One of the places major films have been shown for decades is the magnificent movie theater still standing at 125 West Jefferson Boulevard. The Embassy Theater is the last of the great movie and stage houses in Fort Wayne, and its restoration marks one of the city’s outstanding volunteer efforts.
Construction of the theater and the adjoining Indiana Hotel was started in 1926 and the theater opened on May 14, 1928. Designed by Fort Wayne architect A. M. Strauss with theater architect John Eberson, the rococo interior was described by one enthusiast as, “a phantasmagoric celestial environment.” In the lobby the visitor was delighted to be among opulent neo-mideastern arches, Romanesque barrel vaults with Wedgwood icing and grandly colored reliefs. The staircases, columns and floors were intricately marbled, and all reflected in the art deco mirrors and Corinthian lamps that lined the lobby.
The theater was originally named the Emboyd by owner Clyde Quimby in memory of his mother, Emilie Boyd. Quimby had come to Fort Wayne after World War I and realized the growing popularity of film and the other new medium, radio. He married Helen Kinkade, the piano player for silent movies at the Jefferson Theatre, who herself would later become a leading theater operator in Fort Wayne. By the 1930s, Quimby owned the greatest movie houses in town: the Emboyd, the Paramount, the Jefferson and the Palace. In 1952, the name was changed to the Embassy Theatre when the Alliance Theatre chain purchased the Emboyd.
The Emboyd was one of the first Fort Wayne buildings to be air-conditioned. Since its first performances, the central feature of the theater has been the grand eleven hundred fifty-pipe Grande Page Organ. This instrument became the catalyst for an extraordinary volunteer restoration project.
Many entertaining greats played the theater now recorded in the late Dyne L. Pfeffenberger book relating the history of the Embassy Theatre: Red Skelton, Fats Domino, Artie Shaw, Perry Como and Bob Hope who appeared two times once in 1928 and again in 1938. As the new century has made its way into our lives, the programs continue with as much vigor as ever featuring stars such as Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, B.B. King, Ray Romano, David Copperfield and the list goes on. Among all the events, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic presents its Masterworks and Pops concerts at the Embassy each year headlining guest artists such as Melissa Manchester, Burt Bacharach, and Patti Austin. Broadway shows traveling the country also are now offered as still another attraction to the venerable ole facility.
When it looked as if the Embassy was in peril of being saved Bob Hope said in a 1975 letter, “It saddens me to learn that the Emboyd Theatre may hit the skids. It played a big part in my earlier days when I needed food. It is a beautiful place and I remember introducing Fred Allen one time, he walked out with a wheelbarrow, took out a banjo as though he was going to play, then put it back and walked off the stage. I hope and pray the Embassy can be saved.”
The volunteer effort to save the Embassy when it faced economic ruin began in 1974 when area organ buffs began a citywide fund-raising campaign. This was followed by an extraordinary “hands-on” undertaking by everyday citizens to refurbish the entire building. Today, the Embassy serves as the community’s principal concert hall for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra and for touring theatrical productions.
The theatre received its first high quality grand piano in its over 70-year history. Bob Goldstine, the local real estate developer and Grand Page organ player who was instrumental in sparking the volunteer effort in 1972 to save the historic theater, died in 2001. His 1982 Yamaha C-7 concert grand was acquired for the Embassy at the Goldstine’s estate auction through the generosity of local businessman Mark Suedhoff and resides in the theater’s mezzanine-level music room, where it is played before and during intermission of most shows.
Most recently, with the coming of Harrison Square, focus has been given to the Indiana Hotel at the corner of Harrison and Jefferson streets. The seven stories of former hotel rooms wrap around the Embassy Theatre in an “L” shape. An enclosed sky bridge over Harrison connects the Harrison Square facility to the third floor of the Indiana Hotel, which has been renovated into a pedestrian corridor that links o the Jefferson Boulevard sky bridge leading to the Grand Wayne Center.
The Embassy Theater may be the last of the great movie and stage houses in Fort Wayne, however, it can be counted among the first to continue as one of the city’s outstanding point of pride for us all.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.