Surprise! Millions watch Wyndmoor music legend on GMA

by Len Lear
Posted 2/29/24

It's one thing to have a surprise birthday party. It's another thing to have a surprise tribute that millions of people watch on national TV. 

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Surprise! Millions watch Wyndmoor music legend on GMA


It's one thing to have a surprise birthday party, but it's another thing to have a surprise tribute that millions of people get to watch on national TV. 

That is exactly what happened on Jan.14 to Joe Ciccimaro, 84, who retired at the end of the last school year after 54 years as a music teacher at La Salle College High School in Wyndmoor. His “surprise” birthday party was captured by “Good Morning America,” (GMA), which featured the event on ABC-TV the following morning.

GMA reporter Will Ganss called Ciccimaro “a real-life Mr. Holland's Opus” and the surprise tribute “a curtain call almost 60 years in the making.”

For Ciccimaro, the whole thing came as a tremendous surprise. 

“I got a call from the school asking me to come back at 6 p.m. on Jan. 13,” said Ciccimaro, who is also a graduate of the high school. “I was told I'd be speaking at an alumni fundraiser for capital improvements. That's why I went back to the school. When I walked into the auditorium, what a shock!”

Greeting him was a 30-piece orchestra, featuring 25 of his former students who are now professional musicians. 

“They were playing for me!” Ciccimaro exclaimed. “And there were about 350 of my former students who were there, all giving me a standing ovation. It was unbelievable. What I saw that night was enough of a legacy for me. It was almost like a dream!”

Since the program aired, Ciccimaro said, he’s been getting letters from classmates and students he’s known throughout his 60-year career. 

“I could never have imagined the scope of this experience – it is surprising how many people saw it,” Ciccimaro said. “I hope this can represent all the teachers in the world who do not get this type of recognition but who also deserve it.”

Hugh Panaro, an East Oak Lane native who went on to become a Broadway star in “Les Miserables” and perform in more than 2,000 performances of “Phantom of the Opera,” told a GMA reporter, “I was bullied in high school. It was really rough. And Joe was the only person who was compassionate and helpful. He was wonderful!” 

Ciccimaro was born in 1940 at St. Mary's Hospital in Fishtown and grew up in Port Richmond. His grandfather had been a shepherd in Italy, and his father was a tailor. Nuns taught him to play the piano, and he learned to play the clarinet in high school, eventually mastering all five woodwind instruments – flute, bassoon, oboe, clarinet and saxophone. He was good – enough so that he and his school band performed for 100,000 people at the Municipal Stadium [formerly in South Philadelphia] during halftime at a football game.

“When I started thinking about a career, I thought maybe I wanted to be a priest, but I did not want to hear people's confessions. Then I thought about dentistry, but I didn't want to be looking into people's mouths for the rest of my life.”

Then one of his teachers, Brother Michael, took his students to New York to see 'The King & I' with Yul Brynner and Katherine Grayson. 

“There was a 36-piece band in the orchestra pit. I said to Brother Michael that I wanted to do that for a career.” 

Ciccimaro's first professional job was at age 14 when he was paid $5 to play music. 

And he’s been working ever since. In college, he had his own five-piece band, Joey Marrow and the Collegians, which helped him pay the $800 tuition per semester. They played the wedding circuit and at an Atlantic City club, Chez Paree, until 3 a.m., even though he had early morning classes the next day. 

In 1960, when then-Sen.John F. Kennedy organized a campaign stop at La Salle University, Ciccimaro was tapped to play.  “Jackie Kennedy sat right next to me,” he said. “I have played for every president since Eisenhower.”

The following year, as a college senior, “I played at the Academy of Music for Judy Garland,” he said. “Later in the 1970s, I became friends with Leonard Bernstein. He wrote a letter of recommendation in 1975 for me. I have it in a frame at home. After that, I never needed a resume.”

Bernstein was a real gentleman, he said.

“My daughter met him 20 years later at Tanglewood, and when she said I was her father, he sat down and talked with her for a half hour,” Caccimaro said. “He was a very friendly man. You'd never know he was a genius. He was a person you never forget.”

Starting in 1960 and continuing for 61 years, Ciccimaro played for musicals at the Forrest Theater at night and taught music in the day, including seven years at Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster. He made such a mark there that the theater put his name on the orchestra pit – which will now be known as the Joe Ciccimaro Orchestra Pit. 

Ciccimaro, the oldest of four children, and his wife, Janice, have six daughters and one son. All seven children were musicians, and two daughters had careers in music for a time, but none do now. 

“When COVID hit, my fingers curled up,” said Joe. “I took up the trombone because you don't need fingers for that, as you do with woodwinds. I have to have music in my life. It's good therapy. It takes your mind off the terrible things that are happening in the world.” 

Len Lear can be reached at