It’s a building steeped in history with a storied past. It’s also a building with a bright future.
“That is a really magical power for the Embassy Theatre to have,” says Chief Marketing Officer Carly Myers. “We feel support and affinity from our community for this iconic space on a daily basis. Fort Wayne really embraces this theater.”
Not only has Fort Wayne embraced the Embassy, but a group of people literally saved it from the wrecking ball. When the theater opened in the heart of downtown in 1928, it was a premier movie palace and stage house. Theater operator Clyde Quimby originally named it the Emboyd, in memory of his mother Emilie Boyd. In its heyday, the theater attracted tens of thousands of patrons and hosted performers like Red Skelton, Fats Domino and Bob Hope. The adjacent seven-story Indiana Hotel closed in 1971 and, shortly after, the theater itself was in danger of being demolished.
A community-wide campaign saved the Embassy by raising $250,000 needed to rescue the building, and 20 years later, a major renovation project expanded the stage and upgraded seating. In March of 2016, the Indiana Hotel side of the building was fully renovated to match the aesthetic of the space and to build out a two-story ballroom and rooftop patio, as well as business offices and extra usable space for rental clients and education programming. Today, while the Embassy staff works to honor its past, there is a fierce focus on its present and future.
“We talk often about how important it is to stay relevant while at the same time emphasizing the theater’s historic setting,” explains President & CEO Kelly Updike, who has been at the helm of the Embassy for 16 years. “That’s why we’ve kept the building up to date. There are modern touches everywhere.”
“The primary importance to every single person on our staff is that the patron has a great experience,” Myers adds. “Whether you’re walking in the door to see a sold-out show in the auditorium, a cultural event, a wedding, corporate fundraiser or you’re here for an educational experience, we want this to be a place where people leave their problems at the door. They come with an expectation of having a great time and they walk out joyful.”
As was the case at many entertainment venues over the past two years, COVID caused
Embassy Theatre leaders to not just pivot during the pandemic, but to strategically situate themselves for sustainable success. At a time when many other theaters were forced to go dark, eliminate staff or reduce programming, the Embassy did the complete opposite.
“There were no national acts touring at all and yet there were all of us in this community wanting to continue providing arts and entertainment,” says Updike. “We were able to do that because of the size of our house. We could still have shows and were able to socially distance.”
“We stayed open the entire time and figured out some really creative solutions that positioned us to have the financial strength and growth opportunities that we currently have, which is pretty remarkable,” Myers reflects proudly.
Those growth opportunities are primarily centered around two things: programming and partnerships. Chief Programming Officer Jarin Hart joined the team less than a year ago. As a Fort Wayne native, she understands the importance of staying true to the Embassy’s roots and also knows there is value in being innovative and thinking outside the box.
“We’re an impressive institution. My overall philosophy is to try and identify the gaps in the community and work towards filling them,” emphasizes Hart. “We want to make sure that we are representing all voices as much as we can.”
In some cases, that representation involves new shows and fresh, of-the-moment performances that feature music, dance, comedy or improvisation. In others, it’s a nod to the past.
“For example, we regularly feature black and white silent films accompanied by the Grande Page organ. These appeal to a multigenerational audience. Some patrons who attend have experienced this thrill for many decades. We started as a movie palace and that was really important in the beginning of our patron experience, so this kind of programming helps meet our historical preservation goal,” Myers says.
There’s also the beloved programming that brings audiences back to the theater each year. Summer Nights at the Embassy featuring local musicians just wrapped up its seventh season, a new Broadway at the Embassy series kicks off in October and the Festival of Trees, the theater’s signature fundraising event, will be back for its 38th year just in time for the holidays. Since the beginning, educational programming has been foundational, providing opportunities for students.
“We have a Learn It Live program where we bring in an educational artist and present a free kids show. We also have Study Trips – school field trips to the Embassy – and we even were able to turn some into virtual sessions during the pandemic. We tie all of them back to the state standards and teachers value that,” says Updike. “We want to expose younger people to our building and hopefully create a love of art and entertainment so that they will want to continue to come back and support the Embassy.”
Known traditionally as a rental house, the Embassy has been transitioning into becoming a presenting house which helps position the organization as a national theater. That’s where partnerships come in.
“We’ve been co-presenting with different organizations like Honeywell because it allows us to work together to bring acts that normally wouldn’t stop in Fort Wayne. Co-presenting allows us to share in some of the financial risk,” explains Hart. “Last spring, we co-presented with the Fort Wayne Dance Collective to present New York City-based dance company, Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Since 1989, the Dance Collective annually presents a unique and compelling dance company. Being able to co-present with them to bring that caliber of talent to our historic stage was a very special opportunity.”
With roots firmly planted, Embassy leaders will continue to look for new opportunities that allow it to branch out and grow.
“The Embassy is a pioneer in this community. Whether it was back in 1928 or throughout the decades, we’ve assessed need and brought unique and rich arts and cultural events to this region. We’re really focused on diversity and being an authentic part of the growth of the city. We want to make sure that people feel welcome and that the Embassy is a “can’t miss” destination throughout the year,” concludes Myers.
Owner(s): Leader: Kelly Updike, President & CEO
Address: 125 W. Jefferson Blvd., Fort Wayne, Indiana 46802
Phone: (260) 424-6287
Years in Business: 94
Number of Employees: 38
Products & Services: The Embassy Theatre’s mission is to enrich the cultural life of the region by providing a wide range of arts and entertainment experiences in a historic venue.