By Michelle Talsma Everson, September 2020 issue.
Most Valley residents have been to or at least know of Organ Stop Pizza (OSP) — the local tourist attraction that offers pizza, salad, and ice cream with a side of musical theater courtesy of its signature Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Pipe Organ. Well, it’s not so much a side dish as the main course. The food is great but it’s the world class pipe organ’s music that stays with you.
Recently, Echo had the chance to take a tour behind the scenes and chat with OSP’s two resident musicians — Lew Williams, who has been with the venue for over 40 years — and Brett Valliant, who has been a fill-in musician for a decade, but was brought in to be a mainstay in December 2019.
Both organists work full-time, performing for several hours in a sitting for OSP patrons. Check out tidbits from our interview below and make sure to visit this story on our website to hear some of the tunes.
Echo: What made you decide to pursue a career as a professional organist?
Lew: When I heard popular organ music as a kid, I knew that I wanted a career as a musician. I then went on to study classical organ music, and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, and studied and did competitions all over, including Switzerland. I connected with the then-owner of Organ Stop Pizza in 1978 and invited him to a church concert that I was performing at; he attended. Then, in 1979, he offered me the job of being an organist at Organ Stop Pizza.
Brett: I was fascinated with the organ at two years old, and by 15 was performing concerts around the U.S. I studied classical organ and was a church organist for 25 years, while performing around the world. I’ve been filling in at OSP when they needed me for about a decade, but joined the staff full-time late last year when famed organist Charlie Balogh passed. There, of course, is no filling his shoes.
Tell us about what it’s like to be a professional organist, especially at OSP.
Lew: You need to have 15 hours of music in your head that you’re ready to play at a moment’s notice because you have no sheet music. Depending on the time of day, the demographics of the audience change; the mood shifts depending on the crowd. You have to be able to read the room with your back to them. When I first played, I was petrified! No one can teach you how to do this. The audience will tell you non-verbally. If you get into the right groove, you can feel the audience as one living entity. Oh, and be prepared to play one song six to seven different ways.
Brett: The theater organ was created to take the place of a theater orchestra. You are literally a one person symphony.
How has COVID-19 impacted OSP and your performances?
Lew: January through April has always been our busy season with winter visitors; we played at 11 a.m. to a crowd; at 1:30 p.m.; then from 4:30-9 p.m. We could spend hours playing for 2,000 to 3,000 people a day. But, with COVID-19, obviously it has taken an extreme toll on business, as this space that usually held 750 people now can only safely hold a fraction of that. People who do come though are appreciative of the music and our efforts. They enjoy the food of course, but they’re definitely here to hear the organ.
What stands out to you the most about the Mighty Wurlitzer?
Lew: The sound of the organ is like the sound of a living creature; you can feel the ebb and flow of the acoustics as the air moves through the pipes. It takes years to get everything down; every pipe organ has its own personality. From this one instrument we control everything at OSP except the kitchen!
Brett: Since I’m the newer one to this particular instrument, I come in frequently, even when I’m not playing, to practice and watch. I’m still evolving as a musician with the Mighty Wurlitzer, especially when learning new pieces.
What are some of the most popular songs that are requested?
Brett: You have to understand, in our busiest times, we can easily play 10 to 11 hours a day. Some of the most requested songs are “Under the Sea,” “Baby Shark,” music from Frozen, music from Star Wars, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” music from Titanic, the list goes on.
What would you tell a young musician — like you both were at one point — who is interested in becoming a professional organist?
Lew: Get a real job, let this be a hobby (he says with a laugh). An organist I admired told me: “If you have something else you can do, do it. Anything else in the world! Only pursue music as a career if you can’t picture yourself doing anything else.”
Brett: We are both grateful and amazed though to do what we do; who else can say they are playing live music to an audience right now, especially during COVID?
For those who have never been to Organ Stop Pizza, what would you tell them about the experience of seeing the Mighty Wurlitzer?
Lew: Where else can you come, sit down, request a tune, and have it played by an amazing instrument? Where else do people perform live? We’re going to keep doing this as long as we can; as long as people keep coming through the door.
Brett: There’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world. Nothing with this kind of wow factor for sure.
Organ Stop Pizza 101
OSP is “Home of the Mighty Wurlitzer Pipe Organ” and has served the Valley nearly 50 years. Organ Stop Pizza attracts hundreds of thousands of patrons each year with its theatrical performances complete with dancing cat puppets, disco balls, and bubbles. Songs range from classical music to Disney favorites to pop and rock hits. They are a cash or check only business. No credit or debit cards accepted.
According to OSP, the historic entertainment and restaurant destination has gone from serving up to 700 people to just 250 during COVID-19. The owners have worked very hard to make the restaurant as safe as possible for guests and staff; those who are interested in learning more can visit the website at organstoppizza.com to see a video that walks viewers through what to expect at OSP during today’s new safety precautions.