Moving Picture: St. Charles theater has living treasure
Many people know of the landmark Arcada Theatre in downtown St. Charles and the jewel of a pipe organ housed at the 1926 building. But there is another treasure that can be found inside, and that's Jim Shaffer of Aurora.
Shaffer, 78, is the organist, organ repairman and head usher at the Arcada, where he has worked for 35 years.
"He's our treasure," Arcada owner Ron Onesti says with a wide smile.
Shaffer, 78, has been volunteering at the historic theater as ownership has changed hands over the years. His duties might have changed, but the main draw that kept Shaffer coming back is the pipe organ.
The Arcada's organ is one of many pipe organs Shaffer has helped repair and maintain in the Chicago area over the years through the Chicago Area Theatre Organ Enthusiasts organization. It is one of only 10 organs still in existence in the Chicago area.
In high school, Shaffer became interested in pipe organ music through listening to records, attending pipe organ recitals and eventually learning about and joining CATOE, which was his introduction to hands-on work with the massive instruments. He also served on the board of directors for years as well as president of CATOE in the mid-1980s.
"I'd been working on the organ here, and little by little, decided I'd sure like to play this thing," Shaffer said.
His background in music was limited, with only a few piano lessons as a kid, until he got serious and took a year of instruction and then continued his education on his own.
He has about 40 to 50 songs in his repertoire, which he continually builds. He prefers the oldies from the 1940s to 1960s.
As for performing in front of an audience, Shaffer says, "Yeah, you get a little nervous. You wonder if there's gonna be any tomatoes coming at you."
Besides being the organist, he is also lead usher coordinating a team of seven volunteers whenever there is a show at the theater. He also performs maintenance on the organ along with help from a few other volunteers.
The original organ was built and installed in 1926. Years later the theater owners wanted a larger organ so they had the Geneva Organ Co. put in a larger console and add more pipes.
"There's about 1,000 pipes altogether in the organ, plus real drums, real cymbals and the usual noisemakers that these organs used in the days of the silent movies to make the background sound," Shaffer said.
While he doesn't consider himself a pro, he still enjoys entertaining the theater patrons.
"Even though I am not the world's greatest organist by a long shot, people thank me and it makes you feel good. You wish you do a better job of it, but you do the best you can with what you've got, as they say," he said.