Arcada Theater mourns volunteer organist, historian
The iconic marquee of the Arcada Theater in downtown St. Charles typically announces the upcoming shows of traveling performers.
On Wednesday, that sign made a different sort of announcement: "So long to our resident rock star, organist and friend Jim Shaffer."
Shaffer, 78, a longtime volunteer who played the theater's historic pipe organ before each show, died Tuesday at his Aurora home.
"He was the heart and soul of the theater," said Ron Onesti, president and CEO of the Arcada Theater. "He represented everything that the theater represented for me. We called him our 'resident rock star.'
"He was such a classic part of it. He had passion. He had love. He had sincerity. He had all the things that I can only hope to portray at the theater. He personified what I wanted the theater to represent."
Whether a heavy metal crowd gathered for a hard-rocking show or polka enthusiasts for something more folksy, when Shaffer and the organ began to ascend from the pit like a scene from "Phantom of the Opera," a thunderous applause roared through the theater.
"He played last week and he brought people to their feet," said Romi Herron, senior director of communications with Onesti Entertainment. "It's comforting that he was doing what he loved literally until the last minute."
Born in Bloomsburg, Penn., in 1935, Shaffer moved to Aurora at the age of 18 and began a career with Burlington Railroad that lasted until he retired at age 65. He served in the U.S. Army, and he helped raise two nephews -- Jeff and Gary, who survive him.
Working with the railroad gave Shaffer an attention to detail and a promptness that his co-workers and fellow organ enthusiasts appreciated, as well as a love for model trains.
He was a member of the Chicago Area Theater Organ Enthusiasts, an organization committed to performing and educating about the fading number of theater organs, which were originally used in the early 1900s during the showing of silent films.
At a theater known for its classic charm and its vintage decor, Shaffer led a team of ushers that greeted patrons and escorted them to their seats.
And before each organ performance, Onesti personally introduced Shaffer to an appreciative crowd, giving them a brief history of Shaffer's relationship with Arcada.
"You'd have headbanging metal guys giving a standing ovation, going crazy when the pipe organ would retreat back into the ground," Onesti said. "They just loved it.
"I always wanted to give him the respect he deserved."
For more than 30 years, Shaffer dedicated himself to the venue -- from painting row markers by hand to teaching school groups about the 1,000 pipes that work together to create the unique sound of the rare organ, as well as maintaining the organ.
He was the building's history come to life, his co-workers say.
"It's as though all that old Hollywood love was carried through with Jim being there," Herron said.
In addition to the Arcada Theater organ, Shaffer also maintained the 3/10 Wurlitzer organ at Downers Grove North High School until last year, and at one time he even had a pipe organ that he built in the basement of his home, said longtime friend Robert Linn, of Montgomery, who also ushers at Arcada.
Linn witnessed many big names emerge from the basement dressing rooms to watch Jim playing the organ.
"He would be very pleased that so many found enjoyment in his playing," nephew Gary Shaffer said.
A visitation takes place from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, followed by a service at 3 p.m. at the Healy Chapel, 332 W. Downer Place, Aurora.
"What gift he was to us -- he was on loan for us," Herron said. "He's playing for the heavens now."
Memorial donations may be directed to the Chicago Area Theater Organ Enthusiasts.
Onesti employees plan to honor Shaffer with a memorial show, possibly on a Sunday in December, Ron said.
"There'll always be a void," Onesti said. "There isn't one person who has been more of a part of the Arcada Theater than that man. It's like losing a piece of the foundation. The music just won't be the same. The music will never be the same."
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