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That time when Toronto had an Organ Grinder

Posted by Ed Conroy / December 14, 2012

Organ Grinder TorontoMost 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.

Organ Grinder TorontoOrgan Grinder TorontoOrgan Grinder TorontoOpened in the spring of 1975 and the only restaurant of its kind in all of Canada — "a musical pizza eatery" — the Organ Grinder served up an unforgettable mixture of ear piercing sonics, mouth-watering taste and visual mayhem.

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.

Organ GrinderBuilt from parts of over 50 different pipe organs dating back to the turn of the century, The Mighty Wurlitzer was an aural behemoth. The largest pipe organ was 16" long while the smallest measured no longer than a soda straw. The organ had over 1,000 pipes made of wood, zinc, lead and tin. The deep bass sound this produced was unlike anything you had heard before.

Organ GrinderOrgan GrinderOrgan GrinderNever 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. 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).

Organ GrinderOrgan GrinderMirror 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).

Organ GrinderOrgan GrinderIn 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.

Organ GrinderOrgan GrinderThe 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).

The Esplanade 1980sOccasionally 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. 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.

Organ GrinderOrgan GrinderOrgan GrinderOrgan GrinderSadly 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. 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.

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. 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.

Organ Grinder TorontoOrgan Grinder TorontoOrgan Grinder Toronto

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. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.

Special thanks to Peter Hnatiw and The Old Spaghetti Factory for the pictures, and memories.

Discussion

56 Comments

Hamish Grant / December 14, 2012 at 10:17 am
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wow! I worked at the Old Spaghetti Factory in 1987-1988... good times in all of the restaurants on the Esplanade back then! I picked up a couple of shifts in the OG and swore to never do so again 'cus it was mayhem in there when they had a birthday going on. Dozens of kids running around having fun, and when the organ fired up for happy birthday, the lights would go down and I'm standing there, frozen, with a couple of huge trays of pizza and pasta, kids still running around in the dark.. praying that no one runs into me. But it was a great place to go for an occasion!
Todd Toronto / December 14, 2012 at 10:19 am
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The Organ Grinder was still around in 1996?! Wow. My memories of it date back to the early 80s, so it's surprising to learn that it outlasted my childhood.

Next thing you'll tell me is that The Old Spaghetti Factory is still open...
Bloory / December 14, 2012 at 10:43 am
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Oh man, I used to love this place as a kid. Memories.
Al / December 14, 2012 at 10:44 am
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When did Scotland Yard close? I thought it was still there.
Cyril Sneer / December 14, 2012 at 10:50 am
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That place looks grimey as hell and oh-so-tacky. Things were weird back then.
Jason Paris / December 14, 2012 at 10:50 am
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Scotland Yard remains open, despite what the article states.

Having said that, I have many childhood memories of the Organ Grinder. Great to see pictures of it again after all these years!
mezimeen / December 14, 2012 at 10:52 am
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THE ORGAN GRINDER WAS AMAZING!!!...for the 10 year old me.
Matt Y / December 14, 2012 at 11:07 am
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A kids party not held at The Organ Grinder was not a party.
aly thompson / December 14, 2012 at 11:11 am
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The only place where we were allowed to sing and bang our forks and knives at the dinner table!!!! I LOVED the Organ Grinder! Special to my heart.
Derek / December 14, 2012 at 11:17 am
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The Scotland Yard reference has been updated. Thanks!
Beau / December 14, 2012 at 11:21 am
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That kid in the "IT'S ALL HERE IN THE ESPLANADE" ad is having so much fun he doesn't even care if he actually eats his spaghetti. 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. I don't like your chances, dude.
McKegs / December 14, 2012 at 11:22 am
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I loved the Organ Grinder so much as a child. It was the spot my parents took us out for a special dinner. I loved the kiddie cocktails and we always begged our parents for quarters for the arcade. My favourite was the Star Wars video game near the bathrooms.
j-rock / December 14, 2012 at 11:26 am
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Wow, I'm old. Had some good times at the Organ Grinder though.
Ryan / December 14, 2012 at 11:44 am
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My family used to go there every year for dinner before we all went to see Sesame Street Live at the O'Keefe Centre.
I remember my cousins always going up and requesting songs by bands like Ace of Base.
Good times.
Missy Pants / December 14, 2012 at 11:51 am
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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! Very timely! Thanks for the nostalgic hit!
Matt / December 14, 2012 at 12:11 pm
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They should re-open the Organ Grinder. Someone just found a monkey at IKEA that's looking for work.
Tort / December 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm
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That's a huge pipe organ.
Jacob / December 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm
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I had friends who always talked about that place, but I never actually got to go...
Me / December 14, 2012 at 01:14 pm
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Great piece. Every so often BlogTO manages to write something beyond it's usual whining tripe and this one is a winner. Thank you and hopefully more will come?
Me2 replying to a comment from Me / December 14, 2012 at 01:25 pm
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Yes I too wishing BTO did more stories like this and less crap about City Hall - Let the other political blogs cover that sideshow.
scott / December 14, 2012 at 01:53 pm
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one thing i loved about the organ grinder when i was a kid was the mocktail menu they had. can anyone remember the names?
Colin / December 14, 2012 at 04:07 pm
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Thanks SO much for this article. 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.
M. Greco / December 14, 2012 at 04:10 pm
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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! For example, all the patrons obliging to bang their cutlery while the organist played 'The Entertainer'! They still tried a little to keep up with the times; the organist did a rendition of the Macarena called "Hey Macaroni!"
Steve / December 14, 2012 at 07:43 pm
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OMG Gini Becker sounds like a character from This hour has 22 minutes
Sadie / December 14, 2012 at 07:58 pm
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One of my favourite birthdays was dinner at The Organ Grinder followed by a theatre show of Annie. 1986 was a good year.
BH / December 14, 2012 at 10:04 pm
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Jeanne Beker must hate Retro Ontario for releasing that horrifying infomercial about the Organ Grinder.

"One of the world's most exciting restaurants?" Yikes. Her opening monologue is truly cringe-worthy.
M. Greco replying to a comment from BH / December 15, 2012 at 02:48 am
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Ms. Fashion Television is truly slumming it!
scottd / December 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm
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The organ grinder was the worst of that 70's trend to turn eating into a caravel type adventure that at its worst created "His Majesty's Feast" and at its best created "The Old Firehall" and "Groaning Board". One trip to the Organ Grinder was enough for me. I did not realize that the Old Spaghetti Factory is still around. This story gave me a desire for a nostalgic visit but then I looked at their menu which screams "bus tour" and decided not to.
Matt replying to a comment from scottd / December 16, 2012 at 12:10 pm
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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?
Steve Morgan / December 16, 2012 at 12:16 pm
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My fondest memories of the Organ Grider was returning to it as a bunch of teens. Good, silly, fun times.
Colin / December 16, 2012 at 04:31 pm
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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. The themed names for the entrees cause me to wonder "what were they thinking?" To me, "Tympani" and "Percussion" imply impending digestive distress -- to say nothing about ordering a "Grand Finale"!
Jen / December 16, 2012 at 04:32 pm
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OSF and Scotaland Yard are still side by side, went there this summer with my kids :)
blair / December 16, 2012 at 04:56 pm
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Absolutely fantastic writeup, the pictures and, video and sound are also amazing!! 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. 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.
Rose / December 17, 2012 at 12:58 am
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Back in April 25, 1983, I have played this Mighty Wurlitzer Organ at the Organ Grinder for television's, " Thrill Of A Lifetime Show" It was my ultimate dream/thrill to be able to play this magnificent organ in front of a audience packed restaurant and on television! I still have photos of that day. I have them uploaded on Facebook too. I would love to turn the clocks back to that day because, it was truly a thrill and tons of fun to entertain!
C / December 17, 2012 at 11:14 pm
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Wow thank you so much for this article. The comments were great too and yes I too enjoyed the Star Wars game beside the washrooms.
Carey replying to a comment from Todd Toronto / December 19, 2012 at 04:56 pm
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Oh it most definitely is...
Michael / February 8, 2013 at 09:04 pm
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I bought the Fortune Teller. There are also some Organ Grinder records.
George / February 10, 2013 at 04:53 am
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How could anyone forget the young organist from Syracuse and his great Kermit the Frog bit.
Matt / March 18, 2013 at 05:46 pm
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Damn, I wish this place was still around. I didn't realize it had closed so long ago. I went there once as a kid, and still remember being thrilled when the organist played the Ghostbusters theme. I would've loved to bring my kids here.
Jonas / July 10, 2013 at 08:15 am
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The Organ Grinder was actually a chain: Toronto, Vancouver, and at least one in the St. Louis, MO area. Unrelated was the chain of two Organ Grinders in Portland, OR and Denver, CO. 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! With video and audio, no less! Out of over 120+ "pipe organ pizza places" built all over North America in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, some lasting only a few years (often due to bad food, since they were often run by organ enthusiasts), only three remain: the Lansing, IL location of the "Beggars Pizza" chain (17-rank Barton organ, played Tues. and Fri.), Organ Piper Music Palace in Greenfield, WI (30-rank hybrid organ, great food) and Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, AZ (huge 78-rank mostly-Wurlitzer hybrid with rotating console elevator, very good food). 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.
Vivien Shearier / November 22, 2013 at 10:16 am
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In fact when someone doesn't know then its up to other viewers
that they will assist, so here it happens.
d replying to a comment from Michael / February 1, 2014 at 10:12 pm
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Michael, I'm jealous you got the Fortune Teller - that's awesome! Do you still have it?
Glenn / February 2, 2014 at 01:05 am
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I still have an autographed LP from organist, Don Thompson with the phrase, "My organ's bigger than yours." One of the cocktails was called a "Monkey's Kiss" and you could keep the glass - I still have it. Great memories. Me and my friends once filled up the request bowl with nothing but request forms for, ROW ROW ROW YOUR BOAT, just to mess with the organist. He challenged us to get up and sing it in 4 part harmony if he played it...and we did! We were a little drunk at the time.
Nelson denton / February 2, 2014 at 02:06 pm
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If anyone has the money and the location I have a Mighty Wurlitzer to fill it. I've got everything that the Organ Grinder had and more.
Keith / February 2, 2014 at 04:13 pm
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I sure do remember The Organ Grinder! Loved that place! What a shame to have it gone! Went to "Organ Stop Pizza" in Mesa, AZ last year which brought back a lot of memories!
Colin Cousins / February 2, 2014 at 06:26 pm
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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. I made a recording there, featuring the organ's unique sound and a few of my favourites. Still a few copies of that record around. It was great while it lasted!! Fond memories (maybe not of Happy Birthday)but of so much else. The song is ended but the melody lingers on...
John Struve / February 2, 2014 at 09:21 pm
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I maintained this instrument for approx. the last 10 years of its life in the restaurant. Although the name Wurlitzer is quoted, it was a purpose built composite instrument of several different builders from the theatre organ heyday. Dave Junchen designed this instrument for maximum effect in an immense and severely low ceiling space by providing ranks with full raw power; the organists then mostly registering fully and keeping the shades quite closed except for accenting. Junchen did this by providing a 15" Barton Tibia down to 16', a superb 12" Kimball Trumpet down to 16' and a new Schopp 15" English Horn (Post Horn, not Cor Anglais). In addition was a 15" Wurlitzer Diapason down into 16' wood diaphone, a 10" Wurlitzer Diapason down into 16' metal diaphone and the standard Wurlitzer 15" Tuba Horn. Then your usual pair of vdo's and one or two colour reeds. With 12 ranks of specially selected ranks it beat anything that Wurlitzer would have provided in the 1920's of comparable size in regards to bang for buck, perhaps excepting their roller rink organs. The Statler Hotel dining room Wurlitzer which I believe is referred to in comments above by Nelson Denton (please correct me if I'm wrong) would be left in the dust compared to what was the Organ Grinder instrument. With shallow chambers and a full wall of shades (maybe 30 odd?) the expression was very dramatic. Was it the most refined example of a 1920's theatre organ? Probably not. Did it do the job it was intended to? In spades.
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. 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).
I am frequently contacted by those wanting to know the fate of this instrument. It has since been broken up and the parts have found their way into different instruments. The 12" Kimball Trumpet is now in the famous Organ Stop in Pheonix, AZ.....
John Struve / February 2, 2014 at 10:03 pm
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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). It is an early photo as it is before the shocking pink glow in the dark paint was slathered over the shades and when there were still two monkeys employed!
Jane Rodgerson / February 3, 2014 at 09:51 am
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My first job ever was as a hostess there! Never learned the table nnumbers but boy was it fun. The organist used to play insane classical music for me that would scare the heck out of the kids!
Richard Grayson / February 15, 2014 at 10:00 am
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I stumbled across this and it reminded me of a trip to Toronto many years ago (from England). Are any recordings of the organ available today ? Thanks, Richard.
threenorns / February 25, 2014 at 09:58 pm
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To those slagging the place (especially if you've never been) nuts to you! (And the nasty stale unsalted kind, to boot!). Nobody cares what you think of the place or its appearance. The organ grinder is one of the absolute highlights of my childhood. The one time I took my oldest there, she blew an ear infection I didn't know she had. The staff could not have been kinder or more compassionate. They took us to another restaurant that was a lot quieter where the two of us stayed (she was treated for free) and it didn't ruin the party for the rest ( it was her own birthday party, too!).
blair replying to a comment from Nelson denton / June 9, 2014 at 11:45 am
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My brother and I have talked for years about some day re-opening a new organ grinder style restaurant somewhere in the city. But sadly due to lack of funds have not yet been able to realize our "pipe dream". Can you tell me more about the instrument that you have in your possession and where your located?
Renee / July 27, 2014 at 03:30 pm
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Had dinner there as part of an entire klm 747 crew in the late 70s. What a fun evening we all had!
The Mason / November 5, 2014 at 10:59 pm
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Memory lane. Except the Organ Grinder of my youth was in my birth city of Denver, CO USA. How cool to see that this piece of history existed in the two cities I've called home.
Doug Abbott / November 6, 2014 at 01:11 am
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Oh the Memories!
The first time my wife and I went alone out to dinner for a "Quiet Meal" was to the Organ Grinder. We'd heard of the place but had no idea of the Quiet? meal we were about to have.
OyyyyVayy! We stayed and ordered food ,the organist was on a break I guess when we arrived.Well he returned from his break and started to play and the place just exploded,
We looked at each other and just burst out laughing … so much for the intimate dinner atmosphere. We then took our 2 kids Bill and Marion and they just went nuts.As parents you pray your kids will behave when you take them to a restaurant , Well when kids went to the OG
kids would just sit there dumbfounded and were quiet because the music was so incredible loud and a real blast.I remember we all waited for Don Thompson to activate the Monkey on key songs . He had a big glass cat like a cookie jar with a sign on it "Feed the Kitty" right beside the organ and people would put their song requests in a basket right beside the organist and then give a tip and it was usually filled with money - mainly dollar bills .

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. Thank you OG for inspiring my 2 oldest kids who remember the great times they had at the OG.Oh yes me? 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. Thank you OG for the inspiration and great memories.
Ray Harkness / November 29, 2014 at 04:00 pm
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I just found this site. We came to Toronto on our boat from Rochester, NY, and stumbled into the Organ Grinder....Came with some other friends. Now, dont' count on holding a conversation, because it was impossible. BUT WE LOVED IT. I used to play organ, but never dreamed of such a place. This breaks my heart to know it is gone. This is the way it should still be. Just sit, and enjoy, and listen to fantastic music with a sense of humor. I was in AWE...still am after watching these clips. So sad. I heard somebody bought the organ and moved it. 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. LOVE Toronto...love the people..and MISS the Organ Grinder. IN Florida now...sad...

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