The Wurlitzer’s Last Waltz

For a generation in Indianapolis, the old Paramount Music Palace housed a grand, booming pipe organ that provided a schmaltzy soundtrack to birthday parties, Little League team dinners, grandparent visits, and even a honeymoon or two. The music stopped decades ago, but for a one-of-a-kind artifact from a bygone era, the story plays on.

July 20172 Comments

Over the years, Indianapolis has been home to any number of pizza parlors. But only one had the power to rattle your plates.

If you’re of a certain age, the Paramount Music Palace very likely hosted one of your birthday parties, field trips, grandparent visits, post-football game feasts, tour-bus stops, giant family dinners, or honeymoons. (Seriously, honeymoons. We didn’t believe it at first, either.) For more than a decade, it was the family-friendly belle of the east side, accessibly opulent, affectionately schmaltzy, reasonably priced, filled with kids, and tinged with gold. And though the Paramount had live musicians every night, there was one true star of the show: a massive 1931 Mighty Wurlitzer theater pipe organ that would appear each evening by rising from the floor, rotating with regal splendor. If you were of a certain age back then, there was nothing better in the world.

“Oh, my God in heaven, it was unbelievable,” says Ken Double, a former Indy sportscaster and organist who sat in at the Paramount regularly. “On Friday or Saturday night, the lines would be out the door, snaked around the building.”

The organ was a gilded beast, embossed with ebony and gold, weighing in at 10 tons and capable of conjuring sounds that could briefly relocate your silverware. Toggle a few switches, and it could sound like more than 80 things: a horn section, bell, marimba, bass drum, xylophone, harp, piano. It could be an R&B band or a John Williams orchestra; mash the keys right and it became a whooshing locomotive. “There’s a majesty to the sound that’s hard to describe,” says Tim Needler, an organ nut with the local chapter of the American Theater Organ Society. “When the rank of big trumpets came on, it parted your hair.”

At the height of the Paramount’s glory days, the Mighty Wurlitzer was simply one of the biggest instruments in the country, and it looked and played the part. “You could feel the bass in the building and in your body,” says Michael Fellenzer, current president of the Central Indiana Chapter of ATOS. “And for me, there was a complexity that was fascinating. One person is making this sound like an orchestra? How?”

That word—how?—was the draw of the place, the question that enraptured kids and grandparents, drawing them back, letting them wonder. How can one machine make that sound? How does one person play it? How do you get something that big in here, anyway? And now, 20 years later, those who loved it way back when might wonder: Where did it go?

In 1985, The Paramount Music Palace was a family-friendly destination with a soundtrack for all ages.

Photo courtesy John Leeming

The Paramount Publix I (Opus 2164) was born too late, ordered as a mistake, and installed at the wrong end of an era. By the time the crates containing its plenitude of gold-kissed Art Deco parts begin arriving at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland in the early ’30s, the venue was frenetically trying to ship them back. “They said, ‘We changed our minds, we don’t want it anymore,’” says organist Bill Vlasak, who played the Wurlitzer throughout its entire Indianapolis run. “It ended up being put in late and rushed. They installed that thing with pitchforks.”

The problem was that it was 1931, a full four years after Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer introduced audiences to talkies and thus blew the pipe organ industry to smithereens. Prior to 1927, the silent movie era of Chaplin, Valentino, and Buster Keaton was soundtracked by the monster machines, using technology innovated by an Englishman named Robert Hope-Jones as a means of replacing a lavish and pricey theater orchestra with one cost-effective organist. Hope-Jones’s company sold nearly 250 of his inventions before merging with the mighty Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in 1910. While Wurlitzer began an industry-dominating run that saw the company produce 2,200 more organs, Hope-Jones, at 55, killed himself four years later by sucking down gas fumes in a Rochester, New York, hotel.

Theater organs swept the silent film industry throughout the late 1910s and ’20s. Every town had a theater and each had an organ; big cities could contain hundreds, and the men and women at their consoles were rock stars. (At the time, the studios controlled the theaters, which accounts for the numerous “Paramount” marquees.) As the largest multipurpose theater on the West Coast, Oakland’s Paramount was compelled to make its own big-ticket purchase, but its owners had the bad luck (and lousy foresight) to drop $20,000—about $335,000 in today’s dollars—on their shiny new sound machine. The Paramount opened with due glitz and star power on December 16, 1931, but wound up closing a mere seven months later, unable to keep up with operating costs of $27,000 per week (that would be $452,000 today, per week). It reopened the next year as a movie house, but the organ’s days as a main attraction, both at the Paramount and nationwide, were quite done. “That happened all over the place,” says Fellenzer. “There were any number of stories like that.”

The industry’s demise was swift, but the funeral took forever. It was decades before the organs were completely swept out of theaters, and they spent the intervening years serving as the opening acts that welcomed patrons and providing the background music that bid them farewell. Talkies had rendered the huge, expensive machines utterly secondary. Owners couldn’t move tickets with them, but it wasn’t like they could just throw a mountain of organ parts on the curb, either. (Actually, they could, and many did.) Demolition started in earnest in the ’50s, when it became apparent that organ chambers made pretty good places to install air-conditioning units. Before the wrecking balls would show up, word would leak out to local organ communities. You want the organ, you’ve got 24 hours to get it out. Good luck.

Sometimes the practice worked. Mostly it didn’t. The storm-and-salvage routine, while warmly intentioned, often came off less like a daring nighttime rescue and more like a bunch of dudes who didn’t know how to dismantle a massive pipe organ racing to dismantle a massive pipe organ. (Imagine if someone gave you 24 hours to take apart your house.)

For its part, the Publix I—the instrument that eventually landed in Indy—wasn’t salvaged in the dead of night, but it was placed in cold storage. It didn’t stay there for terribly long, though. The theater age might have been over, but organs were beginning to see the dawn of an unlikely renaissance, one that took place in—of all places—pizza parlors, those adorned with kitschy old-timey decor and advertised as fine places to treat the family. In 1960, the Publix I was sold to Edward and Steve Restivo, owners of Ken’s Melody Inn in Los Altos, California, who put it up and noticed regular crowds. The ’60s and ’70s were good to theater pipe organs, and the Paramount’s was on its way to a second life. “By the time we got through with it,” says Vlasak, “it was the most beautiful sound you ever heard.”

“There wasn’t anybody in Indianapolis who didn’t know the Paramount Music Palace,″ says Ken Crome.

Pro tip: If you ever need to relocate, rebuild, or refurbish a theater pipe organ, go directly to Ken Crome.

There’s not exactly a school for theater pipe organ installation, so Crome learned it on the fly. Now 70, he’s been involved with the Crome Organ Company since the age of 17 in 1954; his grandfather launched the company in L.A. in 1895, the Wurlitzer’s original golden age. (The company has since relocated to Reno.) Crome had one request when he was approached for this article: Let’s not make a big to-do about this. “It was a family business then, and it’s still a family business,” he says. “It’s a small company, four or five people. There’s a niche I’m filling, and that’s about it.”

Fine. Still, his influence looms large. In the late ’70s, a group of Indianapolis developers hatched plans to mimic a pipes-and-pizza joint they’d visited in Grand Rapids, and, knowing Crome’s reputation, called on him to move the Wurlitzer out of Los Altos, enlarge it to more than twice its original size, upgrade it to 42 ranks, change the color to ebony (with highlights of gold, copper, and silver), and design a pizza parlor around it. It was a big job: The new Paramount Music Palace would require not just moving the organ, but creating huge new chambers and a third story to hold the percussion. Drums would be placed in full view, as would the piano, marimba, xylophone, chimes, and sleigh bells. The restaurant would have a vaulted design intended to “turn the sound inward over the audience,” according to a 1979 newspaper ad that announced the grand opening.

In the end, the machine comprised 3,033 pipes; the largest was 16 feet long, and the smallest was the size of a pencil. It was known as a four-manual, 42-rank organ; a manual is a keyboard on the console, and a rank is a set of pipes that produces one octave of a specific sound, so a rank sounds like strings, another rank sounds like flutes, and so forth. It was fueled by a 20-horsepower Spencer Blower, which supplied the air for the pipes and percussion, and powered by 26 miles of wiring. (The lobby augmented the fancy getup; the entrance contained a wrought-iron-and-glass chandelier that was made in 1927 for the United Artists Theatre in Detroit.) The end result was a kind of casual glamour that took off at once. Crome knew he’d installed something special. “There wasn’t anybody in Indianapolis who didn’t know the Paramount Music Palace,” he says.

As a venue, it was grand. As a pizza place, it was a pizza place. The food was decent and the seating fairly terrible—plain wooden tables and benches—but it’s not like people came for the cuisine. “The overhead lights would get dark, colored lights would come on, and the organ rose up from the ground in the middle of the place!” says Laura Aguillon, a Zionsville resident and former patron of the Music Palace. “They had a machine that would fill the room with bubbles. It seems like such an odd combination, but we loved it.”

Bill Havel, an engineer living in West Lafayette, was a “nut for all things mechanical” who marveled at the machine’s insane, intricate design. “It was quite a spectacle,” he says. “As you walked in the place, the blowers could be seen through glass windows along the entrance hallway. The pipes were all mounted behind automated louvers on the stage wall that opened and closed to control volume. And there was a row of trumpets on the back wall—you were in for a treat if they played big-brass numbers like the themes from Star Wars and Dallas.”

Inside the Paramount, the organists reclaimed golden-god status. The restaurant opened with two: Donna Parker, who’d made her name as the first official organist at Dodger Stadium, and Vlasak, a Columbus, Ohio, native who played at the Paramount for 16 years. Set lists were dictated by kids and the tip bowl, which meant a lot of “Gonna Fly Now” (from Rocky), Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Disney standbys, “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and an ungodly volume of happy birthdays. (The musicians took to calling these greatest hits the “Dirty 30,” regarding them in the same way that Billy Joel does “Just the Way You Are.”) Once the theater brought on Dwight Thomas—a prodigy hired out of high school—the Paramount’s roster was artistically stacked and primed to turn tables. “Our task was to play a tight 20 minutes on and 20 off, because they wanted to flip that crowd,” says Ken Double, who subbed in when his TV schedule permitted.

The scene was designed for maximum noise and nostalgia. For all its sonic boom, the theater organ is an indisputable relic, something even the endless forces of pop-culture nostalgia rarely invite back into the mainstream. Purists tend to give them a side-eye; even proponents accept a certain degree of good-natured cheese. “For many years, the theater organ was thought to be the crazy uncle of the organ world,” says Double. But, he adds, that’s also the point. “The teenager could hear some movie theme, Mom and Dad hear music they grew up with, and Grandma and Grandpa hear big-band. It was absolutely multi-generational.” One night, he kicked into the opening of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” which meant he basically mashed a dozen keys to approximate the primal whoosh of a starting train and ended with a mighty toot on the train whistle. But someone had gone in and upgraded the whistle’s energy, without first stopping to inform the sound engineer. “So I’m playing away, and I reach over and hit the train whistle, and it’s about 10 times louder than the regular one,” he laughs. “People said I leapt about a foot and a half off the bench.”

The early- to mid-’80s were grand. “The Paramount was the best showcase of a theater organ brought into modern times that I’d ever seen,” says Vlasak, who recorded six albums there. But by the early ’90s, the novelty and the business had begun a noticeable fade. The Paramount’s numbers dipped enough that it shuttered for six months in 1991, though Vlasak remained optimistic enough about a revival that he stopped in regularly to trim the bushes out front while volunteers vacuumed and mopped the inside. Help arrived in the form of an unusually large collective made up of Needler, Vlasak, and 21 other friends, CIC members and organ nuts who pooled their money and formed a corporation to save the place. This helped, and with Fellenzer installed as general manager, the Paramount eventually began to turn a profit again. Fellenzer acknowledges the building was facing significant age-related problems—the roof and HVAC were 20 years older, as was the organ—and on some weeks, the books got frighteningly tight. But a new focus on tourism and group business was helping, and the restaurant picked up steam. “It was challenging, trying to balance everybody’s goals,” Fellenzer says. “There were people who wanted the music, and there were people who wanted to make money. It’s difficult to make both of those [groups] happy, and that led to strife.”

That strife came to a head in December 1994, when Mexican restaurant chain Don Pablo’s rolled in with an offer the group couldn’t ignore: $1 million for the building and land. True, if you’re looking for a bleak metaphor about the unrelenting march of progress, you can’t do much better than an evocatively old-timey pizza palace being bowled over to make way for Anglified burritos. But the chain was looking to vanquish a Chi-Chi’s that had set up shop two doors down. In large part, the Paramount Music Palace closed as a casualty of a chain-Mexican turf war.

Organist Donna Parker played Dodger Stadium before gigging at the Music Palace.

The ownership group was split down the middle, half aging and increasingly uninterested, half determined to stick it out. “Some really wanted to keep the place going,” says Needler. “I was one of those.” A single vote pushed it over.

Vlasak voted to sell—not a great career move—but he stands by his decision. “I was voting myself out of a job, but I think everybody had had enough. I don’t care how great something is—you can have a huge piece of pecan pie, and you can think, There’s nothing better than this, this is what I want when I go to heaven, but if you sit there and eat it year after year, you get tired of it,” he says. “That’s a very clumsy way to put it. But that’s what happened.” Needler is a little more emotional about it: “It was a sad situation. It still is.” It was, however, a good financial one—the owners doubled their money in less than five years.

As is the natural order of things, the closing brought the Paramount more attention than it had seen in years. The announcement made the front page of The Indianapolis Star on January 4, 1995, in an article that announced a January 15 closing date. Crowds roared back. Lines stretched around the block in the winter wind, and wait times in that final week topped 90 minutes. On the Paramount’s last morning, an ad appeared in the classifieds: public auction, everything must go, the strobes, bubble machines, 36-inch mirrored ball, “huge quantities” of kitchen stuff, and a Hi-Lift 20-foot work platform, one that could rise up from the floor.

In the end—like many other spry yet aging Indiana relics—the organ went to Florida.

You might not have known that Indiana is kind of Pipe Organ Central. With nearly 300 members, the Central Indiana Chapter of the American Theater Organists Association, established in 1964, is the largest and most active of the 70-some chapters in the world. The group stages three or four concerts a year. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in March, a show called Music and Motoring: Those Were the Days drew a few hundred people to Warren Performing Arts Center at Warren Central High School, home of a refurbished Grande Barton. (The musician and MC, a tuxedoed Ohioan with the improbably majestic name of Pierre Fracalanza, played old-time numbers while showing off old-time cars and dribbling in old-time trivia about Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Judy Garland.) “We’re pretty well united in trying to keep this thing going,” says Needler. Indiana even has its own Crome-style operation: Carlton Smith Pipe Organ Restorations, which is on the second floor of the Stutz Building and looks like the toughest shop class you’ve ever seen. (Then again, the chaos makes sense: If you’ve ever hung up Christmas lights, you can imagine what it’s like to tend to 26 miles of cables that plug into a machine from the 1920s.)

Smith, 62, launched the business in 1990 but has been restoring pipe organs since 1974, when he found the practice to be an unusually apt mix of his fine- and industrial-arts backgrounds. Whatever you’re imagining a pipe organ restoration space to look like is probably on point: ’60s-era postcards and Saturday Evening Post ads line the walls, interspersed with sheet music from a ’20s number titled “After I’ve Called You Sweetheart (How Can I Call You Friend?)” and several poster-size sets of schematics that seem more suited to a cruise ship. When a recent visitor noted that it was way more space than he expected, Smith chuckled and showed off two more rooms.

Such space is required, because theater pipe organs aren’t especially rare. There are more than 200 currently operational in the United States, says Smith, and four of them are within a 20-minute drive of Indianapolis. “You’ll find them in all types of care and condition,” says Justin Stahl, who often plays a Wurlitzer at the Hilbert Circle Theatre. “Sometimes they’re an organist’s dream, and sometimes it’s like, Oh, my God, this thing is held together by duct tape and a prayer.” If you know the right people (like Crome and Smith), it’s actually relatively easy to sell a pipe organ.

Smith says the tightness of the Paramount vote hurt. “It ruined friendships,” he says. “Everybody was madder than hell. The big-money people had played with it long enough, and they were touting gloom and doom. It never lost money. It had lost money with earlier owners, but not then.”
Word of the Paramount’s closing went out, and Smith helped monitor a list of buyers that, as you might suspect, proved appropriately bizarre: the Walt Disney Company expressed interest, as did a German music museum and a Swiss ventriloquist named Retonio Breitenmoser who wanted to move it to Las Vegas. In the end—like many other spry yet aging Indiana relics—the organ went to Florida, and in December of ’99 was installed as the centerpiece of Roaring ’20s Pizza and Pipes, a Paramount-esque joint in the Tampa suburb of Ellenton, near a rich customer base of snowbirds and the 2,200 mobile homes of the Colony Cove Park retirement community. Crome did the work—which clocked in at more than 2,500 hours for rebuilding and 1,700 hours for installation—and Vlasak and Thomas signed on to play.

The restaurant thrived in the early 2000s, but the recession, coupled with the decision to jumble the family-friendly approach by installing a full liquor bar and hosting country bands on weekends, did a number on it. Facing foreclosure, the Roaring ’20s abruptly closed its doors in June 2010, and the organ sat in the vacant, AC-less building for a year; eventually it was shuffled into a storage unit in Fort Myers. A buyer stepped up, intending to include the organ in a pavilion in a coastal town in Florida, but plans never materialized. In the summer of 2016, the organ was
finally liquidated and parted out to what, by then, had become an exceedingly unfriendly market. “During the pizza parlor era, [the market] was way up,” says Smith. “And now it’s way down.” By now, portions of the mighty Wurlitzer have been scattered all over the place. The console, however, has one last date with Ken Crome.

An Evening at the Paramount was one of six albums recorded at the pizza palace.

As befitting a classic theater in a progressive town, the Oakland Paramount has been digging into its own authenticity. In recent years, employees have replicated the house’s original drapes, restored carpet based on original 1931 swatches, and scoured archives looking for clues to the original artwork. Leslee Stewart, the general manager since 1999 (and an art history major), says guys from her restoration crew occasionally rush in with a newly unearthed 1931-era scrape of paint. “As a steward of the building,” she says, “my job is not to take artistic license, but to keep the history alive as [architect] Timothy Pflueger presented it.” Naturally, you can’t restore an original theater without the original organ.

The Oakland Paramount has a Wurlitzer already, but its console is an altered standard version that’s seen plenty of better days. Stewart sniffed around the theater’s original Wurlitzer when it was for sale in Florida in 2010, but the asking price was too high. “It wasn’t feasible at the time,” she says, “but it was always on my mind.” When the Wurlitzer became available last year—and a donor piped up to foot the bill—she jumped. After a third Crome refurbishing, which will restore the console to its original gold color scheme, it will be installed in the Oakland Paramount, where it was first fired up—but this time a little more slowly, a little more thoughtfully, and without the pitchforks. Needler, Fellenzer, Smith, and the Indy contingent are all thrilled. “You have to understand, the theater organ is the cat with nine lives,” says Double. “They’ve been predicting its demise since the Great Depression, and it always evolves and finds another reason to get back in front of the public.”

Organ concerts still aren’t financially viable, Stewart says, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. But the Wurlitzer’s music will accompany the theater’s classic 35mm movie series, as well as fundraisers and special events. “It’s meant to be back here,” she says. “It’s meant to be back home.”

The Don Pablo’s on Washington Street closed in 2007, and the chain shuttered all of its remaining Indy restaurants last year. Today, the Paramount’s old location is home to Comfort Keepers, which offers in-home senior care. The nearest place to get a pizza now is about 700 feet away, at a Fazoli’s. They play pop music over the loudspeakers

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