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Author: admin, 28.07.2014
Most childhood era birthdays tend to be innocuous vanilla affairs destined to end up mired in a pea soup of foggy memories, but no kids growing up in Toronto in the 1970s, 80s or 90s will probably ever forget if they attended a birthday party at The Organ Grinder at 58 Esplanade. There were pinball and arcade games, silent Chaplin, Valentino, Pickford and Fairbanks films running on a loop, piping hot cheese-heavy pizza washed down with copious amounts of ice cold Coke, Sprite and Minute Maid, and of course the star attraction, The Mighty Wurlitzer organ itself. Built from parts of over 50 different pipe organs dating back to the turn of the century, The Mighty Wurlitzer was an aural behemoth.
Never mind the Frankenstein's monster sound mix created from various accompanying bonkers gadgets like submarine sirens, sleigh bells, a glockenspiel, bird whistles, horse hoofs, Chinese blocks and even funeral toll bells which adorned the surrounding walls. Mirror balls, strobes and the octagonal UFO lights were all controlled by the organist, who would often let loose on them as songs built to their climax, resulting in a rave like atmosphere only compounded by the sugar highs which were doled out generously via children's cocktails with names like "the Crazy Cranberry", "Miss Kitty Colada", "Dracula Draft" and perennial kid favourite "The Gremlin Gimlet" (described in the menu as Orange juice, Sprite, and green stuff). In addition to the famous performance pizzas ("Opening Number," "The Mighty Wurlitzer," "Piper's Delight," "Hawaiian Song," etc.), The menu was filled with lasagna, spaghetti, chicken, burgers and veal parmigiana, assuring patron's bellies would leave as fulfilled as their brains. The Organ Grinder was a crucial part of the Esplanade's breezy scene, which for years was also home to upscale boozers Scotland Yard and Brandy's, as well as The Old Spaghetti Factory, which thankfully has not changed one iota and still offers up a true old-school Toronto nostalgia fest (in addition to some great and reasonably priced food).
Occasionally you can still discover old Organ Grinder glasses or copies of the prized Don Thompson vinyl soundtrack knocking around in local thrift stores, reminders of what a local sensation the place was back in the day. Sadly the Organ Grinder was forced to close in 1996 after 21 years of good vibes, and all of its wonderful artifacts were liquidated at auction.
While there are still a few organ based pizzerias scattered around North America, the once popular trend has definitely subsided, much like the Animatronic based pizzerias so lovingly chronicled in the brilliant documentary The Rock-a-fire Explosion. Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. Special thanks to Peter Hnatiw and The Old Spaghetti Factory for the pictures, and memories. The only place where we were allowed to sing and bang our forks and knives at the dinner table!!!!
My family used to go there every year for dinner before we all went to see Sesame Street Live at the O'Keefe Centre. Wow, we were JUST talking about this at a dinner party where more than half the guests didn't grow up here and had no idea what we were talking about, and accused us of making it up!
Yes I too wishing BTO did more stories like this and less crap about City Hall - Let the other political blogs cover that sideshow. It's true, I vividly remember attending the restaurant in the summer of '96 and they kept the fun atmosphere going to the very end!
One of my favourite birthdays was dinner at The Organ Grinder followed by a theatre show of Annie. Jeanne Beker must hate Retro Ontario for releasing that horrifying infomercial about the Organ Grinder.
I'm guessing your "one trip" to the Organ Grinder was also the one and only time anyone ever invited you to their birthday party?
I went to the bankruptcy auction and bought a pile of cheap things, including a filing cabinet which turned out to contain a big bundle of guest checks.
How could anyone forget the young organist from Syracuse and his great Kermit the Frog bit. I worked with Don as Associate Organist for about 6 or 7 years all told, mostly when the place first opened, and then in its last year of existence.
It's amazing to think these types of instruments ran and played reliably at least 10 continuous hrs every single day of the week in the heyday. Can anyone tell me who the organist is in the shot which is 4 below the precariously hung harmonium (and 3 below the Wurlitzer trap shelf).
I stumbled across this and it reminded me of a trip to Toronto many years ago (from England). My brother and I have talked for years about some day re-opening a new organ grinder style restaurant somewhere in the city.


We looked at each other and just burst out laughing … so much for the intimate dinner atmosphere.
These 2 kids we took to the OG are now full time entertainers in Toronto.Bill Abbott is a top magician in the world and Marion is an accomplished musician and producer of musical shows,plays and dramas. I went to Toronto on a school trip when i was in 8th grade and we ate the organ grinder so that would have been 1988.
The largest pipe organ was 16" long while the smallest measured no longer than a soda straw.
There were over 267 tuned percussion notes on the various instruments around the room, including upright piano (88 notes), chrysoglott (49 notes), marimba (37 notes), xylophone (37 notes), glockenspiel (30 notes) and cathedral chimes (26 notes).
While Chuck-E-Cheese's had the franchised ubiquity, and The Mad Hatter had the underground notoriety, The Organ Grinder was special and unique enough that if you got invited to a party there, you would do well to spring for an extra Kenner Star Wars figure or Barbie doll for whosever birthday it was. The organ itself was purchased by an individual from New Hampshire who dismantled it, loaded it into a transport truck and then rebuilt it in his own house.
Much like the people in that film, those who experienced The Organ Grinder first hand will always remember that bedazzling, exciting and frankly overwhelming environment and the wonderful times it provided Toronto denizens for over two decades. But the best part is the Brandy's section; check out the woman's body language as the swinger in the red shirt and pink jacket hits on her.
Every so often BlogTO manages to write something beyond it's usual whining tripe and this one is a winner. My aunt and uncle used to take me and my cousin here every year for our birthdays, and this just brought back so many good memories. For example, all the patrons obliging to bang their cutlery while the organist played 'The Entertainer'!
The only little inaccuracy then I believe I could find is the one about the gentlemen who purchased the organ at auction, Stephen Eppley, to the best of my knowledge he did not in fact install the organ in his place of residence as mentioned in the article. The Organ Grinder did that every Sat and Sun for 20 odd years 12noon to midnight, plus the 5hr weeknight evening shift; all with only one failure resulting in no musical entertainment (that I am aware of). Thank you OG for inspiring my 2 oldest kids who remember the great times they had at the OG.Oh yes me? It is to my understanding that he purchased the organ with the intention of installing it in a similar type of pizza parlour venue, but the plans for that fell through and after numerous attempts at trying to sell the organ as a whole it was eventually broken up for parts. I went there once as a kid, and still remember being thrilled when the organist played the Ghostbusters theme. The organist used to play insane classical music for me that would scare the heck out of the kids! Can you tell me more about the instrument that you have in your possession and where your located? I'm an entertainer in venues around Toronto and retirement homes and teacher and coach to business professionals in chording and improvising on piano and keyboard writing out songs publisher ready still trying to relive and produce the excitement I fondly remember in the OG to audiences all over Ontario and I've been doing it for over 23 years.
I would love to turn the clocks back to that day because, it was truly a thrill and tons of fun to entertain!
I can't thank you enough for posting the ONLY good photos I've seen of the Toronto location, which had a 12-rank hybrid organ! Went to "Organ Stop Pizza" in Mesa, AZ last year which brought back a lot of memories! One guy has recently had a five-manual Wurlitzer replica console built and claims to be planning a pizza parlor with a 36-rank organ, first said to be going in Reno, NV and now said to be in San Francisco, CA, but time will tell. I think a place like this could still make a go of it, but have to have several musicians that can deliver on this equipment.




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