Santa Barbara theater celebrates 90th anniversary with free organ concert
Santa Barbara’s treasured Arlington Theatre resounded with the deep, rich tune of the historic, 93-year-old pipe organ on Saturday afternoon.
After a year of closure and uncertainty within the performing arts community, several dozen community members, many of whom were seniors, flocked to the red theater seats to enjoy the music. The free organ concert was open to the public, and attendees received complimentary popcorn and could come and go at their leisure. The event was dedicated to former Santa Barbara Mayor Hal Conklin, who died Friday at age 75 after a battle with brain cancer.
“Gosh, to say it’s good to be back is an understatement,” Adam Aceto, the staff organist at the theater, told the News-Press before his performance. “You don’t realize as a performer how the audience is primarily doing nothing, but just their sheer being there, and how it influences you both in the performance aspect but also your mental aspect.”
Although several rows are roped off in the iconic theater following COVID protocol, community members dressed in their best didn’t mind. They sat spaced out, talking amongst themselves, recording video, taking photos and simply enjoying their buttery popcorn and the exciting, majestic sounds of the large and complex instrument. Couples leaned on each other’s shoulders; fans hooted and hollered after each piece; and some attendees even rose to do little dances to the bright, fanfare-like tunes.
Ironically enough, the man behind the organ said that the pandemic was actually good for the historic instrument. Time off from performing allowed repair crews and members of the Santa Barbara Theatre Organ Society to perform much-needed tweaks and fixes on the nearly century-old organ — 650 hours of repairs, to be precise.
“Now, it’s pretty bulletproof, and we don’t have to come in before a concert to clean the keyboard contacts,” Bruce Murdock, the president of the Organ Society, told the News-Press. He shared that the society hires an organ company to come in every so often to make repairs, and one of the workers told him, “This is one of five organs in the world where everything works.”
Saturday’s performance by Mr. Aceto — who is also a resident organist for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and a nationally renowned musicologist — was the organ’s first debut with all its repairs. He’s been a staff organist for around eight years now and is nearing two dozen silent movies for the Organ Society.
“It’s nice to be so embraced by the community — other theaters are not as lucky to have that,” the organist said. “I probably spent a dozen hours here playing since the pandemic, but it doesn’t feel anything like the sensation when there’s someone here listening.”
The local landmark reopened its doors on Friday with three classics showing: “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial,” “Ghostbusters” and “Blade Runner: The Final Cut.”
Arlington’s general manager, Karen Killingsworth, was finally able to push open the grand theater doors after a year of closure. Right away at 2 p.m. Friday afternoon before the first afternoon showing of “E.T.,” the manager told her staff, “It’s time to open the doors.”
“It’s great. It’s fabulous. It’s been a long time,” Ms. Killingsworth told the News-Press.
The strong scent of buttery popcorn wafted around the theater’s entrance plaza as eager moviegoers trickled in, some young, some old.
One man was waiting outside the theater entrance for his wife to see “E.T.” on the big screen. He told the News-Press that they’ve seen the film before, so their movie theater visit wasn’t just about the film.
“I’m 93 going on 94,” he told the News-Press. “I’m very fortunate to be alive. I haven’t been to a movie in a year, and I like to go to movies.”
Ms. Killingsworth said she feels confident the return to movies will be a slow build up.
“Right now, people will have to just wait until they see something they want to see in the theater, I think, and just be with people and eat popcorn. People like to get out,” she said. “We’re looking forward to a lot of summer blockbusters. A lot of films were rescheduled, so there’s a lot of stuff coming out during the summer.”
She mentioned “Fast & Furious 9” as one of the blockbusters expected to draw many fans to the Arlington Theatre. The release date for the film is currently June 25.
“We’re excited to get it reopened and to have business again — to see happy faces come in again,” the manager said.
As the theater reflected on the nine decades of providing unique entertainment, showcasing artistic brilliance and welcoming a thriving arts community, the organist celebrating its anniversary said that he knows with a city that cares, the legacy will live on.
“I can’t state enough — there are other theaters lucky enough to have a theater pipe organ, but there are very few that embrace it as lovingly as both the management and the ownership here,” Mr. Aceto said. “So for that, we are beyond lucky. That alone is a reason to celebrate, that they see that’s of value, and they appreciate it and want to foster it and continue it.”