Leo Vodde is nothing if not a hard worker. By the time he had bought the After Dark nightclub in 1981, he already had a pretty lengthy resumé. While still at school at Bishop Dwenger, he held three jobs – one with Mike’s Car Wash, one with the city as a meter reader and one at the Allen County Public Library where he worked in the genealogy department. He eventually took a job at Scott’s grocery and following his graduation was made manager. From there he got a job at International Harvester.
“When I started working at Harvester, I thought I was set for life,” Vodde says. “But I got laid off. Then the opportunity to buy the bar came along. I heard the owner was selling.”
By the time Vodde finalized the purchase in November 1981, he had just celebrated his 24th birthday. If that sounds young to be a new bar owner, it is.
“I was young and seeing that atmosphere, all those people having a good time and relaxing, I just really enjoyed it. I didn’t know anything about the bar business except from the other side, so it was challenging. But I guess I was pretty mature for my age.”
That’s an understatement. At an age when many are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, Vodde found himself the owner of a nightclub which catered to a mostly gay clientele. His business was fairly brisk for awhile until another bar with a similar following opened on The Landing.
For a few weeks, Vodde was devastated to see his customers leave to check out the new place, but by New Year’s Eve that year they had all come flocking back. And despite the swings of the economy in the last 35 years, Vodde has enjoyed a steady business and regular, devoted customers. But that’s not to say those early years weren’t demanding.
“Most of the time in the beginning I was the only bartender,” he says. “I had some others come in on the weekends, but I was working day and night. I’d go home at night and try to talk about my day and couldn’t even keep a train of thought. I was so tired, but I’d get a good night’s sleep and be ready to get back at it the next day.”
Vodde says that his age probably played a role in many of his early decisions, given his lack of experience in the business.
“Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to make the right decisions at the time because I didn’t always think things through before I did stuff. But on the other hand, things did seem to work out. And I did enjoy myself.”
When asked if there were challenges along the way, Vodde says that there were improvements necessary to the facility, the price you pay for having an older building in the heart of downtown. But overall he feels like things have run fairly smoothly for him, despite many of the obstacles faced by other restaurants and nightclubs.
“I always tried to save for a rainy day, so when business was good, I appreciated it. When business was slower, I was grateful for what I had.”
The expectations of the customers have changed somewhat over the years, and the biggest change Vodde has seen is in the music. When he took over After Dark, the disco craze was just beginning to fade away, but dancing was still the biggest draw.
“The dancing was non-stop,” says Vodde. “Everybody danced from opening to closing. Any show that we had was secondary. But now people like to be entertained, so if we have a show, the drag show or whatever, people like to enjoy that. Then the dancing will start later on. Most of the changes over the years is with the music. We have a diverse crowd, so we have to play a lot of music that I wouldn’t necessarily play myself. That’s why I have a DJ come in – because they can play music that will appeal to everyone. The music has really changed over the years.”
Vodde also seems to pine a little for the way the bar used to function before computers and technology took over.
“If it were up to me, we’d have an old-fashioned cash register,” he says. “I liked it when the bartenders would just pour a drink without putting it into the computer first. But you have to keep up with the times.”
The widening acceptance of the LGBT community, which has become particularly apparent in the last decade with marriage equality and the acceptance of different lifestyles, means that more straight couples also visit After Dark. And that unity of spirit was particularly evident in June after the shootings at Pulse, a gay nightclub in the Orlando area. After Dark decided to hold a benefit for victims, and Vodde was surprised by the turnout that evening.
“That night was so overwhelming. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years and straight people who don’t normally stop by. We had a line of people around the building. It caught all of us off-guard. We raised $13,500 that night, but it wasn’t really about the money. It was mostly a show of support for the victims in Orlando.”
Vodde is unsure what percentage of his customers are now gay or straight because, as he points out, they don’t ask people at the door to declare themselves. He’s just happy to see people enjoying themselves. And there will be extra reasons for people to stop by to enjoy themselves the week of November 2 when After Dark celebrates 35 years under Vodde’s ownership. Vodde is looking forward to the week but is relatively modest about its larger meaning. A full schedule of events that week will be available on the After Dark Nightclub Facebook page as the week grows nearer, but Vodde does admit to being excited about visiting performer Darcel Stevens from the Parliament House (also in Orlando) who will serve as emcee.
“She’s a great MC and comedian, so I’m looking forward to that. It’s just another milestone, but it’s exciting. And I look forward to seeing what tomorrow brings.”
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