Organist’s Presence is Instrumental

“Nobody listens to me!” Don Frerichs joked. He’s barely been noticed playing Thornton Park’s organ for nearly 25 years. He isn’t sure if he started in ’88-’89 or the season before.

But he may have a point. The recording of “Chase,” the theme song of the 1978 movie “Midnight Express,” is more popular than he is. Many are unaware that Thornton even has an organ – let alone someone who plays it. Like senior Ian Adams, who said, “Wait, we have an organist?”

But Frerichs makes Thornton unique.

Frerichs, 69, has played organ for 60 years. “I’ve been playing organ since they invented sand, or dust,” he said in an interview in the organ room, which is located in the rink’s loft.

One of his two sons was trying out for the team in the late 1980s when Frerichs found Thornton had an organ.

“When I discovered that there was an organ here, I approached [head coach] Mike Bartley,” he said. “I asked Mike instead of playing a recording if he’d like an organ.”

Bartley agreed, and asked him after the season to play the organ one more year, and another, and another, and another. At first, he only played the National Anthem, but in 1990, a hockey player in the marching band gave him a copy of Shaker’s fight song. Frerichs played it when the Raiders scored and came onto the ice.

“In the beginning it was a nervous thing, because, you know, you’re not used to playing in front of a couple hundred people,” he said. He and his wife, Carol, do not skip games. They’ve seen more than 500.

He hasn’t been quite perfect, though. Switches on the organ, built by Hammond in the early 1950s, control which speakers amplify the music. Frerichs said that once, he didn’t flip the right switch. Halfway through the song – playing loudly in the small organ room – he realized the crowd could hear nothing.

Perhaps few realize there’s an organist because he nearly never makes mistakes. His playlist comprises the old and new Canadian national anthems, “The Star Spangled Banner,” Shaker’s fight song, and “This Is It,” the theme song from the “The Bugs Bunny Show,” which he plays just before the game.

“The rest is,” he paused, “fake it.” If the opposing team commits a penalty, he might play the “Jeopardy” theme; maybe “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” after a rough, penalty-filled game. Frerichs play “up-beat, up-tempo,” while the Zamboni freshens the ice.

Players used to tell him their favorite song, and he’d play it when they scored. “Somehow that’s gotten lost in the annals of antiquity,” he said.

Although he knows only five songs he’ll play, he brings a massive binder of music.

“There’s usually a message in what I play,” he said. “I feel good about it, [but] nobody else knows what I’m doing.”

Frerichs said fans’ love for “Chase” is “no skin off my back. ‘Chase’ has been around longer than me.”

Thornton is one of two rinks in the Cleveland area with an organ. The other is in Brooklyn. “My job is to make the hockey experience here better than anywhere else in the city,” he said. He distinguished Shaker because of Bartley and the [formerly] spirited fans, before admitting “And, yes, I make it different.”

Math teacher Lori White notices the organ most at away games because of its absence. “I think it helps create a unique atmosphere that you don’t really find at [places like] Kent State,” she said.

Frerichs said he won’t stop playing until he’s forcibly removed. “I guess I keep doing it because of that guy out on the ice. You can’t talk about Shaker hockey without talking about Mike Bartley. It’s unspoken, but it’s the truth,” he said.

“I guess it’s just a mutual respect,” Bartley said. “The Frerichs have been just wonderful fans.”

You can’t talk about Shaker hockey without talking about Don Frerichs, either.

A version of this article appeared in print on 8 February 2012, on page 15 of The Shakerite.


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