Taking control of the Mighty Wurlitzer - The Buffalo News

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Taking control of the Mighty Wurlitzer

NORTH TONAWANDA – Tom McGinley, 68, of Clarence, was a commercial airline pilot for 37½ years, working for Midway Airlines, when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001.

He lost his job, which forced him to re-examine his life, and led him to the other passion in his life – music.

“People say they lost their jobs, but I really lost my career,” said McGinley. “Being a pilot was my lifelong ambition.”

McGinley said that at the time he was approaching mandatory retirement and had few options.

He faced some depression but then began turning his attention to music. That’s how he came to be a volunteer house organist on the Riviera Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer.

During a recent concert in the Riviera, he took his listeners on another kind of trip, carrying them back in time with tunes of the 1930s to 1950s and educating them on the importance of music as part of a silent Charlie Chaplin film that was part of the show.

He has also recorded a CD and performed for his listeners one of his most personal arrangements, “A Tribute to 9/11,” which begins with New York City classics such as “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “New York, New York,” followed by explosion sounds, then military marches, such as “Anchors Away,” and ends with songs such as “God Bless America.”

Did you always want to be a pilot or a musician?

Being a pilot is really, really what I wanted to do. I always enjoyed playing the piano and organ, but never thought of doing it like I do now.

How did you end up on this organ?

I’ve been here almost 10 years. After I lost my job, I said to myself, “You’ve gotta do something,” and I saw this ad in the paper for open console auditions. They invited anyone who wanted to play. I was clueless, totally overwhelmed when I started. But, ironically, they invited me back. I just started playing, and eventually I became comfortable.

But you must have been musically inclined.

I played piano as a kid, then bought an organ with money I made on a paper route delivering The Buffalo Evening News. But I didn’t get serious until after I lost my job. This requires your utmost attention. You can’t be thinking about your troubles. That was the best therapy for me.

The Mighty Wurlitzer seems more like a one-man band than a regular organ.

Exactly. It was designed in place of a band playing for a movie sound track. This thing did it all. It only took one person, rather than a large number of people.

What do people ask about after they hear a concert on the Mighty Wurlitzer?

People want to know how it works. I say it’s a little like your furnace in your home. A furnace sits in the basement, and in the summer time it blows cool air, and in the winter it blows heat.

We have blowers downstairs – much bigger than a furnace, but the same principal – and these blowers blow air through all types of duct work. You can see these pipes backstage and chambers behind these grids in the balcony seating area.

There seems to be a lot of different sounds, beside just organ music.

There are percussive instruments, xylophones and Gestalt and vibes. Different percussive sounds.

It looks like new.

The organ is 85 years old. Four or five years ago, it was completely restored. We do have a crew that maintains and tunes it once a month.

Do people tell you they get taken back in time when they come to the Riviera Theatre?

I tell people that, exactly. I tell them technology is wonderful, you have all these digital devices, but it’s just not the same as a theater organ. I will say that at the end you can come up and tell me if that’s not top-shelf.

When can we hear you play?

I play before a lot of the live shows, which often are sell-outs. Occasionally I will substitute at Shea’s for their Broadway series. They have a Wurlitzer, but it’s a four manual, it’s got an extra manual. I play with a trio sometimes, and sometimes I just do solo work, luncheons, fashion shows.

So this isn’t the only Mighty Wurlitzer. How many are left?

They are diminishing in number. I don’t know, but I’ve heard that in this country there are only 45 left.

Do you do all the arrangements?

I arrange everything I play. Sometimes something just comes to you, and other times you have to struggle.

Is this all about nostalgia? Does this organ draw younger people?

If this organ is to survive there’s got to be young people involved. Our other house organist, Curtis Cook, is just 20 years old. There’s a couple of kids who do travel and come through here and have done concerts. It’s encouraging to see that. You didn’t ever see that in the past. I’m always pleased to hear them. They are very dedicated and eager to learn. It’s encouraging to see that, and people like Curtis.


The Glenn Miller Orchestra will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11, and McGinley will play prior to the concert in the theater, 67 Webster St. For ticket information and a list of other upcoming events and concerts, go to the Riviera Theatre website at www.rivieratheatre.org.

Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com. email: nfischer@buffnews.com

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