Off the west end of the Indiana Hotel lobby is a small room with a checkered floor that might once have belonged to a drugstore. More recently it was a catering kitchen, but now it is getting new life as the John A. Mann Heritage Center, which will display memorabilia from Embassy Theatre archives.
The Embassy is marking its 90th anniversary with a number of events, including a Community Celebration on Saturday.
The Heritage Center will open a few weeks later at a member appreciation event June 5 with an exhibit on the construction and opening night of what was then called Emboyd Theatre.
The theater, which was operated by Clyde Quimby, opened with a gala May 14, 1928. It was named in tribute to Quimby's mother, Emilie Boyd Quimby. It became the Embassy in 1952.
Glass cases contain Indiana Hotel artifacts such as towels, keys and doorknobs. There are pictures on the wall from the 1928 opening, as well as blueprints and a timeline of the venue. Another case honors longtime house organist Buddy Nolan.
No other organization has this sort of collection of Emboyd/Embassy historical artifacts, executive assistant Debbie Woodroof says. She began working in the fall to gather all the pieces from boxes and filing cabinets around the building.
“Slowly but surely I've been combing through all of the materials trying to decide what we're going to put in this room to at least start with,” she says.
Displays in the exhibit may be rotated in the future. There are more than 7,000 pieces in the archive.
One wall of the Heritage Center features a replica Brenograph machine, a vintage projector that uses glass slides for special effects, advertisements, announcements and more. The Embassy houses the world's largest collection of Brenograph slides, Woodroof says.
The downtown venue's original Brenograph is operational and will be used during this weekend's celebration to lead a singalong.
That's just one of the '20s-era elements being featured in the variety show-style event.
“We're really transforming our stage to present a program that is kind of representative of the type of thing you would see on the (Emboyd) stage in the 1920s,” says Jonah Crismore, Embassy programming director. The show, which will run about two hours, will highlight what the theater was at its roots and people will be able to see how it has evolved.
There will be a cheekiness about the event, he says, nodding to the fact that they are putting on a 1920s show almost a century after the fact. If members of the community want to dress in vintage fashions, they are welcome to. There will be an era-appropriate car on display outside the Embassy for people to check out.
Emcees Brad Beauchamp and Larry Bower will officiate the night with performances including Fort Wayne Children's Choir, Fort Wayne Dance Collective and Farmland Jazz Band, which will perform 1920s music without amplification. The theater was designed with acoustics that make that possible. Vaudeville acts and orchestras wouldn't have been plugged into soundboards and speakers.
A vintage newsreel and Buster Keaton's 1921 short film “The Haunted House” will be screened. With a laugh, Crismore describes the silent film as an old version of “Home Alone” with Keaton doing all sorts of goofy things to keep people from getting into his house.
Fort Wayne native Mark Herman will play the Grande Page organ during the movie, as well as at different points throughout the show.
“The film will be a chance for him to really show off his abilities with the organ, as well as just everything the organ can accomplish,” Crismore says. “Because it's just amazing the amount of sound that machine can create and different sound effects it can create.”
The organ was an original feature of the Emboyd and a rallying point for efforts in the 1970s to save the theater from destruction.
Community members came together when the building was days away from being demolished, says Kelly Updike, president and CEO of the Embassy.
“They raised $250,000 the hard way – in dollars and quarters at a time – and they bought it out of bankruptcy court and turned it into the nonprofit it is today,” she says.
The theater and hotel wrapped around it were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
One of the things about the Community Celebration that excites Updike the most is that the Embassy is putting on the show itself. As the theater looks to its future, it has been going through a strategic planning process that will be voted on by the board in June.
The plan is expected to include data gathering on what people would like to see in the theater, which is often used as a rental house, meaning concert or show promoters and other organizations pay to put on events in the space.
Though the Embassy does plan some of its own events such as the Festival of Trees, Summer Nights rooftop events or the current movie series honoring the 90th anniversary, the theater aims to do more booking.
“We're looking forward to a future where we present more,” Updike says. “Where we're going to take on a bit more of that risk, where we're going to reach out into the community and try to be more reflective of the diversity of our community with our programming and our partnerships.”
Crismore says that will allow the theater to have more of a “curatorial eye” and pick acts that will be good for the community.
Updike says the Embassy's future is possible because so many people have worked to take care of the building and support it over its 90-year history. That support includes renovations and maintenance of the building's architecture and décor.
Visiting performers often comment on the beauty of the theater. Crismore says Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez, who recently sang for the Embassy's Marquee Gala fundraiser, compared stepping into the lobby with walking into Narnia, the fantasy world created by novelist C.S. Lewis.
Crismore calls the ornate lobby and theater a work of art.
“I think the fact that we're able to make people interact with that work of art through the best entertainment in the region is really something special,” he says. “And that's the reason we've lasted 90 years and why we're going to continue to last a very long time.”
If you go
What: 90th anniversary Community Celebration
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Embassy Theatre, 125 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Admission: $9; Embassy box office, www.ticketmaster.com or 1-800-745-3000
By the numbers
Cost of site, building and equipment
Number of sacks of cement used
Tons of structural steel used in construction
Tons of main balcony girder