There is a pizzeria in Mesa that is a mecca for the theater pipe organists from around the globe. Enthusiasts are among the hundreds of thousands annually to visit Organ Stop Pizza on Southern Avenue.
The world’s largest Wurlitzer pipe organ is domiciled in the Valley of the Sun and valued at over $4 million. The almost 6,000 pipes are a treat to hear and behold.
A visit to this pizza parlor is a sensory experience. The vibrato from the bass notes thumps your chest. The multi-colored light show mesmerizes children who gaze toward the ceiling and point to a cascade of bubbles.
On this evening, organist Lew Williams and the theater pipe organ slowly corkscrew up from the pit below in grand-entrance style. Melodies from The Lion King and Sound of Music scores, The Beatles and The Phantom of the Opera thrill the audience to applause.
Williams plays a variety of audience requests tonight on The Mighty Wurlitzer. There is no sheet music in sight. He has tickled the ivories (and the 1,074 keys and switches) here since 1979. It is all from memory.
There is a dizzying array of musical instruments that work in concert for the organist at Organ Stop Pizza. Look up and you will see cymbals, conga drums, percussion, claxons (horns), xylophones, castanets, glockenspiels, an accordion and a gong. It’s all a euphonic chorus at the hands of Williams.
Heyday of the Theater Pipe Organ
Theater pipe organs came of age during the silent film era in the early 20th century. They added depth and suspense for audiences in cinemas by creating real-time soundtracks to movies. Movies with stars like cowboy Tom Mix. Theater organs replaced the more expensive pit orchestras. Later, by the mid-1930s, theater pipe organs faded with the advent of the talkies, or movies with a recorded soundtrack. Theater organ music was phased out or relegated to intermissions.
Wurlitzers in Arizona
At one point, the Valley had two Organ Stop Pizza restaurants with Wurlitzer theater pipe organs. One each in Phoenix and Mesa. The Phoenix location was 5330 N. 7th Street. It has since been razed.
Both were owned by Arizona real estate developer and organ hobbyist William P. Brown. He retired in 1984 and closed the Phoenix location. Brown sold the Mesa pizza parlor to new owners. The current Mesa location is the restaurant’s second East Valley site. It was built in 1995 to house the expanding pipe organ project.
The current 1927 Wurlitzer pipe organ at the Mesa location was originally built for the Denver Theater in Denver, Colorado. The instrument was in disrepair after surviving a fire. It was carefully restored and additional ranks (or rows) of organ pipe were added when it was purchased and installed by Brown in 1975 for his restaurant. The organ now has 82 ranks of pipes, making it not only the largest Wurlitzer pipe organ in the world, but the largest theater organ ever built.
A Unique Venue
Organ Stop Pizza is a nostalgic venue for a birthday party or a dinner for out-of-town guests. The balconied restaurant resembles a German bier hall with long tables and seats several hundred patrons. It is located just off of Arizona’s Highway 60 at the Stapley Drive exit. The address is 1149 E Southern Ave, Mesa, AZ 85204.
Menu items including pizza and sandwiches are made-to-order. Watch the lighted numerical boards in the music hall to be alerted when your order is ready. A cold-plate salad bar and an ice cream bar round out the culinary delights. There is also a beer and wine counter.
The restaurant does not take credit or debit cards. Only cash and checks are accepted. Call 480-813-5700 to book large parties or private concerts.
Have you visited Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa? Leave me your comments or memories below.
I played the organ when I went to military school, when I was 10. They had a huge organ, the second-largest pipe organ in New York State. I loved all the buttons and the gadgets. I’ve always been a gadget man. – Stephen Sondheim, American composer, lyricist and winner of eight Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize