While rummaging through a couple old boxes the other day I ran across a couple things that activated the launch sequence of my way back machine. One was a brochure and the other an old pinback button. Both were from the old Paramount Music Palace once located 7560 Old Trails Road; a fancy term for Washington Street. The brochure pictures a movie marquee sign hovering above an old fashioned pipe organ and the pin features a distinctly Pac-Man like design picturing that same organ. Not just any organ, the Mighty Wurlitzer organ.
In case you don’t remember, the Paramount Music Palace (a.k.a. the Paramount Pizza Palace) was a massive Art Deco theatre building located where the abandoned Don Pablos restaurant now stands at the southwest quarter of the Washington Street and I-465 interchange. The Palace operated on Indy’s eastside from 1979 to 1995 and although the official name was the Paramount Music Palace Family Pizza Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlour, it wasn’t about the food. Make no mistake, it was about the music flowing out of that Mighty Wurlitzer.
Officially, the organ was an 4/42, meaning it had four keyboards and 42 sets of pipes, making it one of the largest organs in the United States. It was made by the Cincinnati, Ohio based Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. Wurlitzer originally imported stringed, woodwind and brass instruments from Germany for resale in the U.S. The company parlayed exclusive defense contracts to provide musical instruments to the U.S. military into one of the largest suppliers of musical equipment in the country. In time, Wurlitzer began manufacturing pianos which quickly expanded to band organs, nickelodeons and theatre organs. The most famous instruments Wurlitzer ever built were its pipe organs (produced from 1914 until 1943). They were installed in theatres, homes, churches, and other venues all across the country.
The Mighty Wurlitzer was the brainchild of Englishman Robert Hope-Jones, who created an organ that functioned as a “one man orchestra” to accompany silent movies. Hope-Jones’ had two big ideas: That a pipe organ should be able to imitate the instruments of an orchestra and that the console should be detachable from the organ. Hope-Jones’ organ innovations included stop-keys instead of draw-knobs and high wind pressures of 10″–50″ designed to imitate orchestral instruments. Theatre organs were in high demand during the “silent movie era” (1894–1929). The Mighty Wurlitzer perfectly complimented silent movie houses, allowing a single organist to function as a one person orchestra complete with percussion and sound effects.
Between 1887 and 1911 Hope-Jones’ company produced 246 organs, only a handful of which survive. In 1914, shortly after merging with the Wurlitzer company, 55-year-old Hope-Jones committed suicide by inhaling gas fumes in a hotel in Rochester, New York. He left a rambling incoherent suicide note and the coroner declared his death as “suicide while insane.” Wurlitzer however, marched on. From 1914 to 1942, Wurlitzer built and sold over 2,243 pipe organs all over the world: 30 times the rate of Hope-Jones company, and more theatre organs than the rest of the theatre organ manufacturers combined. The largest Wurlitzer organ ever built is the four-manual/58-rank (set of pipes) instrument at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
The Mighty Wurlitzer that once graced the south side of the Historic National Road was originally the property of the Paramount Theatre, an Art Deco masterpiece in Oakland, California. When it was built in 1931, at a price of $20,000 (Roughly $300,000 today), it was the largest multi-purpose theater on the West Coast, seating 3,476. However, Oakland’s Paramount opened in 1931 during the Great Depression some four years after the release of The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture. So rather than accompany the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Rudolph Valentino on the big screen, the Paramount organ, called the Publix I (Opus 2164), led a very brief, under-utilized life as a solo performer. The Paramount opened and closed during the succeeding decades.
By the late 1950s, The Mighty Wurlitzer was removed and placed in cold storage. In 1960, it was sold to Edward and Steve Restivo who installed it as the focal point of Ken’s Melody Inn, Pizza and Pipes in Los Altos, California, where it stayed for nearly two decades until being purchased for use at Indianapolis’ Paramount Music Palace. Prior to installation, the pipe organ was sent to the Crome Organ Company in Los Angeles where it was enlarged and rebuilt into the gilded Art Deco beauty most patrons of the Music Palace remember to this day.
Virtually anyone who grew up in Indianapolis in the 1980s has at least a vague recollection of the Paramount Music Palace. Despite it’s lofty name, the palace was not built for comfort. Patrons were seated uncomfortably on benches, often elbow-to-elbow with total strangers. On long picnic style tables, diners were served sparsely topped pizza ($14.95 for the 12 slice large Palace Combo pizza) and high school cafeteria quality lasagna at $5.15 a pop. You could get beer, wine and ice cream too. It didn’t take long to realize that you were here for the music, not the food.
For those of us who experienced it firsthand, over two decades after the establishment closed, some memories remain crystal clear. As mentioned above, the pin I found had a Pac-Man game grid design and the slogan “I survived the line at PMP.” That is a misnomer because there were actually TWO lines at PMP. After navigating the snakelike line to enter the place (which often began well outside the building) you then found yourself in another line to order the pizza. All the while, patrons inched along the interior wall nervously hoping that they would not miss the start of the show.
And what a show it was. The giant 14-ton black and gold organ rose from a pit and shot bubbles into the air on it’s ascent. Houselights dimmed and a spotlight lit up the Mighty Wurlitzer and its keyboard captain manning the impressive “waterfall” style console. A wall of glass shutters and dozens of instruments — marimbas, xylophones, a full horn section — whirred into action linked by 26 miles of wires. The music exploded immediately; surrounding the pizza munching, soda pop swigging, beer sipping patrons with orchestral sounds and automated instruments that chimed in at the organist’s practiced touch. With the subtle tilt of a floor pedal, the organist could produce an almost sub-sonic bass note that would today probably set off every car alarm in the massive PMP parking lot. The largest of the PMP’s pipes was 16 feet high and 14 inches in diameter and it screamed low with six w’s.
The music, an eclectic mix of patriotic standards and pop songs, literally rattled the plates on the tables. On any given night, the Palace was filled to the rafters with families, church groups, office parties and scores upon scores of birthday parties. The Palace was open on weekdays 11:00 to 2:00 for lunch, closed from 2:00 to 5:30 before reopening for dinner until 11:00 p.m. They closed on Monday evenings and only stayed open until 9:00 on Sundays. No video or audio recordings were allowed but a few bootleg performances can still be found on YouTube.
During the 16 years of the Paramount Music Palace’s existence, many noteworthy musicians tickled the ivories of that Mighty Wurlitzer, not the least of which was Donna Parker, who became the first Official Organist for the Los Angeles Dodgers at age 16 and was the first featured organist at the PMP at it’s grand opening in January of 1979. She achieved pop culture immortality by performing the Star Wars theme on the Mighty Wurlitzer during a CBS morning news appearance in December of 1980.
Other keymasters included Bill Vlasak, who recorded six albums in the Paramount Music Palace, 7-year old Martin Ellis who went on the become the Hilbert Circle Theatre house organist, Ohioan Clark Wilson, and Patti Davidson of Beech Grove. Patti was so proud of her service at the Palace that she insisted the information be placed in her 2013 obituary.
For most people, they had never seen anything like the Mighty Wurlitzer. For some, hearing that pipe organ, watching the organist at the helm and seeing the faces of those astonished guests sparked a life long interest in music. Princeton University Chapel organist Eric Plutz and International concert organist Jelani Eddington both credit a childhood visit to the Paramount Music Palace for launching their careers. However, most locals remember another PMP virtuoso for his day job as Channel 6 sportscaster.
Next Week: Part II of the Paramount Music Palace
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are “Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View.” and “Irvington Haunts. The Tour Guide.” Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.