Charlie Balogh

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: Spotlight Issue: October 2015
Group Free

Mighty Organ Manipulator

It’s hard to describe the soul-shaking sound Charlie Balogh conjures at the keyboards of the sedan-size Wurlitzer theater organ at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the imitative tones of clarinets, flutes, trumpets, trombones, violins and a variety of other orchestral and percussion instruments under the touch of his nimble fingers. The virtuoso started playing for Organ Stop in 1973 at its original location on Seventh Street and Missouri Avenue in Phoenix, later moving to Grand Rapids, Mich. to work as a resident organist. He returned to the Valley in 1991 and has played at the monolithic restaurant ever since to standing-room-only crowds. Known as the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” the 6,000-pipe behemoth is the largest organ of its kind in the world – and Balogh mans it four night a week.

How did you develop an interest in playing the organ?
My mom... was a church organist, and my dad loved these instruments when they were in the theaters in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Growing up back east, my family and I would go to Radio City Music Hall in New York a lot and they have one of these instruments installed there. I was just fascinated with the organ and we would sometimes sit through two and a half shows so we could hear the organ during intermission. I went to Trenton State College and studied classical organ and a music-teaching curriculum, but my real heart was in performing.

What is the origin of the theater pipe organ?
The instruments were originally designed for silent movies to take the place of an orchestra. It was a lot cheaper to pay one organist to play for a silent movie than it was to hire an orchestra, which is what some of the larger theaters did. So when silent films went the way of the dodo, some of the larger theaters retained their organists to play during intermissions and sing-alongs during the ‘30s and ‘40s.

What song do you get the most requests for?
It has to be “Phantom of the Opera” ... I sat down one night and tried to figure just how many times I’ve played it since it came out and I figure it’s just under 20,000 times... And I’ve recorded three different versions of it over the years.

Do you get requests for songs you don’t know?
Oh yeah, all the time. I often joke that I’ve forgotten as much as I remember over the years. People often ask me “How many songs do you remember?” and I don’t really know. I have a very good memory and after 40 years of playing, I have a large repertoire of music that I can play from memory.  

How many people are out there who can play this kind of pipe organ?
Conservatively, there are probably a couple dozen of us worldwide who play them professionally.

What do you enjoy most about playing the pipe organ?
For as long as I’ve been doing this, sometimes it can be a job, but the energy of the crowd is what propels me forward and keeps me going, keeps me interested. When the crowd is having a good time, I’m having a good time. It gives me energy.

VIDEO EXTRA
Check out phoenixmag.com/web-extras or our tablet editions (available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play) for exclusive behind-the-scenes video of the PHOENIX magazine photoshoot with Charlie Balogh.