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Article posted: 1/19/2014 9:16 PM

Fitting tribute to Arcada mainstay, organist Shaffer

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The Arcada Theatre in St. Charles brought out the bells and whistles Sunday -- literally -- to pay tribute to its late former organist, Jim Shaffer.

They could be heard during a medley of train songs played by organist Glenn Tallar.

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It was a fitting theme for Shaffer, whose love of trains was almost as strong as his passion for organs.

It certainly rang a bell with Shaffer's niece, Laura Columbo, who recalled visiting his home, which was filled with model trains.

"It was hard to get him to play (the organ) privately," said Columbo, of Elmhurst. "Once or twice only. He had an organ in the living room, and he was very protective over it."

She was impressed by Sunday's tribute, saying, "I didn't realize how loved he was."

After his retirement from the Burlington Railroad, Shaffer, who died in November at 78, devoted himself to the Arcada, whether it meant painting row markers by hand or maintaining his beloved organ, with its 1,000 pipes.

He was instrumental in ensuring the mighty organ remained a fixture at the Arcada, said Ron Onesti, the theater's president and CEO.

Onesti admits having little appreciation for the organ when he took over the theater. He credits Shaffer with instilling him with respect for the instrument.

"When I first came into the theater here about nine years ago, and I met Jim, it was interesting because I thought this guy was an usher," Onesti said.

He said he thought he would use the organ "once in a while, if we put a roller rink in the center here one day." But after seeing the passion, the love and the commitment of Shaffer and his friends with the Chicago Area Theatre Enthusiasts, "there is something more to it than that."

Onesti said he vowed to Shaffer that even when the theater had an acid rock show or a polka night or a Latin night or a comedy show, "We're still going to expose our audiences to this great instrument."

It would give him a kick to see rock superstars stand in awe of Shaffer and his pipe organ, he added.

As patrons walked into the theater Sunday, they could see Shaffer on the screen, wearing his red vest and beaming his big smile in their direction one last time. A video of Shaffer from when the organ was dedicated to him in 2012 was shown, during which he modestly states, "I'm not the greatest, but some of the people don't know the difference anyway."

Among those who attended Sunday were Shaffer's friends from the railroad, including Bob Linn.

"Before the '96 floods in Aurora, he had a pipe organ in the basement of his house," Linn said of his friend. "In '96, they had a 17-inch rainfall one night, and he got 4 feet of water in the basement. So that ended the organ, but he had an electric organ up in the living room."

Linn also remembered how Shaffer took the organ, which had not been used in 10 to 15 years at the Arcada, and helped restore it.

Sunday's tribute included organ music and the 1928 Laurel and Hardy comedy "Two Tars," which played the theater when it was only 2 years old.

Onesti said he remains committed to CATOE, and that proceeds from Sunday's event will go toward a fund in Shaffer's name.

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