Over the last many years, the Foellinger Theatre has been a busy and popular place during the summer months. Between a host of popular concerts, generally featuring retro bands from various decades, and the movies which bring families for a cheap date night every week, the Foellinger has provided a lot of great memories for people in the area.
But in recent years the venue has taken it up a notch, and these days the Foellinger is arguably one of the hottest stages in town, pulling in huge acts, most of which sell out quickly. One of the people behind that push has been Mitch Sheppard, deputy director of Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation. A native of Ligonier and a graduate of Tri-State University, Sheppard earned degrees in English and communications, a perfect background for someone who has spent much of her professional life writing and working with media. While her jobs keep changing, however, her employers rarely do.
“This is only my third employer since college,” she says. “I came to Parks and Rec figuring I’d be here three to five years, but I’ve now been here for 20. I’ve never been in the same job for more than two years, though.”
When she assumed her current position early last year, the 2013 schedule of concerts had already been set at the Foellinger, making the 2014 list of concerts her first in the role. But she quickly made her mark, putting together one of the most extensive list of shows – including rock icons like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Los Lobos along with gospel, soul and civil rights legend Mavis Staples – the outdoor venue has ever seen. The schedule has also ended up being one of the deepest in terms of calendar dates, with the Los Lobos show falling well after the usual summer lineup featured at the Foellinger.
“I hadn’t originally planned to schedule a show in October, but I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to book Los Lobos. Sometimes you just have to be nimble enough to respond to an opportunity, and I just told people they may want to wear a coat to that concert.”
Although Sheppard has only had two previous employers – an ad agency and United Way – each has brought with it experience that paved the way for her to understand the unique balance of working for and serving the community while taking the kinds of risks that concert promoters juggle constantly. She credits the help of one of those promoters with helping to make the current Summer Concert Series so successful.
“Peter Kernan has been promoting concerts for years, and our partnership with him has been a big part of the growth this year. He has connections not only in Fort Wayne, but also South Bend, and Texas and California. He assists in producing the show and everybody wins.”
But even with that, Sheppard knows that there are no guarantees when putting together a concert lineup, and she credits staff changes with putting together a team that is willing to boldly move forward. She felt confident that the Foreigner concert would sell out, but she was less certain of some others.
“The changes in the last five years have given us leadership that is willing to take a risk, and there are a lot of risks involved. What if nobody comes? What if a performer does something before a performance that makes them a risk? We are working with a pool of non-public money thanks to strong partners – corporate sponsors and media sponsors – so we aren’t risking public money. We’ve had to come up with a strong marketing plan and make the ticket prices market-based but reasonable.”
Sheppard touts the offerings in Fort Wayne, particularly the musical interests which she sees as unusually strong for a city of this size. Although there are competitors for concert dollars, Sheppard maintains a good relationship with similar venues, particularly the Embassy Theatre which shares a lot in common with the Foellinger Theatre.
“The Foellinger is a historic and beautiful structure and has always had a history of bringing in big acts, everyone from Mitzi Gaynor to Ozzy Osborne. Maintenance has been very important, and in recent years we’ve been able to hang more technically complex shows, hang more lighting. It’s a special place because it’s in a park and it belongs to the city, so everyone who comes to a show can feel like they own a piece of that place. That may be old-fashioned, but that’s really special to me.”
Sheppard has also been instrumental in bringing music to the other venue she oversees, the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. Her office is nestled inside the conservatory, and she has the same feel-good attitude about her surroundings there.
“When a family comes walking down the hallway outside my office, and they see the exhibit and gasp, that’s when I get paid. It’s schmaltzy to say, but I’m a public service geek. I have a deep spiritual belief that it’s the right thing to do, that community service is the price you pay to be part of a free country.
“The conservatory is a very unique place,” she continues. “Often places like this are in the middle of acres of open space, but this is an unusual conservatory in that you walk 20 feet out the door and you hit pavement. So we have to know how to work within that space.”
Continuing to grow both the conservatory and the Foellinger Theatre requires diligence, and Sheppard specifically noted staff contributions, particularly those of Tim Byers who she says “produces a hell of a show.” Although already looking ahead to next season’s shows, she also keeps an eye on the future of the venue itself, knowing it’s the cornerstone of the whole plan.
“There are lots of things we hope to accomplish with the theatre, a lot of capital needs. We have to keep up with the technology because the minute you put in a system, there’s something better coming along. We need to meet any expansion needs and bring in more partners to help make that happen. We want to keep reaching out to the broader community so we don’t get pigeon-holed which is why we brought in acts like Mavis Staples and Los Lobos. We want to be a venue that serves the community as a whole not only in the city, but in the entire area.”
Thursday, April 27
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Community Unity — Community dinner, games and prizes, and neighborhood safety forum, 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Jennings Recreation Center, Fort Wayne, free, 427-6028
Issues and Ales — Panel of experts discuss important issues in the community with audience Q&A , 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits, Fort Wayne, free, 456-7005
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Click header for complete Music & Comedy calendar
Chris Worth — Variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Fort Wayne Comedy Connection — Comedy at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Hubie Ashcraft — Acoustic at River View Tavern, Decatur, 7-10 p.m., no cover, 724-3500
Open Mic — Hosted by Mike Mowry at Pedal City, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 415-6167
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Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Karaoke at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 422-5055
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., ,
Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at By: Belle Haven, South Whitley, 8 p.m., no cover, 866-716-9243
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Shut Up and Sing — Karaoke at Duesy's Sports Bar, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 483-5681
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-1311
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Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, April 26-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
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37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3 , Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru April 30, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568