Throwback to the early years

When I was young, under ten years old, my parents took me to a pizza joint in Indianapolis that doubled as a roaring organ theater. That place left me with fond but fuzzy memories I have cherished over the years. When I recently discovered that the concept wasn’t unique to Indianapolis and even more so when I learned that there still existed such a place in Mesa, AZ, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to experience it again.

The Paramount Pizza Palace

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Theater organs were originally installed in, you guessed it, theaters. They were the source of sound and effects in silent films. However, as films started to ship with audio tracks and theaters built their own loudspeaker systems, the organ’s role vanished. Several decades later, these old organs turned up in places such as the Paramount Pizza Palace in Indianapolis (whereas the Paramount theater, the original home of the organ, served as its namesake).

Granted, in my years since I have toured some incredible European churches and cathedrals with significantly better-sounding organs and more highly-skilled organists, but there is a different vibe from the luster and opulence of the mighty Wurlitzer and its company. Beyond a few registers of pipes, these organs connect to drums, cymbals, bubble machines, trumpets, ooga horns, lights, accordions, and every other instrument imaginable. As an inquisitive boy I was also sucked in to the impressive display built up around the wind machine that powered the whole contraption.

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The tremulants produce a vibrato in the organ pipes

In fact, the most clear memory I have of the place in Indy revolves around the giant window into the room with the bellows. Geometric boxes breathed in and out, pumping air while lights of all colors dressed them up. These were the mechanical heart of the machine that made it tick. I’ve still never seen the air source for the large cathedral organs.

I remember a bird that cooed, bubbles that fell from the ceiling, colors, pizza, and ice-cream. Beyond that, I was afraid the other memories were lost forever.

Organ Stop Pizza, Mesa, AZ

While in a daze watching an organist play on a revived Wurlitzer console at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, I started to try and share some of these memories with a friend of mine. The music was great but the pipes and bells and whistles were absent where a synthesizer took their place.

“Surely,” I thought, “somebody online should have a picture of the old place.” So I looked on Google and found stories, pictures, clips on Youtube, and some discussion from the son of the owners. To my amazement, he mentioned that another such place existed in Arizona.

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Sure enough, there’s one about two hours from here. This one took the organ out of a Denver Theater. It’s almost identical in every way to the place in Indy, though I hear the pizza is better (they also have gluten-free pizza, a double-win). It was only a matter of weeks between learning about its existence and going there twice.

Memories refreshed

Back in high school some friends and I thought it would be fun to re-watch a childhood favorite: The NeverEnding Story. That was a bad idea because the film turned out to be much better for very young children than for adults. My memories were shattered, but thankfully it wasn’t that big a of a deal, just a few hours wasted. How would going back to the pipe organ and pizza stop support or revoke my cherished childhood wonder?

Thankfully, this experience gave me everything I remembered and more. It was just as enjoyable as an adult as I remember it being as a child. Today I’m more aware of the mechanics of how the organ produces its sound, what it takes to train for the skill to play it, and what kind of market dynamics are required to sustain such a business, but I still found myself plastered again at the window to the bellows-room and leaning over the railing to watch the piano magically play as the organist directed.

We are rarely able to hear some of the music that these pipe organs play. Our speakers can’t reproduce the notes they do, probably the best example being the tones booming from the 32′ pipe, which can be shatteringly loud at around 8 Hz. All in all, the organ has over six thousand pipes and other instruments!

At the center of all my wonder concerning this instrument is the simple fact that someone decided to build it. Somebody thought they could attract enough interest to spend all this money and effort to construct this marvel and bring in a profit. Although some might consider it pandering the way the lights and gimmicks accompany such songs as, The Theme for The Pink PantherThe Imperial March, and other Hollywood classics, the experience is an art in itself of a different kind than found in the halls playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

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This moment comes from the climax of one of my favorite songs, “Rhapsody in Blue”

Never stop wondering, never stop being inspired.

People do tend to poke fun at the way I stare at the instruments and the wind machine and the console, but these are the kinds of things that inspire, and that inspiration creates wonder. While it’s too hard for me to objectively identify the role the Paramount Music Palace played in my taste for music in general, I know that it furthered my interest in designing big engineering feats whose result is artistic expression.

Art captures something in us that can’t be verbalized. It captures emotion and passion and I love to sit in a big reverberating room while a pipe organ blasts away. How do they create those notes? How does it all work together? How could someone build this thing? Questions like these drive discovery and my visits in Mesa rekindled some of those questions.

Anyway, despite the plethora of keys on the organ console, there’s no Like button, no Share button, and no This is a waste of taxpayers’ dollars button. I hope that you too can get the opportunity to experience something like this or relive old memories from similar places around the US or around the world. I hope that you can put on some music and forget about the pragmatic cares of everyday life and listen and engage in something so abstract, so useless, so ars gratia artis, that it inspires you to something new and valuable and memorable.

P.S. The devices I described as bellows technically aren’t. They are actually tremulants, which control the vibrato sound of the pipes. Since I just learned this while writing this post, I chose to leave the incorrect usage in the main text.

2 thoughts on “Throwback to the early years

  1. I appreciate this post. I was actually just thinking of this the other day. I couldn’t remember the name to even google it. I’m glad you have another to visit!

    Also, my memories are fuzzy, but I know our last time there was in 1993. Aladdin was popular and was just coming out on VHS. The organist was taking suggestions and I took several cards to write “friend like me” but he just looked at them and shuffled by them. He did decide to play “whole new world” and I was always upset he never played the song I wanted.

    That place was magical though. I always wondered what happened to it.

    Liked by 1 person

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