Location of the long-gone Paramount Music Palace (and recently gone Don Pablo’s) – Photo by Ryan Hamlett
At the request of a good friend, this week’s not exactly picturesque local is the site of the long since demolished Paramount Music Palace at the Washington and 465 interchange on Indy’s eastside. What was once home to Indianapolis’ “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ and scores upon scores of birthday parties was razed in 1995 to make room for a Don Pablo’s mexican restaurant franchise. A Don Pablo’s, which, like its two-doors-down neighbor Chi-Chi’s, has served its last taco.
The origin of both the Paramount’s name and its Wurlitzer lay in Oakland, California and the beautiful art deco Paramount Theater. Founded in Cincinnati in 1853, the Randolph Wurlitzer Company began life making a wide variety of musical instruments, but had streamlined its focus to pianos and organs by the early 1900s. As the popularity of motion pictures spread across the country, Wurlitzer built pipe organs specifically suited to silent movie houses, allowing a single organist to function as a one person orchestra complete with percussion and sound effects. However, Oakland’s Paramount theater opened in 1931, four years after the release of The Jazz Singer and the advent of “talking pictures”. So rather than accompany the likes of Buster Keaton and Rudolph Valentino, the $20,000 ($300,000 in 2013 dollars) Paramount organ, called the Publix I (Opus 2164), saw a very brief life as a solo performer and member of the theater’s house orchestra before the Paramount closed its doors seven months after opening, having been unable to meet operating expenses of $27,000 ($413,000) a week.
The Paramount would re-open the following year, but almost exclusively as a movie house, likely under-utilizing the Wurlitzer gathering dust in its orchestra pit. By the late 1950s, it was finally removed and placed into storage. In 1960, it was sold to Edward and Steve Restivo who installed it as the center piece of “Ken’s Melody Inn, Pizza and Pipes” in Los Altos, California, where it stayed until it was purchased for its Indianapolis destination. Prior to being installed in the Paramount Music Palace, the Publix I was sent to the Crome Organ Company in Los Angeles where it was enlarged from its original 20 ranks (a set of organ pipes responsible for producing one octave or register of a specific timbre) to 42 ranks and rebuilt in the gilded art deco console that patrons of the Music Palace will remember rising out of the stage during performances.
Several musicians manned the keys of the Wurlitzer over its 16 year stint at Paramount. Two of those listed in the above Paramount menu are still hard at work.
Featured organist Donna Parker has been playing since the age of seven, became the first official organist of Dodger’s Stadium in her native Los Angeles at 16, graduated from California Polytechnic State before moving to Phoenix, Arizona where she began performing at Organ Stop Pizza, leading to a number of stints at other similarly themed Organ/Pizza venues including Paramount. She still performs with two other organists as the group Trip con Brio.
The king of keys was Theater Organ virtuoso and Paramount headlining organist Bill Vlasak. A Columbus, Ohio native and Ohio State grad, Bill also played in California and Arizona before landing the gig at the Indianapolis Paramount that would make him famous, in organist terms. He recorded six albums in the Paramount Music Palace, including “Sentimental Journey” (available at the Central Library on CD, or will be when I return it) before he and his Wurlitzer would have to find new digs in 1995.
There was no particular urgency for the closure of Paramount in ’95. Though profits were lowish, it wasn’t losing money. Still, the 23 (count them, 23) owners of the Music Palace had been made a generous offer for the property by those who were to open the now vacant Mexican eatery and they chose to take it. This left what to do with the organ. As Paramount prepared to close its doors for good, it was reported that three parties were interested in the Wurlitzer, now being offered at a bargain price of $80,000, including the Walt Disney Co. and a group that wanted to install it into the Circle Theater. Ultimately, it was sold with the intent of installing it in a music museum in Germany. That plan fell through and the Wurlitzer and Vlasak himself were relocated to Ellenton, Florida where they found a home at the Roaring 20s restaurant, until that too succumbed to declining profits and closed its doors in 2010. Current whereabouts of the Paramount Publix I (Opus 2164): unknown.
I always wondered where the organ ended up. I guess it will remain a mystery…I LOVED Paramount. My youth group would come up at least 4 times a year (since I am not originally from Indy) and partake of the mediocre pizza and the fabulous musical show… ahhh…and now there is a generation or two that have no clue about the wonderous mighty Wurlitzer…
The organ itself is being parted out, but the console, most fortuitously, is currently being restored for re-installation in the Oakland Paramount. 🙂
What happened to the pipes and they still ok?
I remember my mother and I going to listen to Mr. Vlasak at Paramount Music Palace vividly.
The man seemed to have arms and legs from out of a comic book. Reaching, stretching, like rubbery wires hitting each and every note perfectly.
Mother has long since passed. But my memories of hearing Mr. Vlasak play “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” and the joy in my mother’s eyes will never pass.
The you Mr. Vlasak for such memories. That train roared through that building each and every time you played it.
Joel C. Ashbaugh
Formerly from Greenwood, Indiana
Remember it well “over the years”, going there mainly with East Side relatives…
My grandma used to live at Washington and Edmundson and my choice for lunch/dinner every time I stayed with her was the Paramount Music Palace. I have wonderful memories of going there and requesting songs.
Thank you so much for this article!
Thanks, Ryan! I remember, with teenage glee, being packed into a minibus along with friends from Attica Presbyterian church youth group for an afternoon of pizza and (organ) pipes… well worth the nearly two-hour drive.
My grandfather is Ray Smith, he was the owner of the paramount music palace from inception here in Indy. I spent so many days and nights in this place running throughout the entire property. I remember all the hiding places like it was yesterday, and could never forget the smells. Thanks for posting this, miss this place dearly.
We had an FBLA trip to Indianapolis in 1982 and went to the Paramount. I loved it! I think I bought a record of the music.
Ryan — every time I head to Capitol City Ford for service I notice that building.
By the way, I believe the organ in the auditorium at Manual H.S. is a Wurlitzer. Maybe folks that want to foster historical preservation and info sharing should have annual meetings there.
The best concert I have heard there was a couple of years ago when the Indpls. Symphonic Band played an organ/orchestra concerto with Bob Schilling on the organ. Excellent. Perhaps we could draft him to play if the historical folks ever were to have a meeting.
Finally, the ISB is having a concert at Warren Performing Arts this Thursday, May 9, 2013, at 7 P.M. FREE !
The Central Indiana chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society holds monthly social meetings at venues equipped with a theatre pipe organ, and occasionally that includes Manual H.S. which has a 3/26 Wurlitzer. The problem is that the school’s instrument is the least-accessible theatre organ in Indianapolis, so meetings there are not frequent, generally 2-3 times a year at the most (in my experience). The Warren PAC organ is used fairly often for the meetings, and also on occasion, the small instrument in the Hedback Theatre on North Alabama St. That instrument is also used before every performance at the theatre.
Was it ever in Fairfield, Ohio for a while ? It seems that I saw the marquee just north of 275 on highway 4 on the west side. I loved that organ.
I have two memories of the Paramount. In the Summer of 1980, we took my uncle’s mother (then in her 80s) there for dinner one evening and I don’t think any of us remember her having so much fun. She made several requests and sang along with the organ all evening like a little girl. Also had my after high school graduation party there in 1982. Wonderful place, great memories.
wow such great memories…we had recently moved to Brownsburg in 1977 and was told to go! I remember that night the music the fun! Thanks for sharing the information!
Loved the Paramount “show”. Is there another casual place open in central Indiana similar to what Paramount’s organ provided?
First, the organ in Manual HS is a different, smaller organ. Last I heard the organ from PMP and the more recent Roaring 20’s in Florida might be installed in a Civic Center in Florida or Texas but that was awhile back and can’t find the article.
Used to go to the PMP as a kid and was there a few months before it closed for good. It seemed more of a former shell of itself, no one really seemed to care about much. Perhaps they knew it was closing. Wanted to go to Roaring 20’s for my 40th birthday but they closed before that. There are a few surviving restaurants with pipe organs out west…
Closest venue to Indy I know of to offer anything similar is Zaharakaro’s Ice Cream parlor in Columbus, Indiana. It has a small (a few actually but one functional) automated pipe organ. Its nothing like the Paramount offered though. I think there used to be a small place over in Cincy that was a restaurant with a theater piep organ but it wasn’t open very long. Used to be one in Ft. Wayne but gone as well.
I did a search for the organ ‘ s whereabouts – due to some video that popped up of the Paramount Organ on an Old Indy Businesses group page. The most recent info that I have been able to find is from 2012. Believe it or not – organ enthusiasts track the whereabouts of these impressive instruments. Who knew? Anyway – I found an organ database. And it says as of 2012 the organ is in storage. http://database.organsociety.org/SingleOrganDetails.php?OrganID=49884
Speaking of organs, there is one at Arsenal Tech but I have never seen it used. I remember going to the PMP with a bunch of Howe students when it first opened. I took pictures for the yearbook.
I remember going there back in the seventy’s then when they played the organ musical instruments came out of small places in the tall walls around the organ and they would play it if the organ was playing a violin-a violin would come out of one spot in the wall. If it was playing the drums the drums would come out and play. If it was playing a flute, a flute would come out and play there would be nobody playing the instruments, it was just the actual instrument looking like it is being played but behind the manuals (or keyboards) it was the organist playing. I don’t know if this is the same place or not, but it was right there at I-465 and East Washington Street. I went to Washington High School graduated on 72 and we used to go there and have pizza and a lot of fun when we were growing up and I miss that place. I took my husband there I believe was in the 80s and it was still there I think it was still there at that time and he got to see the instruments come out from behind closed doors and walls and when it was done playing, of course, it went back in the wall and the door closed it was the neatest thing in the world and we sit at picnic tables eating our pizza. It was really awesome to be there I miss that place badly. I live in Frankfort Indiana now
For those who miss hearing this instrument, there is a group in the Indianapolis area that supports theater pipe organs and usually have monthly meetings with organs being played that are open to the public plus concerts. Visit http://www.cicatos.org/
The organ went to Florida where it was in another pizza place. No word forthcoming of whats to happen to the organ. The place shut down – probably due to what it has been always plagued with -poor location
I miss the organ music very much and a fair few of the recordings are still available. I could write reams here about it – just won’t.
A few years ago I remember reading an article regarding the old Wurlitzer Publix 1 ultimate fate. The organ was purchased by an older gentleman who had it stored in a warehouse, after its removal from The Roaring 20’s pizza restaurant, and there was a fire in that warehouse destroying the entire organ console and numerous pipes. Apparently the gentleman had some pie in the sky, grandiose idea of installing the organ in his modest sized home, so the organ would’ve needed to be stored for a lengthy period until the man’s home was reconfigured to accommodate the behemoth of an instrument. Evidentially that never happened. All that was salvageable (regarding the organ) after the warehouse fire were some of the pipes.
I grew up in Indianapolis and loved the Paramount Music Palace as a kid… all the cool fun instruments on the walls. As a married adult on vacation in Florida, I dragged my wife on a 3 rental hour car ride up to the Roaring 20’s to hear her played again… and while a little smaller in scale than the Paramount Music Palace, she sounded wonderful! Some of the lights on the flying instruments no longer worked, so you lost some of the awareness of which piece was sounding that particular note, but the sound was amazing never-the-less! I’m sad to learn she’s back in storage as I’d hoped to meet up with some childhood friends at this place on our next visit to Florida. I hope one day, I can take my children to experience the wonder, mystery, and awe that accompanied the star wars theme song, superman, the big band marches, and so many other popular songs our wonderful organists played for us over the years. as they spiraled up out of the pit. We would always wonder what they did below decks… did they take a nap? What was behind that closed door under the organ?
I remember as a kid/teen gong to the Paramount with its mighty Wurlitzer organ show. Every now and again I reminisce about the place. I’ve always thought it should have been kept as a historic Indiana landmark and restored for more generations to enjoy. Too bad greed trumps holding on to a piece of history.
i always wanted to go to the paramount music palace. especially when john ferguson was playing. i heard he was great.
The Ellenton, Florida building is now a branch Public Library. The Roaring 20s Pizza was popular for a decade here before closing.