Pipe dreams come true for theater organist
“I tell people it’s an instrument for people who like pushing buttons,” Cook said.
It’s highly likely most of Buffalo has already heard Cook “pushing buttons” on an organ, since he is an arena organist for the Buffalo Sabres. He began last year and played the organ in almost half of the 2016–17 season home games.
“I’m a huge hockey fan, and playing for the Sabres was something I have always wanted to do,” Cook said.
Cook sent emails and letters over the years hoping to earn a spot playing the organ for the Sabres, but he didn’t get a response.
Last January, Cook worked at a local car dealership in Amherst. One of the service managers mentioned he knew the head of security at the arena and that he could give him Cook’s business card.
He got an email from the Buffalo Sabres director of game presentation that summer, asking him to be an arena organist for the upcoming season.
“Of course I said yes. I just couldn’t believe it,” Cook said.
His favorite tunes to play at the arena are “Subdivisions” by Rush and “The Legend of Zelda” theme song.
“The intro to ‘Subdivisions’ is like nothing else, and Zelda, well, is Zelda,” Cook said. “But I’ll play anything from Broadway standards to Flo Rida to Harry Potter. I may not be a classical organist, but people have made a career on being interesting on the organ.”
Cook said there are two qualities a Buffalo Sabres organist must have.
“First, you have to know hockey,” Cook said. “Second, you have to be a fan. If the fans are down, you play ‘Let’s go Buffalo!’ because it brings everyone’s spirits back up.”
Cook taught himself how to play the theater organ after growing up playing piano. He began playing the organ at age 13 and became the principal organist at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Clarence by age 15. He taught himself how to play the organ by watching silent movies and improvising.
“Many silent films don’t have original scores anymore, so I would just sit and watch the film and if someone got punched I’d make a drum sound there, I would just react to what was going on in the movie,” Cook said.
He never had professional lessons until he went to college at Canisius, where he majors in music. His natural-born talent has made him the youngest professional organist in WNY.
Western New York actually plays a key role in the history of theater organs. According to the Lockport Theatre Organ Society, The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company became the leader in theater organ manufacturing and was local to the area with its factory in North Tonawanda.
Between 1915 and 1932, around 10,000 theater organs were manufactured. Today, three theater organs remain in Western New York. Cook has played on all three.
When he isn’t playing for the Sabres, Cook is the house organist at the Riviera Theatre and a staff organist for Shea’s Performing Arts Center. The Riviera houses a three manual Wurlitzer theater organ, which has three keyboards, and Shea’s has a four manual Wurlitzer theater organ, with four keyboards. Cook also is an associate organist at St. Timothy’s Church in Tonawanda.
“I feel like I’m the king of the world when I play,” Cook said. “It’s a weird, versatile instrument and it’s like nothing else.”
(Story ideas for this feature can be sent to Ken-Ton Bee Editor Anna Walters, Bee Publications, 5564 Main St., Buffalo, NY 14221-5410 or call 204-4920.)