Organ nights to return at Beggars Pizza thanks to local 16-year-old organist
LANSING, Ill. (October 30, 2023) – It’s been over three-and-a-half years since the 1927 pipe organ has been played for customers at Beggars Pizza, but that’s about to change.
Starting on Halloween night, the regular Tuesday and Friday schedule resumes. And for the first time since before the COVID shutdowns, the dining room will fill with the sounds of the organ, played by a local youngster who fell in love with organ music when he saw it played at Beggars many years ago.
Living his dream
When Christian Schoop was about 7 years old, he attended a pizza party at Beggars Pizza in Lansing as a school reward for reading books.
“I saw the organ and thought it was cool,” he said.
But it wasn’t just a watch-it-one-time kind of cool. It was cool enough that he returned almost every week on Tuesdays to see it played until it went silent in March of 2020 due to the pandemic. Sometimes he would go there for dinner with family. Sometimes he’d go with friends. He’d have birthday parties there.
“The organ has been part of my life for about nine years,” he said. “It’s been my dream for a while to play it.”
An experienced musician, Schoop first learned to play the piano when he was four or five with some guidance from the organist at his church, Trinity Lutheran Church in Hammond. He continued playing over the years, but didn’t perform for others.
“I played when no one was around,” he said. “It’s a little easier that way. There’s no one there to complain how bad it sounds.”
About 10 months ago, Schoop took up online piano lessons to help him improve. Three months after that, he took his first online organ lesson.
“I had the fundamentals down and started up again with lessons,” he said. “I don’t use sheet music. I play by memory.”
He’s in his third year playing trumpet in the marching band at Munster High School, which is a huge time commitment. This past weekend, he traveled with his band to the state competition in Indianapolis. With band season coming to a close, Schoop will have time to play at Beggars, and work on projects to maintain the pipe organ.
Last December, he heard that the organ was sitting empty and quiet in the restaurant. The previous organist, Glen Taller, moved out of state and they had no one to play the organ.
“In August, when I was old enough, I applied,” he said.
The 16-year-old’s organ playing debut will be on Tuesday, October 31 and he’ll play from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays going forward.
Bringing the 96-year-old organ back to life
The 3-manual, 17-rank Barton Theatre Pipe Organ located inside Beggars Pizza was built in 1927. Although the building that houses Beggars Pizza was originally the Lans Theatre, the organ was not used there. The Lans Theatre didn’t open until 1947.
The organ wasn’t added to the building until it became Pipes and Pizza in early the 1980s. In 1995, Beggars Pizza opened and continued the practice of having live organ music two or three nights a week. The organ originated in Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre in 1927.
The organ saw a few moves after its time in Milwaukee was done. It was used in a Moline, Illinois roller rink, a pizza parlor in Minneapolis (where it sustained some damage in a fire), and then in a private residence in the Midwest before finding its home in Lansing.
Taylor Trimby and David Rhodes from the Chicago Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society have been offering some guidance, advice, and labor in getting the organ in shape to be played again.
“We heard about what Christian was doing and since this is what our organization does, we called and said we’d be happy to help,” said Trimby. “We went over to kind of evaluate where it was so we could get an idea of what needed to be done. It is in bad condition. It sat through COVID and wasn’t played. With the wood and leather and then humidity and not good heat when the building was shut down, it didn’t like that. It needs work and we are prioritizing.”
The group does what they can to work to restore organs like the one at Beggars with the efforts of volunteers and donations. Trimby said that the national organization, the American Theatre Organ Society, awards grants to help with such projects. Beggars will be eligible to apply to get help in paying for some of the custom pieces that have to be made by hand.
Schoop has spent the past few weeks practicing and fixing thing like leaky pipes. He plans to earn a degree in music education and maintaining the large pipe organ and its accompanying instruments and lighting panels will be a good start.
The organ: A rare, historical gem
According to Trimby, who also serves as chairman of the American Theatre Organ Society, the pipe organ is one of the few musical instruments that was invented in the United States. “We went to make sure we don’t lose them all,” he said. “There were so many at one time.”
Awareness and exposure to these American-made treasures is limited, since there aren’t a lot of them left in public settings.
“The unfortunate thing for us is we’re in places where people have to come see them. It’s not like when someone restores a car and can then take it out to be seen,” he said. “It’s a big deal to have something like this in the general public so people can see it and hear it and maybe want to get involved.”
Beggar’s Pizza is one of only three pizza parlors with a pipe organ that are left the country. “At one time there were probably a half-dozen just in the Chicago area,” said Trimby. The other two are in Arizona and Milwaukee.
The Chicago Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, which has been around for 65 years, has a membership of about 80 and some are simply enthusiasts who might never have even played an instrument. There were once about 600 members.
However, Trimby said they are seeing more interest in theatre organs. There are chapters in England, New Zealand, and Australia and members from all over the world, including Japan, Canada, and Germany. The club has a total of about 85 chapters. There’s also a chapter in Joliet and the group maintains the organ at the Rialto Square Theatre, where Trimby has been playing since 1972.
More information can be found at catoe.net. The group also hosts monthly socials where members can listen to live organ music.
Continuing Lansing’s organ tradition
Ramon Diaz, general manager of Beggars Pizza’s Lansing location said that when Tallar played, it would always draw in extra customers.
“We’d have a lot of customers when he was here,” he said. “I think it’s something nice. You can come in and enjoy your food and enjoy the music.”
A lot of those customers have been missing the ambiance of the organ music.
“We are always getting calls from customers asking when we’re going to start it again,” he said. “People are excited and can’t wait.”
Schoop said he is “very excited, but also very nervous” to bring back the tradition.
He’s already planned out the first song that he’ll play.
“It’s going to be a composition of Phantom of the Opera, put together by a good friend of mine,” he said.
He also has some of the popular Disney tunes in his current repertoire of about 30 songs. He has a hard time picking a favorite song, but topping his list would be a railroad medley of four or five different train-themed songs along with the Radiohead tune Creep.
“It’s such a good one to play on this organ,” he said.
“It’s exciting to see something like this coming back to life,” said Trimby. “It’s something that’s really important to me.”
- Lansing history: The Lans Theater building (September 11, 2022)