Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dining: Pizza and Pipes and Organ Stop

Organist Charlie Balogh performed at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona on 20-December-2008

TEMPE, ARIZONA - Today, I had the opportunity to visit Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona. The restaurant is touted as the world's largest organ theater restaurant, featuring a Wurlitzer organ with nearly 6,000 pipes. For my cousin Bruce Carson, his wife Julie Malloy, and me, it was an opportunity to re-live our childhood at Pizza and Pipes in the Pacific Northwest.

Pizza and Pipes neatly paralleled my childhood. Its Bellevue, Washington location opened in 1977, early enough that I could not remember a time when there was no Pizza and Pipes. For family events, and even a few times on school field trips, I remember sitting at tables in a tiered layout so that everyone eating would have a view of an organist performing on a 1,200 pipe-Wurlitzer organ. While the pizza was cheap and forgettable, the organists were quite talented and there was plenty to keep a child entertained, from lights going on at whatever instrument like bells or percussion that was currently performing to black and white silent movies being accompanied to a disco ball reflecting about the room to a bubble machine blowing bubbles around the room for popping to Dirk the Duck walking through the audience. It was really quite a show.

There was more than one Pizza and Pipes. The chain actually started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1962, eventually numbering four restaurants in California, with the first Pacific Northwest location in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle--not far from where my cousin Bruce lived--opening in 1973 later joined by Tacoma and Bellevue. The Greenwood location would be the first to close, disappearing while I was in high school in 1989. The Bellevue location was closed because of highway construction in 1992, and the Tacoma location burned to the ground in 1999. Only two of the California locations remain, Redwood City and Santa Clara (which now operates under the name of Pizza Party), and neither had the near-theater seating style of the northwest restaurants.

Yet, Pizza and Pipes was far from the only restaurant to combine organ entertainment with pizza. Organ Stop was founded in Phoenix in 1972, and the current, enormous Mesa location opened in 1995, capable of seating over 500. As we ate dinner there today, Bruce and I could not help but to compare it to the Pizza and Pipes locations we remembered.

Some of the nearly 6,000 organ pipes were visible at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona on 20-December-2008

Physically, the resemblance could not have been stronger, even though both the room and the organ were clearly larger at Organ Stop. The bells, horns, xylophone, and percussion additions to the organ all looked exactly as I remembered from Pizza and Pipes. The same kind of keno-style number board displayed when pizza orders were ready. The dancing cats on the wall were a bit different than Pizza and Pipes' puppets, but served the same function.

A set of dancing cats joined the performance at Organ Stop Pizza on 20-December-2008

The performance took me back to the old days, with favorites like the Mickey Mouse theme song (during which a Mickey Mouse banner was unveiled) and the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Some songs I doubt I ever heard at Pizza and Pipes (like the Raiders of the Lost Arc theme and the Phantom of the Opera theme) but were well-arranged on the organ. Of course, it being December, a variety of holiday songs were included like Jingle Bell Rock, White Christmas, and a great rendition of the Carol of the Bells.

Bruce Carson enjoyed Organ Stop Pizza on 20-December-2008

The food was actually quite a bit better than the Pizza and Pipes of old with its super-thin crust and textured cheese--the crust was the same style but more substantial, and the toppings including the cheese were more than sufficient. Organ Stop's pizza would stand on its own without the organ.

When the organ descended and brought organist Charlie Balogh out of sight to end the opening act, we chose to leave Organ Stop Pizza, but not before having fully relived a portion of our childhood.

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