Organist Brett Valiant would rather not think about replacing Charlie Balogh. “There’s no filling Charlie’s shoes,” he said of the late Organ Stop Pizza performer, whose place Valliant will be taking this week at the renowned restaurant. “I prefer to think of this job as fulfilling an obligation to Charlie. I’m carrying on a tradition.”
“I knew Charlie well,” Valliant said last week during a phone call from his former home of Wichita, Kansas. “I met him when I was 14, and he was already kind of an institution.”
Valliant has played in Arizona for more than a decade, but had never lived here before last week. He moved here to man the 6,000-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer at Mesa’s nearly 50-year-old pizza place.
He got an early musical start. “I became fascinated with playing the organ when I was 2 years old," he said. "I studied piano at 4 and took up the organ at age 6. I had some really good teachers."
Valliant transferred his fascination to Wichita State University and continued to study with private instructors. “I’ve played organ in seven different countries,” he said. “I’m on the road a lot.”
His travels brought him often to Phoenix’s Orpheum Theatre, where he accompanied the playhouse’s silent film series. It hadn’t occurred to Valiant, he admitted, that he would eventually end up playing full time in the Valley’s most renowned pizza parlor.
“It’s kind of a cool story,” the 38-year-old musician said with a chuckle. “It was summertime, 11 years ago, and the Organ Stop management had given time off to all their organists, all at the same time. That was probably by mistake. There were three organ conventions going on that summer, all simultaneously, and every organist in the company was at one of them. There just were no organists available. Someone got hold of Organ Stop and said, ‘Well, there’s this kid up in Kansas. He might be able to play for you.’ They added me to their staff, and I’ve played here frequently ever since.”
Valliant thought not everyone got Organ Stop’s campiness. “There are people who come and take it all at face value,” he reported cheerfully. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, it’s a pizza parlor, and they have live music!’”
He compared Organ Stop to a pair of platform shoes from the 1970s. “You either see the beauty there, or you don’t. The curtain rises, and those ratty cats come out and dance,” he said of the feline marionettes that open each performance. “And then there’s a guy playing an organ that makes a whole lot of other sounds. How you react to that says a lot about who you are.”
It doesn’t trouble Valliant that people are talking and eating while he’s performing. “It bothers me if the room goes quiet,” he admitted. “Then I feel like I’ve done something wrong. When people are talking amongst themselves, I can go out and take musical risks. And if I mess up, they’re paying attention to pepperoni or whatever they’re talking about.”
Organ Stop patrons love a good singalong, Valliant said. Sometimes, he’ll instigate one if the room feels stale or sleepy.
“People love ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,' ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,' ‘Dancing Queen,' ‘Y.M.C.A.,'” he said. When they’re not singing along, diners preferred listening to populist fare.
“Requests are all over the map,” Valliant confided. “People ask for a lot of Disney and a lot of rock ’n’ roll. I sometimes get a request for a country song or some classical. 10 years ago, there were more people asking for the American songbook — Cole Porter, Gershwin, Gilbert and Sullivan. There’s a lot less call for that today. But let’s just say I’m never bored.”
Valliant said he was looking forward to not being bored in Phoenix. He thought of this new job as a feather in his cap.
“I run into people all over the world, and when they hear I played at Organ Stop, they get excited,” he said. “If I meet someone from Phoenix, Organ Stop is a part of their lives.”
“And it’s really about the music,” he mused. “The pizza is really good, but I don’t know that anyone goes to Organ Stop for the pizza.”