A rich holiday tradition in Fort Wayne is back for its 35th continuous year. The annual Festival of Trees will take place Nov. 27-Dec. 4.
This festival idea dates back to 1983, when the Embassy Theatre needed major repairs, but had no money to fix them. An Embassy board member, Maryellen Rice, was determined to find a solution.
Rice’s neighbor Barbara Wigham, who was the general manager of WPTA-21 at the time, remembered seeing a Festival of Trees event in Erie, Pa. Rice and a member of the Embassadors, the theater’s volunteer group, attended the Pennsylvania festival that year, and immediately knew they had to bring it to Fort Wayne.
Thirty-five years later, the festival is now a vital part of Fort Wayne’s holiday season.
Sticking to tradition
Embassy Theatre Chief Marketing Officer Carly Myers said there’s now this expectation in the community that this is a part of Christmas around here.
“People know what they’re expecting and they want to come back to see it again very similarly,” Myers said. “We try to maintain the traditional beauty and expectations in public. It’s a full community event, so we feel very committed to make sure we’re doing it right.”
Each year, around 22,000-25,000 guests are expected to walk through the doors.
“It’s Festival of Trees craziness,” Myers said. “It’s an all-hands on deck, full-time job for our entire team. Everyone plays an integral part in it.”
The Embassy staff knows they can’t change the festival drastically, due to the traditional aspect.
“The big thing we try to adjust year over year is to make sure we can get people in the event quickly who buy tickets on sight, and make sure that the traffic and signage is clear,” Myers said.
changing the theme
They also change the theme of the festival each year, which the whole Embassy staff helps choose. This year’s theme is Holiday Memories. Myers said they pick generic themes that give people enough latitude so it’s not constricting for the tree decorators.
Trees are available for sponsorship each year. Around a dozen sponsors have been with the festival since the beginning.
This year, there are 59 committed trees plus the organ, which is considered an additional part of the viewing pleasure.
Some sponsors have their own tree decorators while others reach out to the Embassy for decorating guidance. The Embassy then plays matchmaker and pairs a sponsor with a decorator from the northeast Indiana and Fort Wayne community.
“We try to be very individualistic about how we work with our sponsors, because we want people to be able to participate and not feel overwhelmed,” Myers said.
There are certain sizes of trees people can sponsor, and the Embassy tries to make it very affordable.
“We know we’re going to max out our trees and our space,” Myers said. “We know we’re limited in our space.”
The decorators then receive a stipend for their tree decorations.
“Some people go crazy, and they just really put in a ton of effort,” Myers said.
The Embassy sets aside two days for the decorators to decorate their trees on site.
“They will show up, and the magic happens in that two-day period,” Myers said.
Events on stage
In addition to the decorated trees and organ on display, there are several events and performances throughout the festival. Every hour, attendees can see different entertainment acts on the Embassy stage.
“Any time you decide to purchase your ticket for that day, you basically have access to whatever activities are happening that day,” Myers said. “People can stay as long or as little as they want.”
Entertainment acts on stage include dance troops, choirs, and musical performances, including the Grande Page Pipe Organ.
A special event within the festival is Breakfast with Santa, which is an additional charge. Myers said this portion of the event always sells out.
“Breakfast with Santa will be different this year, but in a really cool way,” Myers said. “We made some changes last minute that we thought would engage the public a little bit differently.”
The animated window displays provide another viewing sight in the festival’s tradition. In those windows are antique and vintage pieces, including remnants from Wolf & Dessauer, the iconic Fort Wayne store.
Another popular day is when the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir performs.
“That’s a big deal in the community,” Myers said. “And there’s a community sing along that evening.”
Many families have this as part of their Thanksgiving traditions. The festival is open on Thanksgiving day, so several people bring out-of-town guests. The movie screening is also that day.
Last year’s showing of White Christmas was so well received, they brought it back this year.
The festival is multifaceted, which Myers believes makes it very engaging and fun.
“I like the diversity of what you can actually appreciate by coming to this,” Myers said. “This event kind of offers something for everyone.”
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