Pizza and organ music first came together in Mesa 40 years ago.
Cheryl Johnson remembers first going to Organ Stop Pizza when, as a young mother, she brought her family to Mesa from Minnesota to visit her then-recently retired parents.
“When my mom and dad lived in Mesa in a retirement community in the ‘70s, that’s how I got to Organ Stop Pizza. Mom and dad took us there. That’s how I attended the pizza and music. Mom and dad thought it was so much fun,” Johnson recalls.
Now a resident of Sun City, Johnson organizes trips for Recreation Centers of Sun City, Inc.
“It’s a very popular tour with our seniors, not only for loving pizza, but as well for their love for music,” she said.
Real estate developer Bill Brown opened the original Organ Stop Pizza in Phoenix in 1972. Three years later — in 1975 — Brown opened a Mesa Organ Stop Pizza near Dobson Road and Southern Avenue. That location became home to a Wurlitzer organ that was previously housed in the Denver Theater.
Nine years after that, Brown decided to sell both locations. While the Phoenix restaurant was demolished (the organ was sold, first), the Mesa location was sold to a longtime employee. Plans were made to double the size of the restaurant and a site was selected near Stapley Drive and Southern Avenue. It took one month to take apart the organ and three months to rebuild it, but in November 1995, Organ Stop Pizza opened in the location it remains in today.
The Wurlitzer has also grown. When the original organ was bought, it cost about $35,000 and had about 1,000 pipes, said Jack Barz, manager and co-owner of Organ Stop Pizza. With 6,000 pipes, today it is the largest theater organ in the world, with an estimated replacement value of $4 million. It takes nearly 50 miles of wiring to connect all the pieces of the 30-ton instrument.
The organ itself is impressive when you hear — and see — all the bells and whistles. The most recent addition, purchased in 2011, is a set of tuned cowbells.
There are eight different types of trumpets, two upright pianos, cymbals, wind chimes, a slide whistle, drums and more.
This machine can play it all.
Or, more fitting to say, one person can play it all with this instrument.
The restaurant’s key organists are Lew Williams and Charlie Balogh. Both have a long history of playing at Organ Stop Pizza.
Douglas Benton, director of music ministries at Gold Canyon United Methodist Church, is a big fan of Williams. He takes a group from the church to Organ Stop Pizza yearly, just to hear Williams play.
“He’s the best organist in the world,” Benton, an organist himself, said.
There is a “mystique” to the organ, Benton said, because very few people in the world play the instrument.
“Unless you do it, you don’t know how the whole thing works,” Benton said.
Balogh recently gave a tour to the Tribune.
It started with Balogh and his organ keys rising from the floor up on to a stage at the center of the eating area.
His first musical selection: “Under the Sea,” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
He was barely done with the last note when my son hollered, “Play ‘Star Wars.’”
Balogh was quick to get the tune started. At least we weren’t asking for “Phantom of the Opera,” the most requested piece of music at Organ Stop Pizza, Balogh said.
In fact, through the years, Balogh estimates he’s played “Phantom of the Opera,” between 18,000 and 19,000 times.
Barz offered up a few other fun facts from the history of Organ Stop Pizza. In the last 40 years, an estimated 10 million customers have been served; about 4 million pizzas have been eaten during then 100,000 estimated performances.
“It’s an inexpensive say to feed and entertain the family, Barz said. “Everybody loves pizza and it’s a terrific show for the whole family that can come in for $25.”
Besides, where else can you see a family of dancing cat puppets?
From now through June 30, a family can receive two large pizzas, two pitchers of soda and appetizers for $40 to celebrate the restaurant’s anniversary. Just last week, the restaurant started offering a gluten free pizza for patrons.
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