Dusting off the Wurlitzers: The Theatre Organ Scene in Indianapolis, Part I

By Eric McAfee

Virtually anyone who grew up in Indianapolis in the 1980s has at least a vague recollection of the Paramount Music Palace, even if it was only through their tuneful commercial on early morning local news. For those of us who experienced it firsthand, I’m willing to venture those memories remain crystal clear, two decades after the establishment closed. I don’t imagine I visited the Music Palace more than a half dozen times (probably less), but I can remember the snakelike lines for both ordering the pizza and entering the Palace, while a potpourri of tone colors reverberated their way out the front door.

When I was older, I reflected on the PMP and how, because it was such a smoothly put-together concept (and, yes, a bit of a gimmick), it must have been a chain. But it wasn’t. It was an Indy original. And the 42-rank Wurlitzer (originally from the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California had such a lasting influence on young people who grew up with it that it elevated Indy to one of the county’s leading cities for perpetuating the culture of the beloved but often neglected theatre organ — the pop-culture counterpart to pipe organs’ highbrow, ecclesiastical bent. These vintage instruments aren’t generally that easy to find, but a small cadre of devotees are doing their most to ensure they don’t pass into oblivion. And Indy has its fair share.

“There is rarely a time when I play pre-show… inevitably whenever it’s a pretty decent-sized crowd, someone will come up to me and talk to me about, ‘oh, is that the organ from Paramount Music Palace?'” Justin Stahl told me while sitting at a theater organ at the Warren Performing Arts Center, on the east side of the city, where he performs and practices regularly. “It’s got almost a cult following in the depths of the city’s history.” Like many other Indianapolis-based theatre organists — and the city has spun out a remarkable array of talent for its modest size — Stahl saw the Palace, which operated from 1978 to 1995, just a few miles away from Warren High School, as an inspiration for developing his craft at the instrument.

Organist Justin Stahl performs at the theater organ (from the Barton Company) at the Warren Performing Arts Center, part of the eastside high school’s auditorium.

In fact, the Central Indiana Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS) is among the most vibrant in the country, using its strong network to attract national conferences to the city, where both local and non-local talent test their mettle on various instruments across town. Mark Herman, who based his variegated creative talents in Indianapolis until recently (and now lives in Pasadena, California) agreed with Stahl’s assessment: “The Paramount Music Palace… helped the ATOS chapter here grow… We still present usually about four concerts each year,” he observed. “The group has installed several organs, all of which are extremely fine installations.” Herman attests that …read more

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