Old-School Optigoner Kathy Niklewicz recently shared her Optigan stories and some great old photos from the 70s!
I may have been the only enthusiastic Optigan owner on the planet! I bought my first one in 1972 ($450) at a Department store – next to the washing machines! There was a demonstrator who attracted a crowd! I was mesmerized! The second one I got for only $250 a few years later. And I continue to be very nostalgic about them today. I was responsible for the sale of at least two others to friends who wanted them. I was 28 then – and amazingly to me – I’m now one of the ‘old fogies’ at 76 that young people barely notice. They would have noticed me back in 1972 in my red gown and brunette hair when I played the Optigan at a wedding reception! Plus my husband and I owned a 1969 GTO convertible, and we were really ‘cool’ then – and were still considered cool at recent car shows where we still drove the GTO, which is 50 years old. The neighbors in our apartment building in 1972 were ready to have me evicted, I’m sure! We finally got our house in 1973 and I could play with wild abandon. i should have been a demonstrator. I played several ‘gigs’ at private parties and hauled it around. I had a good many Optigan records (there may still be some in my house). Polynesian Village was my favorite. Loved to surprise everyone with the monkeys! Martin Denny for sure. I have been fascinated following your story on the Web (amazing!) and am so happy that you are keeping the memory of the Optigan alive. I can always tell when commercials use the sound. I will end here by saying that the Optigan taught me how to play the piano (I did play the clarinet but had to learn about chords plus the base clef), and I advanced to the Casios and Yamahas – no chord buttons needed. But I now have arthritis and can’t use my hands as well as I used to.
PHOTO 1 – This 1976 photo is in the living room in our new home, 5 years after I purchased the Optigan in 1971 (cost $450). I’m ‘dressed up’ because I was going to play music at a wedding reception at a Holiday Inn for a friend’s sons wedding (not a large affair!) I can’t believe I had so much bold confidence to play at that reception. I did receive some nice compliments, and an appreciative thank you note from the bride and groom. Of course, I always played at parties at our home and sometimes when requested, transported the Optigan to a friends’ home for their party.
PHOTO 2 – From 1984, taken on a tripod, before we went out to dinner.It shows the true color of the ‘walnut’ model with the gold fabric. I always liked the ‘lattice’ music stand. By 1986, this Optigan was having problems and we moved it to my in-laws’ house for storage in their basement. I put a small folding accent table in that space, and had no musical instrument there for many years!
PHOTO 3 – Our newly finished game room in 1975. We purchased a 2nd Optigan, in addition to the original one ‘upstairs’. I was amazed to find a Mediterranean model at Sears –including the bench – for only $250! But that’s when I discovered Mattel was abandoning production. I wondered where we would get ‘repairs’. Of course, we now know the answer to that.
PHOTO 4 – 1978 party in the game room. A rare photo of me actually playing the keys!.
PHOTO 5 – This photo shows the Mediterranean bench, which is handy for storage. This Optigan remained in the game room until about 1997, when we took it to our in-laws home for storage, but keeping the bench, of course. I put a desk there, and right away put a ‘new’ electronic keyboard on it – at first a Casio 61-key; then a Yamaha 76-key (which is still there). So I was never without a keyboard in the game room. (I moved the Mediterranean bench upstairs, and finally bought a black vinyl one for the game room!
PHOTO 6 – Fast-forward to around 2005. This area of our living room looks similar today. You’ll recognize the Optigan bench, sitting in front of my fabulous 88-key Yamaha DGX505 digital keyboard, which is now 15 years old! Unfortunately, I only play it occasionally, but it still sounds great.
But the Optigan is still near and dear to my heart. It was the exact instrument I needed in 1971 to learn how to play a keyboard, after my 8 years of playing clarinet in school, from 1953 to 1961 – my total ‘music education.’ I always longed to play a piano, and I’m envious that the kids today have access to all of the fantastic portable keyboards. In ‘our day’ you had to have an actual piano, and my parents had no room for one in our apartment. We have come a long, long way, with these electronic wonders, with their amazing sounds and auto rhythms. They are also computer compatible, and you can record what you play.
Thanks to my ‘learning’ experiences with the Optigan, I was able to ‘move on’ to the new electronic instruments that arrived in the 1990s, which became and still are SO sophisticated. I eventually learned to play some Classical piano music pieces (for beginning students) with both hands – a lifelong goal, even though it took me until I was 60 to accomplish it! So today I have two Yamahas (one upstairs, one downstairs) and I still enjoy playing songs with the various auto-rhythms and keyboard sounds.
I very much appreciate all the exhaustive research you have shared so that the Optigan is not forgotten! Thanks to you, music enthusiasts can learn about the crazy saga of the Optigan. It’s a miracle it was manufactured at all!