As a child, Jerry Ganiel spent his Saturdays sneaking into the church across the street to play the organ. During Sunday Mass, he watched the nun directing the choir and pretended he was the one leading their songs. And he can still hear his mother playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on piano more than 40 years ago.
"That's when I knew I wanted to take piano. That's what sparked it," says Ganiel. "It was the sheer determination of wanting to do that." Now 54, he's done a lot more than play the organ for an empty church. He serves as full-time director of music at Immaculate Conception Church in Jackson, director of the Heartland Pops Orchestra and Chorus, piano teacher of 11 students, and judge at Cape Girardeau County's annual Heartland Idol contest. He's even worked at Walt Disney World, produced his own TV shows, taught elementary school music and launched orchestras in three states.
Ganiel, born and raised in New Jersey, began piano and organ lessons in October of his 7th-grade year and was playing for his church by May. That summer, he also began working with the children's choirs at his church. Since then, his repertoire has expanded to include the recorder, dulcimer and guitar.
After receiving a degree in elementary education from Rowan University (formerly Glassboro State College) in New Jersey, Ganiel moved to Florida for a teaching position. However, he says he really wanted to get into the entertainment industry. When he learned of an opening at Disney World, he applied for a park staff position, hoping to get his start in show biz. He landed the job and spent the next four years giving tours in Future World and the Disney-MGM Studios and Backlot. On the side, he provided accompaniment for in-house auditions and served as rehearsal accompanist for the 1993 Christmas Candlelight program, where he worked with James Earl Jones as narrator.
"I got to meet people from all over the world," Ganiel says, adding that this was his favorite part of working at Disney World.
While in Florida, Ganiel also produced a local talent and family entertainment show called "Kids Corner" and served as cameraman and director at a religious TV studio. He even appeared several times as an extra in Tom Hank's HBO mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon" and started the Maitland Pops Orchestra in Maitland, Fla.
From there, he moved to Thomasville, Ga., for a teaching position, and also served as music director for local Catholic and Episcopalian churches, produced and hosted a TV show about the city's Victorian Christmas, hosted the televised Rose Festival parade and founded the Thomasville Pops Orchestra.
Hoping to combine his interest in the entertainment industry with his lifelong love for church music, Ganiel set his sights on Branson. He found a full-time music director job at Immaculate Conception Church in Jackson, just close enough to get his fill of Branson music and theater shows. Ganiel has worked at Immaculate Conception for the past six years and says he makes at least one trip to Branson each year. "It's a long drive through the hills, but it's worth it," he says.
As music director at Immaculate Conception, Ganiel works with the adult and children's choirs as well as three handbell groups and plays piano at two church services per week. He also gives piano lessons to about 11 students, and many of them play in their churches.
In addition, Ganiel is director and founder of the Heartland Pops Orchestra and Chorus. He started this himself six years ago simply by using his contacts with local music and band directors at churches and schools. The 30-piece orchestra performs one concert a year at Christmastime.
Over the years, Ganiel has also been active in high school and community theater groups. He estimates that he's directed over 40 shows, and at any given time would be closing one show, rehearsing another, and opening yet another show. His favorites overall have been "The Sound of Music" and "The King and I."
So what's Ganiel's secret for turning a lifelong interest into a full-time career?
"The thing not to do is to think of just the finished product, saying 'I would love to do this.' There is a lot of work involved, but if you stay at it, that will come," says Ganiel. He still dreams of touring Broadway shows one day, but says that for now, he's content to remain where his love of music began: in the church.
"I'm happy where I am now," he says. "I'm doing what I want music-wise, giving lessons and just enjoying what I do."
Ganiel lives between Marble Hill and Jackson with his wife of 20 years, Miriam, plus three dogs and 26 chickens.
Christmas with the Heartland Pops
Catch up with Jerry Ganiel as he directs the annual "Christmas with the Pops" concert on Monday, Dec. 15. The show kicks off at 7:15 p.m. in Academic Hall at Southeast Missouri State University, and will feature a lively performance of the Heartland Pops Orchestra and Chorus, plus special guests. Ganiel says the audience will be treated to a variety of religious, patriotic, country, and Broadway tunes, as well as holiday favorites like "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World."
Branson and RFD-TV entertainer Penny Gilley will perform traditional country music, and the Southeast Missouri-based Southern Brothers will perform gospel music. The St. Augustine/Kelso C-7 Youth Choir will perform, as well, under the direction of Carrie Landewee and Mike Cartwright. The Pops will also perform tunes with Gilley, the Southern Brothers, and the Youth Choir.
"There will be a variety of music and a full orchestra, so there will be something for everybody's taste, whether it be classic, secular, spiritual, county western," says Nancy Nussbaum Robinson, Cape Girardeau resident and four-year member of the Pops. "It will also be a reminder of the Christ child, the real reason for the season."
The second half of the concert features a telling of the Nativity story. KFVS12 TV anchor Mary-Ann Maloney will narrate the story with musical interludes by the Pops orchestra and chorus.
Tickets are $10/adults and $6/students. To reserve tickets, call (573) 579-6127 or (573) 243-3367. Shuttle service will be available between Academic Hall and the Dempster lot on Henderson Street.
TBY, The Best Years, is a special publication of the Southeast Missourian.