Sy Mendel’s musical history starts with his mother’s wish that he study piano.
Unfortunately, there was no room in the family apartment for such a large instrument, so at age 8 Sy began lessons on a smaller keyboard instrument – the accordion. He continued studying accordion up until high school.
At age nine he had his theatre organ “ah ha!” moment when he first heard Dick Leibert at the Radio City Music Hall Wurlitzer. From then on he took every opportunity to play and experiment with every available organ he could find.
One day while attending a wedding reception, Sy was asked to fill in for the accordion player who became ill. In essence, he was “discovered” at this event, as he was asked to audition for several bands. At age 13, with some “fudged” work papers, (The child labor laws said you needed to be 16) he joined the local Musicians Union, and set off on a career playing his accordion in bands. Several summers were spent entertaining at resorts in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains, conducting, and playing in Society Bands for weddings and private parties. During his high school years Sy also played accordion in his school ensembles, and string bass in the All City High School Orchestra.
When he later entered the Armed Forces, Sy found that the Enlisted Man’s Club housed a Hammond electronic organ. Naturally, he immediately began entertaining his fellow troops. When the officers got wind of this, Sy was recruited to play on Sunday afternoons at the Officer’s Club, which also featured a Hammond.
After his discharge from the Army Security Agency, and while working in Manhattan, Sy would frequent the Hammond Organ Studio on 44th street, playing the instruments in their practice rooms. It was here that he met famed Yankee Stadium organist, and fellow model train enthusiast, Eddie Layton. They became friendly, and Eddie was kind enough to give the self-taught Sy some pointers on his playing.
Sy increased the music in his life even more when he married a musician. His wife, Sheila, is an accomplished, concert trained violinist, and a Julliard and Manhattan School of Music graduate. Sheila, who was introduced to the Theatre Organ world through Sy, has played several violin-organ concerts with the late famed Theatre Organist Ashley Miller.
When they bought their first home in 1965, Sy finally got his first organ, a Hammond H-100, which he still plays today. In his travels, Sy has taken every opportunity to play any theatre pipe organ he can get his hands on. He has had the pleasure of playing the large Barton at the Michigan Theatre and the 4/36 Wurlitzer at the Fox Theatre, Detroit, among others.
Over the years as a GSTOS member Sy has entertained at the Galaxy Theatre Kimball, the Pasquaye Wurlitzer, the Rahway Theatre “Biggest Little Wurlitzer”, the Asbury Park Kilgen, The New Hope residence Wurlitzer, and the Little Falls residence Griffith Beach.
He plays concerts for the Hammond Organ Society of New Jersey, and for Masonic and Shrine functions. Sy is also one of the artists for the “First Thursdays” concert series at the Rainbow Room Wurlitzer in Rahway.
Once a month Sy and Sheila travel to Newton, N.J. where they entertain the residents of Bristol Glen retirement home. Sy holds forth at the Allen 3 Manual Lynn Larson electronic organ, and Sheila plays the violin. They do not present a program, rather they take requests from the audience. Every song is played from memory / by ear. Since they have no idea what the residents will request, you can imagine the extent of their musical repertoire!