From Wrecking Balls to Ball Gowns: The Embassy Theatre’s Incredible Comeback

Standard

ballroom

The people who saved the Embassy Theatre from oblivion in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s never solidified a plan for revitalizing the adjacent Indiana Hotel and they may not have had any solid interest in solidifying a plan.

“The founding fathers, like Bob Goldstine – they didn’t really want the hotel,” said the Embassy’s marketing director, Barb Richards, “They were focused on the theater.”

The seven-story hotel, which once catered to traveling businessmen, closed in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.

It had 250 tiny rooms and there have been at least 250 casual proposals across four decades for what to do with it.

Now, the Indiana Hotel is no more.

It has been transformed into something that would surely please the late Goldstine and his partners in reclamation.

The four remaining, undeveloped floors of the dilapidated hotel are gone and in their place are a grand ballroom and a number of things the theater has been badly in need of, including classrooms, conference rooms, rehearsal rooms, a copy room, a break room and proper office space.

The former offices have been turned into a lounge, a new suite of dressing rooms has been added in the basement and there’s a rooftop terrace overlooking the city.

None of this was easily achieved. Because the Embassy is a historically protected landmark, Weigand Construction couldn’t knock out any walls as it might otherwise have been inclined to do.

Debris had to be carried out in wheelbarrows, and steel beams had to be brought in through windows and maneuvered down long, narrow corridors.

And the theater could not close, said executive director Kelly Updike. The renovations had to be accomplished without disrupting business.

Final cost of the project is $10 million, she said, $8.2 million of which has been raised.

One of the wonders of the grand two-story ballroom, apart from its photogenic staircase, is that it has been made to look like it was created at the same time as the rest of the theater, circa 1926.

“That’s a high compliment,” said the Embassy’s executive director, Kelly Updike. “Moake Park Group is the architect. They are thrilled when people say that, that it looks like it’s always been here.”

The process to create the textured walls required nine laborious coats, she said.

The need for the ballroom went beyond the merely decorative. Before this expansion, one in four people who wanted to rent a portion of the Embassy for a private event had to be turned away because of space or logistical constraints, Updike said.

Now the Embassy will be better able to earn its keep. Updike said this expanded roster of private events should net the Embassy between $100,000 to $150,000 a year. The ballroom is already booked through February 2017, she said. The new rentable spaces will help ensure that the Embassy will never again need to be “saved.”

For the most part, the rooftop terrace will be available for use by people who rent the ballroom.

But there will be a series of Wednesday night summer concerts on the terrace, crowdfunded by Arts United’s Amplify Art!

They start May 25.

“There will be music up here and a portable bar,” Updike said. “People will maybe pay a small cover fee and they’ll be able to come up here and sit.”

There’s really nothing else quite like the rooftop terrace in downtown Fort Wayne and Updike thinks it is spurring some competition.

“I think other people who are building things are saying, ‘Hey, maybe we should do something like that with our rooftop.’”

Two permanent bars were added to the theater lobby via a one-story expansion into an alleyway, she said.

“We owned half of the vacated alley and the parks department owned the other half,” Updike said. “We had to obtain that from them.”

The mobile bars that the Embassy used to use meant that inventory and equipment constantly had to be shifted around.

“It’s nice to have a home for things,” Updike said.

There are new homes for a lot of things in the theater and this has meant that the staff has had to devise new migratory patterns, so to speak. They have had to come up with new workflow paths.

Efforts at the end the last decade to link the new Courtyard By Marriott with the Embassy and the Grand Wayne Center accelerated movement on Indiana Hotel rehabilitation.

The Courtyard’s requirement of a covered walkway to the Indiana Hotel launched other refurbishment plans. If no agreement on the walkway had been reached, the entire Harrison Square project might have collapsed.

For years, Updike said, people looked up and saw four floors of perpetually dark windows. Everyone knew something needed to be done.

In the ‘90s, many of the people who’d helped save the Embassy thought it should almost be a museum, reserved for high culture and closed to the public many more nights than not.

But people have come to understand, Updike said, that the Embassy needs to be a living, breathing thing.

If future generations are going to care about, and care for, the Embassy, they will need to experience it in visceral ways.

Richards said she believes the Embassy’s saviors would approve of what it has become.

“We’ve taken every single inch of this hotel and made it into something that benefits the Embassy Theatre Foundation,” she said.

Advertisements

All’s Wright With the World

Standard

stephenwright

The Internet is a good place to find memes in which Abraham Lincoln expounds on such hot, 19th century topics as radical Islam, welfare cheats and the McRib sandwich.

Because Lincoln knew he wouldn’t be around to Google himself, he entreated future Lincoln scholars to forgo study of his presidency in favor of debunking misquotes.

Unlike Lincoln, comedian Steven Wright is around to Google himself. And while he probably won’t ever engage in any active debunking, he is sometimes perturbed by what he finds.

Wright performs in Skokie and St. Charles, Illinois, on April 8 and 9, respectively.

Wright started performing comedy about two decades before the Internet reached full flower and yet his snappy word puzzles and delayed-fuse musings seem uniquely suited to compilation and celebration on the Web.

The problem with this is the cavalier way that many of the compilers match the quotes with the quoted.

In a phone interview, Wright said fully 50 percent of the jokes attributed to him on many of these lists are not his.

And some of them are pretty bad.

“The Internet is like the Wild West,” he said. “There’s no rules. My analogy for this is: Imagine that you broke into a bookstore — when there were bookstores — and you went over to ‘Oliver Twist’ and you ripped out Chapter 8 and put your own chapter in there. Then someone buys ‘Oliver Twist’ and they’re reading it and, all of a sudden, Oliver Twist goes to Miami and starts building houses. Maybe the person reading that book wouldn’t know Dickens hadn’t put that in there. But several crimes would have been committed.”

Perhaps Dickens should have had the foresight to entreat future Dickens scholars to forgo study of his legacy in favor of debunking the notion that Oliver Twist ever worked as a residential building contractor in South Florida.

Wright is only marginally bothered by this phenomenon because he is only marginally connected to the Internet.

He has an iPhone into which he types notes but he says he’s always relieved to go back to the pads of unlined paper he used to use before handheld technology became unavoidable.

Considering what a comedic phenomenon Wright was in the 1980s and what an indelible impression he has left on stand-up, his resume is surprisingly thin.

Since first taking the “Tonight Show” stage in 1982, Wright has released two comedy albums and three comedy specials. He won an Academy Award for a short film in 1989.

Occasionally, he will pop up briefly in a movie or on a TV show, but bit parts such as these are almost always favors he does for someone.

This is all by design.

It may come as a surprise to most people that to learn Wright has constructed for himself the ideal life for a creative person. He is also a musician and visual artist, and a full stand-up schedule gives him the freedom to do what he wants when he wants, for the most part.

Each discipline satisfies him in a different way.

“Comedy has to make absolute sense,” he said, “no matter how weird it is. You can’t just say ‘Fifteen midgets are running down a hill.’ An abstract painting has none of that. If you feel like putting this line here for no reason — there’s no rules at all. You just go on complete emotion. And then music is kind of in-between.”

In the ’80s, someone who knew Wright observed that he was the sort of person who was perfectly happy sitting on a bare mattress with a notebook and a glass of water.

That may have been and may still be true. But Wright said he discovered that he couldn’t just sit in a room and write jokes.

He had to walk around. With a pad of paper, of course.

“When I first started,” he said, “I would sit down and try to write like that. For about 6 to 8 months, I would actually just try to sit and write jokes. And then my mind started to think, ‘What if I didn’t sit down anymore?’ So I would just be wandering around the city or wherever I was and my mind would see something and then I would write it down. My subconscious became an observer for jokes.”

Wright said he never goes out looking for jokes. It is almost as if jokes come looking for him.

“If I went to a museum, there might be a joke there,” he said. “But I didn’t go to a museum to look for a joke.”

The many notebooks he has accrued over the years are repositories of everything: jokes, of course, but also philosophical musings, drawings, lyrics and ideas for screenplays.

Writing things down sanctifies them in a sense.

“There’s just something about: You thought about something and you don’t want it to just float out there,” Wright said. “Thoughts to me are precious. They’re worthy of being written down. Thoughts that aren’t even jokes. Jokes are worthy of being written down too. But also thoughts about life. I’m always writing (expletive) down.”

Of course, the jokes are what butters the bread, so to speak.

Wright said he does an 80-minute show and delivers an average of five jokes per minute.

“So, what is that? I forgot math. I used to know what eight times five was. It is, like, 40 something?”

It comes out to 400 jokes. Five jokes a minute seems like an overly generous estimate, but it is probably true that Wright goes through more material in a show than any other comic.

Given that Wright is constantly trying out new material and cycling out old material, and given that so little of that material has been and is being recorded for posterity, a fan really has to see him live if he or she wants to keep up with his career.

A fan should also download episodes of “Horace and Pete.”

Wright plays a barfly in Louis C.K.’s acclaimed web series.

Four years ago, native Bostonian Wright decided to move to New York to “get a fix on the city.” A friend introduced him to Louis C.K. and the two hit it off. Eventually, Louis C.K. hired Wright as a consultant on his FX series, “Louis.”

Wright’s role on the show was to be there when Louis C.K. wanted to bounce ideas off someone who could bounce back something worthy.

“He’s such a brilliant guy,” Wright said. “It’s like he has a band and he let me sit in with the band.”

Wright said he is in awe of Louis C.K.’s talents.

“I was thinking that only Woody Allen does everything that he does,” he said, “and then I thought, ‘No.’ He writes all the stuff, he directs all the stuff, he acts in all the stuff and then he does stand-up too. He’s like Woody Allen and George Carlin. There’s no one who’s ever done both of those things. Nobody. Not one person.”

Wright said Louis C.K. inspires him but he’s not sure yet what form that inspiration will take.

For the time being, Wright will continue to be creative for creativity’s sake.

“There was a famous artist,” he said. “I can’t remember who he is. He’s a current guy. He said that people ask him, ‘When did you start drawing?’ and he says to them, ‘When did you stop?’ Because everyone drew and painted. Everybody does it naturally. And then they get to a point where lots of people don’t do that anymore. It wears off.

“You should do stuff for no reason,” Wright said. “Just for the hell of it. Just for the fun of creating.”