Features and Reviews
In Memoriam: Bill Coffman (1926-2001)
By Bill Mitchell
The ragtime community lost one of its best friends with the sudden passing of Bill Coffman early in December. Bill was proprietor (with his business partner, Bill Field) of the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo.
Opening for business in 1969, this establishment offered over the years a varied menu of classic films, both silents and talkies, and frequent musical concerts featuring many different types of music, but favoring ragtime pianists and orchestras. Over the years such artists as Eubie Blake, Knocky Parker, John Guarnieri, Dick Zimmerman, Robbie Rhodes, Jim Turner, Kathy Craig, Pat Gogarty, Dorothy Coates, David Thomas Roberts, Bob Milne, Alex Hassan, Robin Frost, Mimi Blais, and many other fine players have performed on the superb grand pianos (Bosendorfer and Steinway) that, along with the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, grace the stage at the OTMH.
Bill was born in Mena, Arkansas, where he taught himself to play as a youngster by following the movements of the keys on a player piano. Later he had some formal instruction, and after moving to California, he played for 16 years in a piano bar in Wilmington, a suburb of L.A. In the 1950s, he studied under Jesse Crawford, the renowned theater organist. In 1958, Coffman and Field purchased the Mighty Wurlitzer that had been installed in the Fox Theater in Long Beach in 1925, when organ accompaniment was customary in major theaters. For a few years, they carted it around to play for special occasions until they found an old neighborhood theater in El Segundo as its permanent home. Thus, the OTMH came into being.
Typically, Bill would introduce each concert with a few jocular and whimsical remarks of greeting before presenting the artists of the evening. We will miss his "How many of you are here for the first time? (Pause) How many of you are here for the last time?" And "The pharmacy will be open during intermission for your macaroons." He liked to josh with his regular customers, and he had many loyal fans that attended every concert.
No services were scheduled, but there will be a memorial open house at OTMH on Sunday, Jan. 6 from 1:00-9:00 p.m. His many friends and fans will be dropping in at various times to play music and reminisce about Bill. Refreshments will be served at this informal gathering.
The Los Angeles Times obituary page of Dec. 14, 2001 carried an interesting story on Bill, including a picture of him at the organ console in 1982.
Memorial donations may be made to the Old Town Music Hall.