Grande Page champion Bill Zabel dies

December 5, 2018

One of the founders of the movement to save Fort Wayne’s historic Embassy Theatre from demolition and with his wife, Barb, a tireless theater volunteer, has died.

A funeral will take place today for William “Bill” Peter Zabel, 74, of Fort Wayne, known for his electronic ingenuity and devotion to the Embassy’s Grande Page pipe organ. He died Friday.

A longtime Tokheim employee, Zabel was the founder of Z-Tronics Inc., inventing, manufacturing and selling electronic relays for antique pipe organs.

“He was super smart, and it was one of his inventions called Z-tronics that is what I call the guts of the organ, what makes it run,” said Kelly Updike, Embassy president and chief executive officer.

“The Grande Page was really his passion.”

Updike said Zabel was one of the founders of the Embassy Theatre Foundation who bought the Embassy building out of bankruptcy in the early 1970s. 

He and the others realized the organ was massive and had been built into the building, “so that the only way to save it was to save the house,” she said.

Though he did not publicly play the organ, Updike said, Zabel put in countless hours maintaining it. His system also has been used in other organs, she said. Zabel also was instrumental in founding “the organ crew,” a group that still exists to care for the instrument, Updike said.

Zabel also was known for his prolific writing of letters to the editor of Fort Wayne newspapers, where he expressed his political and artistic opinions. He was a charter member of Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, and a board member of the Manor Park neighborhood association.

An honorary member of the American Theatre Organ Society, Zabel received its Industry Achievement Award in 1994. He received an Outstanding Arts Advocate award from Fort Wayne’s Arts United 2017.

Zabel and his wife were married 50 years. Their children are the late Andrew Zabel, Steve Zabel of Indianapolis and Rebecca Rader of Fort Wayne.

The funeral will be at 1 p.m. at Beautiful Savior, 11228 Coldwater Road. A calling hour will begin at noon at the church. Donations may be sent to the Embassy Theatre Foundation or the church.


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