Theatrical variety part of history
By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
from the archives of The News-Sentinel
The 'Golden Age' of Fort Wayne's stage came early in the 20th century, as stage productions and film presentations intermixed to form the staple fare of a new age in popular entertainment. It was into this world of stage and celluloid that the Embassy was born - ornate and magical in the old style.
Construction of the Embassy Theatre, 121 W. Jefferson Blvd., began in 1926, and the theater opened on May 14, 1928, as the Fox Theatre and Hotel.
It was the largest and most ornate theater Fort Wayne had seen. Designed by the local firm of A.M. Strauss, with theater architect John Ebetson, the rococo interior was, as one enthusiast put it, "a phantasmagoric celestial environment." In the lobby alone, the theatergoer was delighted to be among opulent Neo-Middle Eastern arches. There were Romanesque barrel vaults with Wedgwood icing and grandly colored reliefs; staircases, columns and floors intricately marbled, and all reflected in the Art Deco mirrors and Corinthian lamps that line the lobby.
Beyond all this was advertising that described the Embassy as being "cool as a mountaintop - refreshing as a seashore," for it was the only air-conditioned theater in town.
Opening night, for a 60-cent admission, was the special film attraction "Easy Come, Easy Go," starring Richard Dix. It was accompanied by the theater orchestra led by Wilbur Picket, with Percy Robbins at the Page Organ.
Shortly after the opening, the owner of the theater, Clyde Quimby, changed the name to the Emboyd Theatre in memory of his mother, Emma Boyd. The great electrical sign spelling "Emboyd" was the largest anywhere in the state. Quimby had come to Fort Wayne after World War I and quickly realized the growing popularity of film and that other new medium, radio. He married Helen Kinkade, the piano player for silent movies at the Jefferson Theatre, who later became the leading theater operator in Fort Wayne. By the 1930s, Quimby owned the greatest movie houses in Fort Wayne: the Emboyd, the Paramount, the Jefferson and the Palace, which rivaled the Emboyd and was the debut site for the Broadway hit "Hellzapoppin' ".
The two decades when the theater was called the Emboyd were fruitful and exciting, whether it was being used as a movie house, concert hall or vaudeville stage.
In 1931, the excitement of the screen was echoed at the box office. While Edward G. Robinson's film "Little Caesar" was enjoying is premier showing inside, a gunman pulled an automatic pistol on the manager, forced him and six others to face a wall, and made off with the night's receipts of $2,000.
The Children's Concerts, formerly held at the Scottish Rite Auditorium, were moved to the Emboyd in 1949. In those years, too, the Philharmonic, under conductor Igor Buketoff, frequently played at the Emboyd, and continued with the theater when the name was changed in 1952 to the Embassy.
Although the orchestra did not play at the Embassy in the days before the theater neared bankruptcy in 1969, the Philharmonic's return in 1975 gave avery substantial boost to efforts to save the theater.
The Embassy is heir to a theater tradition in Fort Wayne that reaches back 141 years.
In 1853, the first theater in Fort Wayne, the Colerick Opera House, was opened between Clinton and Barr streets on the north side of Columbia Street (in what today is Freimann Square). That first night featured the Kekionga Minstrels. This was the first fully equipped theater in Indiana.
The first professional company to visit Fort Wayne was Sanford's New Orleans Opera Troupe in 1855, and in 1856, P.T. Barnum treated the town to an appearance of his celebrated attraction, Tom Thumb.
After the Civil War, theater interests, if not tastes, improved here, and Fort Wayne came to be known as a "good theater town." Well-known performers such as Edwin Forest, Laura Keene and Edwin Booth came to The Opera House and to the new Hamilton Theatre, a small, second-story hall built in 1863 near where the Fort Wayne National Bank stands today. The most common shows of the time were those of the minstrel troupes and burlesque, with occasional productions of perennial favorites: "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "The Black Crook" and "The Hidden Hand."
Many productions that enjoyed great popularity were wildly risque. A can-can troupe that had been run out of Bloomington was assured a sellout house in Fort Wayne (until run out of town here, too). In 1877, M'll D'Est's Parisian Blondes appeared with a show called "Living Art Pictures," that included such tableaux as "The Red Stocking Minstrels," "Female Wrestlers" and "Lady Bathers."
The Daily News noted that one dancer fell into the footlights but escaped burning because she had "nothing on that would take fire."
In the 1880s and 1890s, theaters in Fort Wayne expanded their seasons dramatically. Each year between 1884 and 1888, there were almost 450 performances of 150 plays and variety shows - at a time when no performing was allowed on Sundays and many theaters did not operate in the summer.
After it opened in 1870 as a rollerskating attraction, The Rink became a favorite playhouse. Situated at the site of the Elektron Building, 215 E. Berry St., The Rink was converted into a theater in 1880 and renamed The Academy of Music (also, it later came to be called The People's Theatre). In its heyday, troupes like the London Theatre Company and the American Opera Company made regular stops at The Academy, as did the Buffalo Bill/Annie Oakley extravaganza. It was during this time the custom arose of singing the national anthem at the close of each play.
Other theaters like the Broadway, the Library Hall, the Metropolitan Variety Hall, the Tivoli Garden and the Atlantic Garden Variety Hall enjoyed great popularity, especially during the summer. And then there were opulent theaters such as the Olympic (later the Bijou), the Masonic Temple, the Grand Opera House, and the Majestic.
The "Golden Age" of Fort Wayne's stage came early in the 20th century. In 1913 alone, seven new theaters opened. But the Masonic Temple Theatre was queen of them all and presented such performers as Lilly Langtry, George M. Cohan and Ethel Barrymore and her brothers, John and Lionel.
As today, people were delighted when the famous went on tour. Boxing champs John L. Sullivan and Gentleman Jim Corbett played in Fort Wayne in the 1890s, and Frank James, brother of outlaw Jessie James, appeared at the Temple in "Across the Desert." Classic plays, such as "Richard III" and "Othello" also were produced.
The adage that the early theaters were great fire hazards ran true, by the way. Though Fort Wayne was spared a similar horror like the great Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago (1903) when 588 persons died, it is notable that all the great 19th century theaters in town eventually were destroyed By fire.
Preserving the Embassy continues to be one of the finest volunteer efforts. The drive to save the Embassy began officially in March 1974, but several volunteers already had ensured that portions of the interior - and, especially, the 1,150-pipe Page Organ - were kept in working condition. Bob Goldstein and Buddy Nolan, who came to the theater as its organist in 1952, led the group responsible for maintaining the organ, one of the last of its kind in the United States.
It was the devotion of these organ buffs - including William Zabel, Ellsworth Smith and Robert Nickerson - who spearheaded the Save-the-Embassy movement and the formation of the Embassy Foundation in 1973-1974, when it seemed the great theater and the adjoining Indiana Hotel were doomed to destruction.
The drive was a difficult one: It required a quarter of a million dollars just to buy the building from its owner, Sportsystem Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., and a similar amount to undertake immediate repairs.
By mid-1976, the Embassy had been purchased and the City Council had approved the theater's designation as a historic site. But eight more years of fund-raising lay ahead, to fix the roof and boilers and then to renovate the interior.
As a result of a $450,000 grant from the city and the State Department of Natural Resources, the seats were re-upholstered, the ornate decorations were restored, and the stage curtain, which took five years to reproduce, was replaced.
Further fund-raising and a 1984 grant were used to clean the exterior and repair the plumbing and air-conditioning.
--Aug. 29, 1994