Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Eagles Theatre spreads its wings

The landmark venue in Wabash reopens after $18 million renovation


Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published February 20, 2020

Growing up in Wabash, Crystal Gayle (born Brenda Gail Webb) was a frequent visitor to the Eagles Theatre, which started as a vaudeville showplace in the early part of the 20th century but switched over to movies for the next 100 years. 

Ask this country-pop legend what movie she most remembers from her girlhood and you might expect her to say Guys and Dolls or South Pacific.

Nope.

“One of my favorite movies at the Eagles was 13 Ghosts,” she said in an interview with Whatzup. “You had to put on 3-D glasses to see the ghosts and you could choose the less scary blue 3-D lens or the red lens that let you see all the scary parts. We all chose the red. I still love scary movies.”

Retunring to her hometown

Gayle will return to Wabash on Feb. 29 and March 1 for two shows at the newly renovated Eagles Theatre. 

She may even encounter a few ghosts, but people usually do when they return to their hometowns. 

It is fitting that Warsaw’s most famous former citizen is inaugurating this fabulously refurbished space. She returned in 1994 to dedicate the Honeywell Center’s then-new Ford Theatre.

The Eagles Theatre is now owned by the Honeywell Foundation and has been for ten years. According to foundation president and CEO, Todd Minnich, the Honeywell Foundation acquired the theater because its standing as a valuable community asset was obvious. 

But the foundation wasn’t sure what to do with it beyond fix some of the most glaring maintenance and structural issues.

Then, in 2014, Wabash was named a Stellar Communities Designee. This brought with it partial funding for nine projects including refurbishment of the theater.

In one year, the Honeywell Foundation raised $16 million as part of an $18 million campaign. A two-year renovation ensued.

The Eagles now has two screens where before it had one. Historical elements in the main theater and its lobby were meticulously restored, but cutting-edge bells and whistles were also added, such as new seats, improved sound, and contemporary lighting technology. An upper balcony in the main theater was transformed into a suite.

A top-floor ballroom was revived for rental and the entire second floor was turned into a media arts education center with film and recording studios and editing bays. 

The Eagles used to be a four-floor building. Now it’s being called a five-floor building. They didn’t add a floor to the top. They dug under the structure to create the new screening room.

Musical Wabash

Wabash is surely not the city it was when Gayle was a girl. But it’s always been a musically spirited place to be.

“Growing up, I would sing anywhere and anytime I could,” Gayle said. “I was in all the school choirs and especially loved the Belles and Beaux group when I was at Wabash High School which was then led by a great teacher, Mr. Bill Steiner. I sang in my brothers’ country bands and went on tour with my sister, Loretta Lynn, for a couple of weeks each summer. I also sang for civic groups, with piano accompaniment by David Ford.”

When Gayle started recording in Nashville, Lynn gave some career advice to her little sis.

“Loretta told me to find my own voice,” Gayle said. “She said, ‘There’s already one Loretta Lynn and we don’t need another.’”

Lynn was also the one who, inspired by the Krystal fast food chain, gave Gayle her stage name. 

Gayle eventually left Decca Records, where she’d been encouraged to be a Loretta Lynn clone, and moved to United Artists Records, where she was paired with producer Allen Reynolds. 

With Reynolds’ guidance and encouragement, Gayle started introducing folk, pop, and jazz elements into her music and eventually scored the monster crossover hit, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” in 1977.

Some country fans grumbled over crossovers in those days, but Gayle said there have always been crossover hits in country music, even if they weren’t described as such.

Crossover hits brought new fans to country music in the 1970s, she said, and they got artists played on twice as many stations.

Gayle said the music she started playing in the 1970s wasn’t a cynical commercial strategy. It was a true expression of who she was. 

“I did encounter some backlash, but when you are succeeding in such a competitive business you have to stay true to yourself,” she said.

Classic Country

Gayle’s latest album, You Don’t Know Me, brings her artistic journey full circle. It’s a collection of classic country songs made famous by such artists as George Jones, Buck Owens, and Hank Williams. Sisters Loretta Lynn and Peggy Sue Wright join her on a rendition of “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” a song co-written by Dolly Parton. Peggy Sue Wright will join Gayle for the Eagles Theatre show. 

The trip back to Wabash and environs, still full of Webbs, constitutes a more literal sort of full circle journey.

Gayle has changed a lot since her Hoosier girlhood. She’s a 69-year-old grandmother now. 

“I love being a grandmother,” she said. “I have a wonderful grandson and I hope to have more. Hint, hint.”

But some things are sacred and must be preserved, or so it is believed by fans who are infatuated with Gayle’s most prominent physical attribute from the 1970s and ’80s.

Such fans always wonder whether Gayle has altered it in some catastrophic way. The answer, for now, is no. 

“Yes, my hair is still long,” she said. “Down below my knees.”

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