed for the final payment to Walker, and for shipping and installation. At that point, the digital organ will be fully functional and ready to play. An additional $350,000 will be needed to install the pipes and complete the full vision of a hybrid instrument.

The innovative nature of the Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ is opening an option for us. As described, its unique architecture brings two entire organs together through a unifying console: a massive digital organ with 400 sounds precisely captured from pipe organs and instruments around the world and reproduced through an array of 120 loudspeakers distributed throughout the theatre, and an authentic pipe organ with over 1200 pipes. Given today's financial environment, the Committee believes fast-tracking the amazing digital organ is the best strategy, as it produces a gorgeous digital instrument (a full organ in its own right) in the near-term as we complete funding for the pipes and their mechanisms, to be incorporated somewhat later.

To accomplish this, the Committee recommends that the remaining fundraising will be split into two, more achievable, phases:

  1. Phase I: $160,000. This will complete payment for the organ console, and all components including installation of the full digital organ, and

  2. Phase II: $350,000. This is the estimate to complete the refurbishment and installation of the organ pipes (which we already own), mechanisms, and massive blowers.

The remaining $160,000, completing Phase 1, will bring a fully functional digital organ of world-class stature to the Theatre. The Committee plans to resume fundraising when public health conditions allow. Once the Phase I goal is achieved, and the digital organ is installed and operational, an analysis will be made and the Phase II fundraising will allow for the completion of the complete hybrid organ.

This is a challenging time for everyone, a time of much uncertainty. But our Committee is reminded, in its vivid resolve, that the Castro Theatre organ played a liberating role at its dedication in 1922, when life started returning to normal in San Francisco after the devastating Spanish Flu Pandemic. We are resolved that the new theatre organ will play a similar role when we emerge from the COVID-19 Pandemic, and bring even more joy.

If you have any questions or concerns, I am happy to meet with you by phone or teleconference.

And, as always, if you wish to recommend someone who may wish to join as a supporter, please do let us know.

Thank you, once again, for your generous support.

Jim Sotiros
Castro Organ Devotees Association
Campaign Committee

Castro Theatre Organ Update Video

This video, made by CODA Finance Committee member James A. McCombe, was shown at a June 10, 2018, concert by David Hegarty, celebrating his 40 years as the Castro Organist.

Certificate of Honor issued by San Francisco Mayor

This Certificate of Honor was presented to Castro Organist David Hegarty by Mayor Mark E. Farrell at the June 10 event.

Specifications of the Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ

Download a PDF of the organ’s specs here.

The construction of our new console is completed

On June 9, 2017, most of the major players in this project converged at the Colby factory in Johnson City, Tennessee. Allen Harrah (organ designer), Roger Colby (console builder), John Carpenter (Walker Technical), David Hegarty, Len Moors, and Brad Barber (documentarian) all met together for the first time to experience in person the staggering beauty and magnificence of this newly finished seven-manual console.

It will soon be moved to the Walker facility in Zionsville, Pennsylvania, for installation of digital components.

The 837 stop tabs are uniquely color-coded to instantly identify the various divisions of the organ.

The console was temporarily moved to Jacksonville, Florida, for display in the lobby of the hotel that hosted the 2017 Southeastern Regional Convention of the American Guild of Organists.

A temporary theatre organ is in place

The Wurlitzer console was removed from the theatre at the end of September 2015, and we are temporarily using a smaller digital organ—an Allen Theatre III—until the Castro Symphonic Theatre Organ is finished and installed.

A NEW LOOK for the console

With enthusiastic public support, we have returned to our original concept of the new organ—an elegant, dark walnut wood-grained console. It will look stunning against the gold curtain. 

CODA Update: News from organist David Hegarty

I recently had the privilege of visiting the factory in Tennessee where our new organ console is being built. R.A. Colby Organbuilders are doing a beautiful job of constructing the magnificent custom console to our exact specifications.

A few pedals and one swell shoe were temporarily put in place that day to test the relative positioning of all components.

It was a thrill to actually sit at the console and experience the shape and ergonomic feel of the organ that Allen Harrah and I have spent so much time envisioning and designing. All the stop tabs (837 of them!) will be easily accessible.

Allen Harrah, master organ designer, with his “magnum opus” in progress:

David with Roger Colby, president of R.A. Colby Organbuilders, Johnson City, Tennessee—builders of this unique custom organ console:

The three of us discuss the layout of features as construction progresses . . .

The exciting new instrument is well on its way to completion . . .

CODA Receives Significant Donation—Organ Pipes!

Our original plan included saving and refurbishing 16 ranks of the existing Castro organ—the Wurlitzer that was installed by its private owner in the early ’80s. We have been very fortunate to have the use of that organ for over 30 years. However, the costs and complexities of purchasing and restoring the portions of that organ that were available to us have become impractical. Fortunately, we have been offered a theatre pipe organ of equivalent size (Wurlitzer/Kimball) as a donation from a nonprofit theatre foundation. Any required refurbishing will be done prior to installation at significantly less expense than removing the existing components and sending them out for releathering.