In restaurants in Arizona, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the 1970s and ’80s craze for “pizza and pipes” lives on.
By 5 p.m., in a commercial section of Mesa, Arizona, the line to order pizza stretches past the arcade, out the door, and onto the sidewalk. But the main attraction isn’t the pepperoni pie: It’s a giant pipe organ, played by a professional, with an accompanying light show during your meal.
Believe it or not, this used to be a fairly common dining experience, offered by more than 100 such establishments in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. It was Ye Olde Pizza Joynt in Hayward, California, that pioneered the “pizza-and-pipes” restaurant in the 1960s. (If this sounds a bit like Chuck E. Cheese’s, you’re not wrong: Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Chuck E. Cheese’s, told The Atlantic in 2013 that his inspiration for every parent’s nightmare was a pizza-and-pipes restaurant.)
Today, Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa is one of the few restaurants left. The restaurant’s organ, the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” lives up to its name—it’s the largest Wurlitzer organ in the world. The Wurlitzer sits atop an 8,000-pound console, which controls the pipework, percussion, and lighting via 1,074 individual keys, buttons, and switches. It’s even bigger than the organ at Radio City Music Hall, although that is a classical organ (the type you’d find in a church) and the Wurlitzer is a theater organ. And yes, there is a distinction.
“It’s kind of like comparing a 747 to a Cessna type of thing: They’re just different,” said Jack Barz, the co-owner of Organ Stop. “There are so many more things you have to do with a theater organ because of all the different sound effects and instruments—[there are] actual real, live instruments that it controls.”
Theater organs, or “unit orchestras,” were designed in the era of silent films as a cost-saving measure to include the variety of sounds and instruments required by the score, so that one musician could be paid instead of many. Once talkies began, many of the organs fell out of use and sat unplayed for decades. Organ Stop’s Wurlitzer was built in 1927 for the Denver Theater; it’s currently insured for $5 million.
The first location of Organ Stop opened in Phoenix in 1972. After a few successful years, original owner Bill Brown opened another location in Mesa in 1975, followed by a third in Tucson in 1977. The Tucson and Phoenix restaurants have since closed down. Brown sold the Mesa restaurant to two of the managers and one of the organists in 1984. A few months later, in 1985, Barz started working there as a dishwasher, before rising through the ranks.
In 1995, the then-owners decided they wanted to open a bigger location in Mesa. So they closed down the original spot, which sat 335 people, and moved to their current location, which has room for more than 700. This wasn’t a simple move: Over a five-month period, each of the nearly 6,000 pipes of the Wurlitzer was moved four miles down the road to the new venue, and the organ was reconstructed.
In the first Mesa restaurant, it was a primarily older crowd of retirees and winter visitors. “For whatever reason, once we moved in here, we’ve really been able to tap into the family market,” Barz said. “So we really bill it more as a multi-generational facility.” Organ Stop attracts visitors from all over the state, some of whom organize bus excursions from places a few hours away, like Tucson, just to come for dinner.
The song selection is as varied as the crowd. Saturday is the most popular day of the week to host birthdays, and there were at least five separate celebrations taking place when I visited. The organist played songs from Moana and Frozen, requested by attendees of a child’s party seated up front. Later, after a spirited rendition of Scott Joplin’s 1902 rag “The Entertainer,” the organist wished another guest a happy 100th birthday.
Despite it being a craze a generation ago, there are only three pizza-and-pipes restaurants left: Organ Stop, Organ Piper Pizza in Greenfield, Wisconsin, and Beggars Pizza in Lansing, Illinois (shown in the video below, from 1984). What happened to the rest of the pizzerias with organs?
According to Barz, many pizza-and-pipes restaurants attempted to expand their menus to include more upscale items like prime rib as a way to increase revenue. It turned out that people truly wanted pizza with their pipes—and after an evening at Organ Stop, you can see why. Diners sit at long communal tables, sharing pizzas and mozzarella sticks, mesmerized by the music and accompanying light show. This isn’t the time or place to concentrate on your food. Not when a massive organ on a rotating elevated platform is playing movie themes.
The 18,000-square-foot Organ Stop was designed around the Wurlitzer, with 46-foot ceilings. “We built it large, and it just happened to be able to accommodate 700 because we wanted the organ to be able to speak,” said Barz. “That’s why it’s so cavernous in here—so that the organ can just really speak and develop a sound.”
Despite packing hundreds of customers in on a regular basis, Barz said he has no plans to expand. The cost and effort required to find another theater organ and build the right space for it would be too much.
Having said that, if you’ve ever wanted to get into the pizza-and-pipes business, you’re in luck. “The restaurant is somewhat, quasi for sale right now,” Barz said. “So if someone has several million dollars that they want to invest in a really cool restaurant, tell them to call us.”