Embassy Theatre turns 90

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(Darrin Wright/WOWO News)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WOWO): The Embassy Theatre in downtown Fort Wayne is celebrating 90 years of entertainment this week.

(Darrin Wright/WOWO News)

It’s a downtown landmark, with an iconic sign that lights up Jefferson Blvd, not far from Parkview Field. But there was a time when Fort Wayne almost lost the Embassy Theatre forever in the early 1970s:

“Back in the early 70s, downtowns across the country started being not used so much… so a lot of things were leaving downtown,” says Embassy CEO Kelly Updike. “All of the fancy theaters started closing downtown, the only one left was the Embassy Theatre. People were still coming in to play the Grand Page pipe organ, and taking a bit of care of the building, and they realized it was about to be torn down. It was in bankruptcy court, and the wrecking ball was coming down the street – literally – and they rallied the community and raised $250,000. They did it, in order to save the pipe organ, because they couldn’t get it out… they had to save the building to save the organ.”

Now the Embassy celebrates its 90th birthday today, and this Saturday the 19th, they’ll be holding a celebratory show that’s very similar to what you would have seen on opening night back in 1928… including that organ that saved a piece of Fort Wayne’s history:

That (above) is the Grand Page Pipe Organ, an instrument literally built into the walls of the Embassy. And when it looked like the building would come down in the 1970s, the community saved the building, which would host WOWO specials like “The Big Broadcast of 1988”. It even drew the attention of radio legend Paul Harvey, who did a special feature for WOWO on the Embassy’s history.

If there’s one thing you can say about the Embassy for sure, it’s that it looks great for a 90-year-old building. Updike tells us that’s because there’s constant work going on to preserve the building’s history while making way for the future:

“We’ve always been busy with restoration. Our most recent activity, the $10-million “Vision for the Embassy” project, gutted four floors of the former Indiana hotel – which wraps the theatre – and installed a two-story-high ballroom, classroom space and meeting spaces, and a new Heritage Center through a ton of community, state and local support.”

(Darrin Wright/WOWO News)

Many aspects of the theatre are the same, or at least made to look the same, as they did 90 years ago. And some of that history is preserved in the new John Mann Heritage Center. It features advertisements from opening night, equipment used by longtime organist Buddy Nolan, and more artifacts from the theatre’s history. The Heritage Center opens next month, but those who come to the Embassy’s 90th anniversary celebration on May 19th might just get a sneak peek. We also got a look, and you can as well via the photo gallery below:

Saturday night at 7pm, there will be a red carpet, vaudeville comedy acts, and a Buster Keaton movie screening, as the Embassy holds an opening reminiscent of its 1928 opening night.

“If you came to the Embassy in the 1920s and 30s, this is the type of show you’d see,” Updike says. “We’ll also be using our Brenograph, which is a type of slide projector machine. We have the only working one in the country, so that’s another thing we have that is rare.”

The Embassy’s lobby floor is made of black and white marble. The white is softer than the black and you can notice indentations left behind by years of use. (Darrin Wright/WOWO News)

Nationally-known theater organist Mark Herman will play the organ, which is one of only three in the nation, and was built in Lima, Ohio.

Tickets are available for the 90th Anniversary celebration at the Embassy box office or online at Ticketmaster.com.

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