The Grande Barton Theatre pipe organ, first installed at the Indiana Theatre in 1927, is celebrating its 25th year of making music at the Warren Performing Arts Center in a special concert Sunday, September 11, at 3:00 p.m. Ken Double, former Channel 6/Pacers/Indy 500 sportscaster, who has enjoyed a second career as a concert artist, returns to perform in a variety show concert to celebrate the event.
One of Indiana’s most famous instruments, the Grande Barton Theatre pipe organ was first heard in June of 1927 as a main attraction of the then new Indiana Theatre. Played by organist Dessa Byrd, the Barton was used for special musical selections, sing-alongs, and the accompaniment of silent film. Ms. Byrd was also heard live from the theatre on radio broadcasts. The organ was removed in the 1970s but later was acquired by the Central Indiana Chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, a nonprofit organization which promotes the theatre pipe organ. In an agreement with Warren County schools, the instrument was installed in the auditorium at Warren Central High School in 1997. Its public debut was in the fall of that year, and it was Ken Double at the organ for that initial concert as it will be now 25 years later.
Double, with whom I worked at WRTV Channel 6 (I was a producer/director) in the 1980s, was a popular sportscaster who also enjoyed a second career playing the theatre organ. He was often heard at the former Paramount Music Palace restaurant. He recently played his 40th annual concert at Long Center in Lafayette, toured Australia and New Zealand eight times in addition to his hundreds of concerts across the USA and is currently the organist at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, where he has called home since 2010.
This 25th anniversary concert will feature pop music on the organ, a Laurel and Hardy silent comedy, “Liberty,” and opera and pops-style vocalist, Daniel Mata, who has performed and recorded with Ken Double. Double’s former colleague Greg Todd, who was an anchor/reporter at WRTV is emceeing the concert.
Recently, I interviewed Double from his Atlanta, Georgia, home via Zoom, about his upcoming Indy concert. Below is an edited transcript of our chat.
When did you leave broadcasting?
I retired in 2008 and that was my last year of 17 years of broadcasting hockey games. I was in Houston, Texas. You will appreciate this. I called 17 years of AAA, top level of minor league hockey games. I could not get to NHL and land a position and by that time I was fifty-five and knew that no NHL teams were going to hire a rookie broadcaster, and so I got out of it. I had an opportunity to transition smoothly to the American Theatre Society, a national nonprofit and they were looking for a paid president to market, promote, fundraise, and bring a little higher-level profile to that organization, so I was able to move into that and continue to more actively play concerts than I had been before.
Where did you play?
Theatre pipe organs are all over, so there are strong pockets of theatre organ activity around this country and places you would not think of like Rochester, New York, and Wilmington Delaware, and up and down the west coast, and so I had opportunities. While living in Lafayette, I got involved in the Long Center, and I helped put a pipe organ in there. Last year, I played my 49th annual concert in Lafayette.
Have many theatre organs around the country have been restored?
Yes, such as the Embassy organ in Fort Wayne. I just played a concert there last spring. That is a fabulous organ and in a great theatre and a great management that values the instrument.
I take it there are quite a few around the country, right?
I would say there around 210 around the country. Not all of them active but they are still there. I have also had the opportunity to tour Australia and New Zealand eight times. They also have some strong theatre organ activity there. I have been to Great Britain. I have been to Canada. So I have been truly fortunate to have been able to carve out this second career.
Our former WRTV colleague, former anchor/reporter Greg Todd is hosting the concert. How did he get involved?
About eight months ago, I got a text message that he moved to Atlanta and said, “Let’s get together.” And I said, “Sure.” So we have cocktails and dinner socially from time to time. I was just amazed because he did not have any ties to Atlanta but decided to retire down here, so he bought a place and like so many of us, he was not going out and doing social things during COVID so much. Suddenly, out of the blue is a message from Greg Todd.
Where do you live in Atlanta?
I live in Midtown. I moved here 11 years ago, and I lived north of the Georgia Tech area. I had a big condominium there but sold it at a good time. I downsized and bought a small condominium and Tom, at our age it is good not to have a mortgage. I was able to pay cash for this place, and I can look down a little alleyway between our parking garage and a hotel, and there is the Fox Theatre.
How did you land the Fox Theatre gig?
After I left Houston, I ended up in St. Petersburg, Florida, keeping an eye on my aging father. After he died, I did not want to stay in St. Pete. Three of my brothers lived down in Florida, and I joked with the oldest one and said, “I am the youngest, prettiest thing here, and I’ve got to get out.” (laughs) So I thought about moving back to Indy or Chicago, which is home. I thought about Palm Springs, California, for about eight seconds, but I really enjoyed the two years I lived and worked here in Atlanta during the early 90s, working for a hockey team. I thought about my work with the Theatre Organ Society here, where there is a very active chapter. I was doing a lot of travel, both playing and meeting with our different Chapters around the country, and I thought “I can get anywhere I want from Atlanta, nonstop.” The Fox management uses this instrument 120 plus times a year. It is played all the time. We do thirty minutes of walk-in music before all the Broadway shows. We are going to do eight nights of ghost tours in October. We play it before the summer film series. It is a management that really values the instrument. It is a very successful theatre operation to the point this has been in public. They dropped a $500,000 project just to rebuild the console of the pipe organ.
Does the organ come up from underneath?
Oh yes, it is on a lift. It is very dramatic.
Is that common with theatre organs?
Standard operating procedure. Make it showy. Make it flashy. Plus, when it was time, its main job was to play music for silent film, and so when it was time for the film, the organ would descend and then get out of the spotlight so that it could play music for the movie.
Haye you everplayed Footlite Theatre’s organ here in Indy?
Yes, at the Hedback Theatre. Phil Hedback loved the theatre organ and had the chance to buy this small organ, and he did, and it was installed, and it has been a mainstay.
Remind me of the place you played on Indy’s East Side?
The Paramount Music Palace. It was a big pizza parlor.
What was the genesis of your love and passion for the organ?
It started when I was eight and most of that was aimed more at popular music. I was not a fan and did not have a great interest in church. My mom and dad made sure all of us got introduced to some music. This was 1960. Organs were very popular at the time and so I started lessons, although I knew I wanted to be a sportscaster. I fell in love with Jack Brickhouse, the longtime voice of the Cubs when I was six years old. I had dreams of being a sportscaster, so I went to Main East High School in Park Ridge, Illinois. They had a radio station, and when I was 14, I was getting bored with the organ, and I was getting the opportunity to be on the radio.
I was very excited about that, so I took an elective class, keyboard ensemble. A teacher introduced me to the theatre organ, played a recording and talked about the history. He then took a bunch of us in this class to a theater organ concert at the Oriental Theater downtown. This was in 1967, and in the theatre organ world, we call it the “wow moment.” It was unbelievable. The theatre was absolutely packed to the rafters with over 3,000 people. There are organs that are ethereal and pretty, and there are organs that are full and rich, and there are organs that just spit fire coming out of those pipe chambers and just grab you. That was the Oriental Wurlitzer.
Does The Oriental Theatre pipe organ still exist?
No. There was a long period when there was a fear that the theatre might be torn down. It is gorgeous. It is fabulous. It is an unbelievable theatre. Not thinking about a career or anything, just excited: “Wow! What a great thing.” And so, one of the reasons I chose Butler for my degree was because at the time the Old Rivoli (on 10th Street) had an organ, and I played it regularly and continued playing theatre organ while I got my radio and television degree. The potential for its reopening is still there. We might be involved if we can raise the money and get interest in getting an organ back into that theatre.
Also, in 1974, they opened Market Square Arena, and the Pacers and the Racers Hockey team came to town. And in my senior year at Butler, I was the organist at Market Square Arena. I played 90 or 95 events. I was the college guy that had a little cash in his pocket. I got the crowd fired up with “Charge” and all the fillers. So while I was doing all this broadcasting, the organ never really left me, so I went to Marion, Indiana, and started broadcasting radio, got a job in Lafayette, and got involved in the old Mars Theatre that became the Long Center. In saving that theatre, we decided, “We must put a pipe organ back in here,” and by God we did, and that was 1982.
So here is a Channel 6 story. The Long Center organ premiered in February of 82, and I was anchoring the weekend sports, and I was a reporter during the week. It is a 1,200-seat house. We sold 2,400 tickets for the opening concert of that theatre. And it was Friday and Saturday night of a ratings month. The late news director, Bob Gamble, would not let me have Saturday off from doing the sportscast because it was a ratings month, so here is what they did. I went up Friday night and did that concert. They deemed the Saturday night concert enough of a news story that they sent me photographer, Ralph Grant, in a helicopter between newscasts. So I did the early sports got in the helicopter, played the 8 p.m. concert, finished the concert, got in the helicopter. Brian Hammonds (sports reporter) wrote the sportscast, and I did the late show in a tuxedo.
How has Warren utilized the organ for the past 25 years?
I had done several concerts and one recording at Warren. I cannot remember the last time I did a concert there. It has been a while. It is an interesting dynamic in that the organ is owned by the Central Indiana Chapter of the American Theatre Organists, so they have a partnership and a long-term lease agreement to have the organ at the school. There have been periods where orchestra, band, and chorus have made use of the instrument jointly in concerts and presentations. Most of its exposure has to do with the chapter, different concerts, or having Chapter monthly meetings or that kind of thing using the organ.
How many songs are in your repertoire?
Many hundred. I pulled thirteen to sixteen for a concert presentation when I was playing at the pizza parlor. I did that on a regular basis, so the repertoire was probably far more extensive than today only because there was a six-month period of time there that I played five times a week just before I started at Channel 6. Many hundred for sure.
For tickets and more information about Ken Double in concert at Warren Performing Arts Center, Sunday, September 11, at 3 p.m., visit CICATOS.org.