By Justine DaCosta
Stout doesn't live in the past, but he does re-create pieces of history. He has been restoring pipe organs for more than 40 years and maintains them in such historic venues as the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, where he has been the organ curator since 1960.
Born in Michigan to a theatrical family, Stout said theater has always been the focus of his life. He built his first basement theater at age 7, and by age 10 his appreciation of theater led to a fascination with pipe organs.
"I thought, 'My God, all this sound coming out of the walls,'" he said.
Hidden in the walls of old theaters and movie houses are chambers on top of chambers, sometimes several stories high, of actual instruments and pipes that replicate the sounds of instruments, used to create almost any imaginable sound or song. Each chamber contains a set of sounds, such as winds or strings, and blowers force air through the tuned pipes when the organist opens the valves by playing the keys and stops.
Stout was involved in the maintenance and restoration of pipe organs in a time when theater was thriving and thousands would fill venues such as the Fox Theater in San Francisco. Organs were a popular addition to silent movies into the 1950s, but they lost their appeal when television became popular, he said.
"It wasn't uncommon for 3,000 people (to go to the theater) a night," he said. "It was really amazing. There was an excitement to it."
In 1958 he started his own pipe organ maintenance company and had the opportunity to work on Wurlitzer organs at the Fox Theater and the Paramount in San Francisco.
Stout is part of a handful of people in the United States trained to repair pipe organs, and longtime organist David Hegarty said Stout is the best in the business.
Hegarty, the organist at the Castro Theater and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, said Stout is famous for his ability to restore symphonic and theater organs to their old glory.
"His job is an art that's really dying out," he said.
"There are few that have his insight and his experience. It's a mechanical process, but it takes a discerning ear that few people have."
Stout's newest project is restoring a Wurlitzer organ for the new California Theater in San Jose. Using handmade, quality parts, Stout said he's rebuilding it the way Rudolf Wurlitzer would have in the 1920s.
Dick Taylor, a San Mateo resident, met Stout 40 years ago, when he was a child. He was Stout's unofficial apprentice for many years and is still involved in most of Stout's projects.
Taylor, who owns the organ at the Castro Theater, said theater has become seedy and that Stout's dedication to organ restoration is helping to preserve the classic theater that still exists.
"He's the so-called world expert, one of the grand masters of the organ trade," he said. "He's a real character, colorful."