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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

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In Music

Zach Frame making the organ magic happen.

In Music

Living the dream. And yes, he takes requests.

Organ player fulfills childhood dream

When Zach Frame was 5 years old, his parents took him to the pizza restaurant, Organ Piper Music Palace, 4353 S. 108th St. It was the first time Frame saw a live organist and he was instantly drawn to the instrument.

"My parents said I needed to learn piano first, so I started taking lessons," says Frame.

For the past two years, Frame has been the only full-time featured organist at Organ Piper, where he plays a giant Wurlitzer five nights a week. The restaurant has two part-time organists on staff, too.

"I never imagined as a kid that someday I'd be up there,'" says Frame, 25.

Frame, who grew up in Lake Geneva, studied piano privately and then went on to study music at McNally Smith in Saint Paul, Minn. He learned to play the theater organ – which is the instrument at Organ Piper – through observing other players.

"There are probably only two or three people in the country who could teach me to play a theater organ. It's different than a classical organ," he says.

Frame says the appeal of the organ for him has always been the complexity of the instrument, because it requires use of both hands and both feet.

"One musician can make so much music. There are eight or nine things going on at once – chords, bass line, melody line, counter melody line, dynamics, percussion, lights. Lots of stuff," he says.

Pizza restaurants with live organ entertainment were popular all over the country in the '70s and '80s. Milwaukee had a second one, called Pipe Organ Pizza, which closed in the '80s. Today, according to Frame, there is only one other theater-organ pizza restaurant left in the country other than Organ Piper and it's in Phoenix.

Gary Hanson opened the Organ Piper Pizza in December 1975. It serves pizza, pasta, sandwiches, a nightly fish fry, soda, beer and wine. It's a loud, fun experience, with lots of musical ducks, a whirling Raggedy Ann Doll, flags and lights galore.

Frame, who knows between 800 and 1,000 songs on the organ, says the most commonly requested songs are the theme to "Phantom Of The Opera," "Star Wars" and "Under The Sea."

"If a night goes by and I don't play at least two of these three songs, it's rare," he says.

He plays more contemporary songs, too, from Michael Jackson to a three-song Lady Gaga medley – as well as a lot of Beatles, one of his favorite bands. But Frame's all-time favorite song varies.

"It's usually something I haven't played in a while," he says.

Occasionally, someone will request a song he does not know, and he will make it a personal challenge to learn it on the fly or on his own time. He has an electric organ at home and is also allowed to come in and practice on the theater organ.

"I'm basically trying to play catch-up with the last 300 years of music," he says.

The Organ Piper's Wurlitzer was assembled from several vintage theater pipe organs across the country. The basic mechanical parts – including the windchests, regulators and tremulants/vibratos – were all built by the Wurlitzer Company in New York.

The pipework, which is the "heart or sound" of an organ, was built by the Wurlitzer firm, and also the Kimball Co. of Chicago.

Frame, who describes himself as a "big jazz fan," also plays drums and saxophone. He has been in garage bands and jazz groups, but with only two nights off a week from playing music, he doesn't really have the time nor the desire to pursue music beyond his job.

"Actually, it's nice to have silence on a night off," he says.

Frame says he plans to live his dream and stay at Organ Piper as long as he can. He recognizes how rare and niche his job is and says when people get up and dance, he feels like he's doing something right.

"I never imagined that I would be doing this for a living, but I'll take it, and do it for as long as I possibly can," says Frame.


olderwiser | Jan. 6, 2013 at 8:45 a.m. (report)

Good story. Please ask Zach if he has ever visited the Sanfillipo Estate near Barrington Illinois. To me this is a music lovers paradise complete with the largest theater pipe organ I've ever had the pleasure to see and hear. The entire museum and guided tour was a wonderful experience. I am guessing Zach would love to get his chance to play any/all of the historic instruments housed here.

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devidia | Dec. 31, 2012 at 12:57 p.m. (report)

I've always promised myself that next time I'm there, I am going to request the theme from "Sanford and Son". For some reason I've always thought it would be funny to hear that played on a pipe organ. Cue it up!!! I'll be stopping by soon!!!

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