Historic Structures

Indiana Theatre, Indianapolis Indiana

Date added: August 3, 2021 Categories: Indiana Theater

The Indianapolis papers of Saturday, June 18, 1927 carried three major items on their front pages: city politics; the low, circling salute by Charles Augustus Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis, en route to his triumphal reception in his home city; and an announcement of the inauguration of the Indiana Theatre, to take place that night.

At 7:00 p.m. the doors were opened to more than 3,000 patrons arriving early to view the new showplace. By 7:45 most had taken their seats, the radio microphones had been switched on, and at precisely 8:00 p.m. a trumpet fanfare sounded from behind the elaborately decorated asbestos curtain. The trumpet call was answered from the rear of the balcony as the asbestos curtain rose to reveal the green and silver house curtain.

The inaugural proceedings were opened by President Miller of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, who presented the theatre to the city and State. Acceptance speeches by Governor Jackson and Mayor Duvall were followed by the opening entertainment. First, Tchaikovsky's 1312 Overture was played by the Indiana Concert Orchestra under Guest Conductor Nathaniel Finston, Publix Circuit Musical Director. The Indiana then screened "News of the World." Next, Public Theatres presented "Pioneer Days," devised and staged by Frank Cambria, General Stage Manager, Publix Theatres. The Indiana then presented Harold Ramsey at the Grand Barton Organ playing "Organs I have Played," followed by "Enchantment," a scenic novelty with musical accompaniment by Mikhail Stolarevsky, Conductor of the Indiana Concert Orchestra. Frank Cambria's "The Inaugural Banquet" was next offered by Publix. Finally the feature film, "The Prince of Head Waiters" starring Lewis Stone was presented by the Indiana in association with First National Pictures. The program closed with an exit march played oy Harold Ramsey at the Grand Barton Organ. The capacity audience included, in addition to the Governor and the Mayor, various civic dignitaries, officials of the Publix Circuits, representatives of First National Pictures including Lewis Stone (who was making his first in-person appearance), and Circle Theatre Company officials on that very gala night.

The Indiana Theatre opened under the management of Ace Berry and was later managed-by James MacFarlane. Another staff member, Mrs. Alice Hendricks, served In business and public relations capacities for both the theatre and the ballroom from 1928 through 1939 and for the ballroom alone from 1940 to 1958. Initially the theatre prospered as a first-run movie house with stage presentations and had. its own chorus line to support traveling "headliners" and "topflight" groups of entertainers. The Indiana early became the home of the Charlie Davis Orchestra, a noted local group whose vocalist, Dick Powell, became a prominent singing film star.

However, technical advances in film-making, particularly the introduction of full sound systems, soon combined with the economic pressures generated by the Depression to eliminate stage shows from most movie theatres. The change came to the Indiana in December 1933. Thereafter the stage was rarely used, and the house was closed during summers except for occasional touring Broadway shows, including "The Great Waltz." In 1958 it was planned to convert the theatre into a convention center. The house was closed as a movie theatre in September and reopened in October as an auditorium with a jazz concert by clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman. The theatre had consistently been equipped with the latest technological advances including closed-circuit television and three-dimensional moving pictures, and in 1960 the Indiana resumed film presentations as the only theatre in Indiana then equipped to show wide-screen Cinerama pictures.

The Indiana Theatre continued as a major first-run motion picture house for another decade or more. By 1970 it was one of only two movie theatres in the central city. In 1975 Manager Spurling reported that the Indiana was operating at a loss absorbed by suburban and drive-in theatres owned by the Fourth Avenue Amusement Corporation of Louisville, Kentucky, which had acquired the property from the Greater Indianapolis Amusement Company. In 1979 the auditorium was to be gutted to install three auditoria, but the facade, lobby, and ballroom was preserved.

The ballroom above the auditorium, managed by Jonas Perlberg and his assistant George P. Flory, opened on September 2, 1927 at 8:30 p.m. with its own orchestra led by Marlon McKay assisted by Jack Pitzer. Other dance bands made guest appearances when McKay's ensemble was not playing. The management provided free dance instruction. "Collegiate night" dances were held on Thursdays and Fridays, with high school "hops" on Saturday afternoons. (Indianapolis Star, September 1, 1927) As the popularity of the ballroom continued during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, all of the leading "name bands" (except Glenn Miller's, which was pledged by contract to Lake Wawasee for its Indianapolis area appearances) played there. Some played for the annual "500" Festival Balls held to celebrate the Indianapolis Speedway 500-Mile International Motor Races, and many played for high-school "proms." During 1972, while the new "Expo" center was under construction, the ballroom was the only large downtown meeting facility available and was used intensively for every type of banquet and convention function Upon the completion of the new convention center, however, activity at the ballroom came to an end.

The Theater continues to thrive today as the Indiana Repertory Theatre