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Remembering ‘rockstar’ pipe organ player Jim Shaffer

Jim Shaffer AcadTheatre's 1926 pipe organ. | Phocourtesy  Lou Bilotti.

Jim Shaffer at the Acada Theatre's 1926 pipe organ. | Photo courtesy of Lou Bilotti.

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Updated: December 30, 2013 9:44AM

Sometimes, it is only when a friend dies that we realize just how much he impacted us on a day-to-day basis. Other times, we know in each minute together that we are experiencing a gift, as the friendship is so rich and joyful.

The latter was my fortune in knowing the late James Shaffer of Aurora. He died at age 78 two days before Thanksgiving, leaving behind his legacy as the pipe organist and head usher for nearly 30 years at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles.

He was born in Bloomsburg, Pa., in 1935 and moved to the Fox Valley area when he was about 18. He served in the U.S. Army, helped raise two nephews, Jeff and Gary Shaffer, and enjoyed a decades-long career working for the Burlington Railroad.

His attention to detail, punctuality and appreciation for the intricacies of the industry gave way to the most amazing model train collections I have ever seen. Just as he did with his pipe organ hobby, Jim gave 100 percent of his heart to his love for the railroad.

We at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles were blessed to have Jim as our “Resident Rockstar,” a name Ron Onesti, president and CEO of the theater, affectionately gave him.

A member of CATOE — the Chicago Area Theatre Organ Enthusiasts organization — Jim volunteered his time to understand, appreciate, restore and eventually play historical pipe organs. The Arcada’s organ, built in 1926, was cherished by Jim for years, and it was he who essentially served as its guardian.

Tuning it, looking after its 1,000 pipes hidden behind the walls of the Vaudeville theater, Jim would climb through dark and tight crevices to reach the inner workings of that treasure. A wiry, fragile-looking but swift and nimble fellow, Jim was the ultimate entertainer. Though not a professional musician, it was his genuine, earnest effort that brought audiences to their feet whenever he played a song or two before Onesti’s live concerts. Even the heavy metal fans couldn’t get enough of our guy.

Onesti, who met Jim nine years ago when he acquired the theater, said he made a promise to Jim that he would make sure generations understood why the organ was so special. At every show, Onesti would introduce Jim as he played, ensuring the spotlight shined down upon the man in the white button-down shirt and bright red usher’s vest.

At elementary school tours, Onesti encouraged Jim to share secrets about the theater, and children wrote dozens of letters annually, thanking him for keeping the organ going. Without Jim’s efforts, many children — and adults — would never know the sound of a pipe organ, as a small number remains across the United States.

“I always wanted to make sure he received the respect he deserved,” Onesti said.

Beyond his dedication and passion, Jim was simply a very funny character. With perfect comedic timing, his eye rolls would keep many of us in stitches at the shows. He was a calming, stable pillar of kindness and good, old-fashioned purity that endeared him to those who met him even for a moment.

The summer of 2012 was one to celebrate just how much Jim meant to all of us. Onesti honored Jim by dedicating the pipe organ to him in a special ceremony before hundreds of guests and Jim’s fellow CATOE members.

He became quite a print media darling, and even social media posts about Jim typically garnered more than 100 responses. This past year, the Arcada family surrounded Jim as he and his best friend Bob Linn, also an usher at the Arcada Theatre, celebrated Jim’s 78th birthday with ice cream and cake under the brightly lit marquee. “Happy Birthday to our Resident Rockstar,” it read.

Fortunately, we captured that image digitally, as we did with hundreds of special Jim moments. But as bright as that birthday message shined that night, the joy of knowing Jim will eclipse it for decades. For each person who heard him play, and each child who remembers the magic of seeing the pipe organ rise from beneath the stage as Jim pushed his “magic” buttons, the Arcada Theatre’s “Resident Rockstar” will shine upon us.

A memorial concert, “Jim Shaffer Day,” will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Arcada Theatre to benefit CATOE.

Romi Herron is a correspondent for Sun-Times Media and senior director of communications for Arcada Theatre in St. Charles.

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