When Kelly Updike assumed the role of executive director at Fort Wayne’s Historic Embassy Theatre, she began helming one of the most iconic and beloved of the city’s venues. But it was also in many ways greatly misunderstood. To appreciate how she has tackled the joys and challenges of the job, it’s necessary to know the diversity of her background and how each of those professional, and even personal, experiences helped prepare her for the unique combination of not-for-profit and building stewardship.
A native of Fort Wayne, Updike graduated from Northrop High School and earned a degree in communications from Ball State University, focusing herself on journalism and public relations. That background prepared her to work in a remarkably varied professional setting, and she enjoyed many years at Fort Wayne Community Schools and Lincoln Financial before joining the Leona Group, an organization dedicated to the growth of charter schools. That job required a lot of travel, however, and as her children were entering high school and planning beyond for college, she was looking for something which would keep her closer to home. The job at the Embassy filled that bill and also allowed her to put all of her previous years of experience to good use.
“When I applied for the job and met with the search committee, I told them that I thought all of the things that I had learned in my career and personally over the years made me a good fit for this job. I had learned the business side of things working on projects and with teams. And I knew through studying communication and through working with others over the years that good communication is the reason that things go well. And it is also the reason things went wrong if it doesn’t go well.”
Her background in Fort Wayne also helped her understand the importance of the Embassy Theatre to the history of the city, but she also has come to understand that that history must only be part of the story. It’s also important to keep the building vibrant and moving forward. Balancing all of that and making sure everyone knows about the Embassy’s history has kept her job fresh for more than eight years.
“The Embassy is iconic in our community and region. I love a challenge, and I just didn’t think people knew enough about the Embassy so I wanted that to change. I had to make sure that the board of directors were on the same page with me, and our board is very diverse and has a broad range of skill sets, so we began working to move the Embassy forward and bring it to more people.”
Among those changes has been a growth in educational programs which bring school-age children through the Embassy doors. It has also meant bringing more eclectic programming – from rock concerts to Broadway musicals – to the stage, removing some of the stodgy image which long dogged the theater. Updike says that even those who fought so diligently to save the Embassy from demolition more than 30 years ago have been surprised by the changes.
“There was a group of six people who were really the ringleaders in saving the Embassy, and three of them are still alive. They’ve told me that they never expected there to be rock shows here or that children would be taking classes here. I am keenly aware of the stewardship of this building, but it’s not a museum. Museums are great – don’t get me wrong – but the Embassy isn’t a museum. We don’t want it to be stodgy, and we have continued to find new ways to make it available to people.”
Even as the theater has made small changes, like allowing alcohol in the theatre itself rather than only in lobby, there has been concern about what those changes would mean for the historical structure.
“That was a huge, big deal,” says Updike. “There is a perception about what we should be allowed to do here, and it all comes from people caring so much about the building.”
Also key to moving the venue forward are renovations which will continue through 2015 and will ultimately allow the Embassy to share heretofore unseen portions of the building – unseen at least to generations now living. The $10 million update will include a two-story high ballroom, a rooftop patio and garden, a history center and classrooms to expand the educational component. The opening of the new additions will take place in 2016.
Along with expansions and renovations, Updike also knows that keeping the technology current and relevant is important, another key area where the structure needs to balance history and state-of-the art. The only way to maintain the Embassy’s history is by assuring its future.
“I’m proud that we’ve raised the profile of the Embassy, and its more part of the community than ever. The perception was that it was just a small theater, but we’ve worked hard to change that.”