Bob Nickerson recalls his father telling him stories about the 1918 influenza pandemic and its effects on daily life in Fort Wayne.
“He was eight years old at the time,” he said. “He used to share stories with us about how school was closed. The second surge occurred — I think it was in November and December because he said there were no Christmas Eve services at any of the churches. And no Christmas day services.”
This happened 10 years before the beloved downtown venue now known as the Embassy Theatre opened as the Emboyd Theatre.
Nickerson was one of the volunteers who helped rescue the Embassy from the wrecking ball in the 1970s and he is a current board member.
He said the Embassy has faced a lot of challenges over the decades but nothing quite like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it is unique,” he said. “Because all the other financial challenges came at a time when the economy was generally OK. The community was able to support you with the resources to do what you needed to do.”
The virus shut down most live entertainment venues across the country and has kept most touring acts and shows off the road.
Target dates for resumption of normal business have come and gone.
The Embassy Theatre’s budget runs September to August. At the conclusion of the fiscal year that ended a few weeks ago, the Embassy was running a “loss against budget” of just over $1 million, according to the venue’s president and CEO Kelly Updike.
“We were having a good year into March,” she said. “Then we got sent home.”
Deep Fort Wayne history
The Emboyd Theatre was built in 1927 by Fox Realty. Fox Realty employee Clyde Quimby was its first manager. The name Emboyd was a portmanteau of Quimby’s mother’s name, Emilie “Em” Boyd Quimby.
“It was the largest and most ornate theater Fort Wayne had seen,” Fort Wayne historian Michael Hawfield wrote in The News-Sentinel many years ago. “Designed by the local firm of A.M. Strauss, with theater architect John Ebetson, the rococo interior was, as one enthusiast put it, ‘a phantasmagoric celestial environment.’ In the lobby alone, the theatergoer was delighted to be among opulent Neo-Middle Eastern arches. There were Romanesque barrel vaults with Wedgwood icing and grandly colored reliefs; staircases, columns, and floors intricately marbled, and all reflected in the Art Deco mirrors and Corinthian lamps that line the lobby.”
At the time, it was the only theater in town that was air conditioned. Elements of the original air-cooling system were still in use prior to the most recent renovation project, which began in 2014.
The Hotel Indiana opened at the same time as the Emboyd.
“The hotel’s sign, which was on the roof of the building, said Hotel Indiana but everyone called it the Indiana Hotel,” Updike said. “There were about 250 rooms and most had a private bathroom, with sink, toilet, and shower or tub. The rooms were air-conditioned.”
For decades, the Emboyd was a place where people could watch a movie or see high-caliber acts like Perry Como, the Mills Brothers, and Bob Crosby and his Bobcats with vocalist Doris Day.
Legend has it that Bob Hope cut his comedic teeth on the Emboyd’s stage. He performed there in 1928 and 1938.
In 1952, the theater was purchased by the Alliance Theatre chain and its name was changed to the Embassy.
The march of time was not kind to single-screen downtown movie theaters. In 1972, the Embassy’s owners announced their intention to raze the building and put in a parking lot.
Saved from the wrecking ball
The theater was saved thanks largely to the efforts of organists and organ music devotees like Bob Goldstein and Buddy Nolan who helped form the Embassy Theatre Foundation to safeguard the building and its Grande Page Pipe Organ.
Nickerson was an electrical engineer who was enlisted by Nolan to help get the organ back to working condition.
In the 1960s, Nolan built awareness of, and interest in, the organ with a series of concerts that had to happen at midnight after all the movie screenings were finished, Nickerson said.
Despite the late start time, they were enormously popular.
The fight to save the Embassy had its up and downs, but the support of the community was never less than robust.
“I have been in Fort Wayne for 82 years, and I have never seen anything in my lifetime equal to it,” he said. “I mean, just everyone wanted that saved, and they wanted it to happen. There was a lot of grassroots support. The schoolkids’ classrooms raised nickels and dimes, and we sold bumper stickers for a buck. We finally got enough money for a down payment.”
Despite current challenges that he calls unprecedented, Nickerson said he isn’t worried about the Embassy’s future.
“The management team that we have now is probably one of the best ever,” he said. “Kelly (Updike) has done a superior job of being an executive director and now president.”
Getting by — for now
Thanks to a financial safety net, pandemic loans, and a budget that is half of what it was last year, the Embassy should be OK for a while, Updike said. Also, the theater has launched a fundraising effort called Raise the Curtain to help defray costs and make up for lost revenue.
The campaign had an initial goal of $500,000 according to Lucas Weick, the Embassy’s chief philanthropy officer. But now it’s more open-ended because the length and effects of the pandemic are hard to predict.
The campaign has raised more than $48,000 thus far, Weick said.
In the absence of the usual programming, Updike said that the theater’s management and the board of directors have decided to “make lemonade from lemons” and focus on a new strategic plan that was formulated during a recent renovation project that transformed the former Indiana Hotel into a ballroom, classrooms and offices.
Working with other organizations
“Our goals include offering more self-presented programs,” she said, “expanding our educational programming, working more with our local and regional colleagues, and better representing the diversity of our community in our programming.”
The pandemic did not affect the composition of the strategic plan, but the plan’s “goals and strategies align very well with our current situation,” Updike said.
The Embassy is collaborating with Three Rivers Music Theatre on three cabaret style shows that will happen throughout the fall.
Also, Fort Wayne Civic Theatre is bringing an early November run of the musical, Annie, to the Embassy.
Updike said they are exploring other live theater opportunities to fill the void left by canceled or postponed national shows that would have been brought to the area by the Nederlander Organization.
Live streaming of events is a pandemic staple that the Embassy intends to do more of in the future, she said. Live streaming could give Embassy a global reach it wouldn’t have had otherwise, Updike said.
Festival of trees is a go
The most pressing Embassy-related question on many area residents’ lips right now is, “Will Festival of Trees happen?”
The answer is “Yes,” Updike said, but the particulars are still being worked out.
“We’re still trying to wrap our heads around that,” she said. “And that’s kind of been the hardest part. We can only go with what we know today.
“I have a colleague who said, ‘It’s kind of like we’re driving a jeep and we’re in a bit of soft sand.’ Every time we gain purchase, our wheels start spinning again.”
The person in charge of coming up with the Embassy’s pandemic safety protocols is its COO Mary Jo Hardiman.
She said she is close to unlocking the pandemic mysteries of Festival of Trees.
Listen to Hardiman talk about the pandemic safety protocols she has devised for fall shows at the Embassy and you won’t doubt for a minute that she can solve the Festival of Trees puzzle.
Embassy shows now have timed arrivals and departures, virtual merch tables (where applicable), a system for cycling fresh air through the building, zoned bars (patrons have assigned refreshment stations), safe singing guidelines, and one-way paths of travel throughout the theater.
Hardiman said four employees can clean every seat in the theater, the stage, and the backstage area in one hour.
She is currently figuring out how to host Breakfast with Santa during a pandemic.
“We have had to extend the number of breakfasts that we have,” she said. “Who would have ever thought I’d be having a meeting about Santa Claus but with social distancing?”
Weick said the Embassy plans to offer a virtual Festival of Trees option this year.
“We would have a videographer come in and do a video of the trees and people will be able to buy a virtual ticket for the video tour,” he said. “That way, they can experience the Festival of Trees without having to attend in person.”
Focused on its values
Because everything that happens at the Embassy for the foreseeable future must by necessity be smaller and slower, the management and staffers have tried to focus on theater’s core values, Updike said.
“What is meaningful to people and how do we continue to present that?” she said. “There are changes happening around those core values, but we want the core values to stick.”
Their goal, in its simplest form, is to “keep busy and active,” Updike said.
“And hopefully, as in as many ways as possible, to continue to feed peoples’ souls with arts and entertainment.”
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