August 14, 1911 — January 4, 2002
Think Louise Brooks, Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and you'll understand why thousands of Bay Area people feel that the next showing of "City Lights" will seem slightly dimmed. Vaughn, possibly San Francisco's most celebrated theater pipe organist, who entertained untold numbers of silent-era filmgoers since the 1920s, was buried yesterday in a ceremony much more vocal than any of the movies he spent his life spinning notes around.
Bob Vaughn was the last of the great theater organists who learned their art during the era of silent film, a group that included such notables as Gaylord Carter, John Muri and Lee Erwin. He was something of a local art house legend, an accompanist who provided moody music for sad hearts, silly syncopation for slapstick and cinematic history for an overeducated film population.
Vaughn was a burly, sonorous, white-haired champion of celluloid refinement and at the same time a Harley-loving, leather-clad adventurer who often wore a tuxedo under his motorcycle togs.
He was complex. He was sophisticated. He was as original as one of his cherished silent-era film scores. And he will be missed by anyone who ever had the pleasure of hearing him play at any of the repertory theaters in Oakland, Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Jose and San Francisco during the past three decades.
Vaughn died a few days back in a Bakersfield rest home at age 90. Friends gathered at St. Cecilia's Church in the Parkside yesterday to bid their final farewells — not far from the home where Vaughn lived for most of the past 30 years.
"He was bigger than life, a one-of-a-kind character," said Anita Monga, the Castro Theatre's longtime film booker. "He'd drive his motorcycle all the way to Fresno just to play a showing. And even though he had more knowledge about film and film scores than almost anyone, he wasn't a diva. He just loved what he did to the end."
The end came nearly 70 years after Vaughn first started playing pipe organs in theaters around Long Beach, starting with one of his favorites, "Phantom of the Opera." From 1927-29, Vaughn worked seven days a week on his craft, including matinees, the pace slowing as the talkies took over and many of the grand Wurlitzers were mothballed. For a time he worked in stage orchestras, but as the silent era ended, Vaughn left the music field. He spent 30 years working as an investigator for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, including a stint for the INS on Angel Island.
It wasn't until Vaughn moved back to San Francisco in the early '60s that he returned to the accompanist fold. He showed up at the old Avenue Theatre one day just to fool around with the Wurlitzer. When manager Geoff Hansen heard the sounds wafting from the 16 ranks of pipes, he refused to let Vaughn leave until he agreed to play there on a weekly basis.
Vaughn's fans still lament the closing of the theater in 1984, though they could still travel to the Castro, the UC Theatre in Berkeley and the Towne Theater in San Jose to hear him play.
And play he did — at public screenings, private parties, at funerals, weddings or at home. Though not formally trained, Vaughn spent his formative years learning the intricacies of theater organs, intent on weaving improvisation and composed scores — the hallmark of most silent film accompaniment.
"I don't think of myself as a soloist," he told onetime Chronicle movie writer John Stanley in 1988. "I try to keep the music pulsing with different themes for different scenes, always looking for the climaxes without anticipating them until they happen. The secret of making it work is that you must feel like you're a part of the picture — the audience shouldn't even be aware that you're there."
But it was hard to ignore his exemplary work on such classics as "Wings," "Ben-Hur," "The Big Parade" or "Birth of a Nation." He scored Abel Gance's "Napoleon" long before Carmine Coppola weighed in with his version. Vaughn was perhaps most fond of his interpretation of "Pandora's Box" because of his affinity for the film's lead, the great Louise Brooks.
Vaughn built his own personal soundtrack library of silent film scores over the years, in part because of his love of the genre and also because they became so very difficult to find. Few of the original scores survived, so Vaughn spent decades researching popular music from the 1920s, songs with lurid titles such as "Despair," "Redemption" and "Gruesome Tale." Among his many treasures was the sheet music for "The Perfect Song," the love theme from "Birth of a Nation" that Vaughn had autographed by Lillian Gish.
"Some organists will tell you they plink away without sheet music, but believe me, nobody can fake it in the dark for very long," he told The Chronicle. "You have to be watching for the moment when Hardy slaps Laurel so you can give it the right sweetener."
And sweetly his music soared. "He could play anything," said Gary Meyer, longtime proprietor of the recently closed UC Theatre. "He would show up at the theater's anniversary each year and play 'Happy Birthday,' and there would be a thousand people singing it along with his playing. He was a special person."
Said Leonard Maltin, the ubiquitous film critic on "Entertainment Tonight": "I'll never forget him doing 'Old Ironsides' for an early Cinecon in D.C. and finishing the show with tears in his eyes."
It's hard to say what kind of music he would have provided his audience at the church yesterday, but no doubt there would have been a tinge of sadness mixed with a few notes of light sweetener. For if Vaughn had any regrets, it was that he knew he would not be able to play the organ at his own funeral.