Fans of the Embassy Theater in Fort Wayne, Indiana fondly refer to "Miss Page" and her role in saving the building from certain destruction during the 1970s.
The theater opened in 1928 to host vaudeville fare and movies as they began their transition from silents to talkies.
People like Bob Hope, Cab Calloway, Perry Como, Bill Robinson, Artie Shaw, Doris Day, Chico Marx, Red Skelton, Doris Day, Burt Lancaster and Tony Bennett all performed live on the theater's stage.
Miss Page, though, stands alone as one of the most illustrious entities to appear on the theater's stage.
Miss Page is the theater's pipe organ, providing accompaniment for silent movies or music during intermissions or other programs.
The Grande Page organ, built by the Page Organ Company of Lima, Ohio, was one of three built of its size and one of two still residing at its original location over 85 years after its construction.
Miss Page left the building recently for a trip to the Indianapolis area for some restoration work on her console, or keydesk, and trim components, but we were lucky enough to meet Miss Page during a backstage tour of the Embassy Theater earlier this summer.
The theater, originally named the Emboyd (after the name of the original manager W. Clyde Quimby's mother, Emilie Boyd Quimby) opened for business on May 14, 1928, and customers enjoyed a bill featuring several vaudeville acts and a movie for a ticket price of 60 cents.
The theater, designed by noted theater architects A. M. Strauss and John Eberson, was surrounded by the seven-story, 250-room Indiana Hotel wrapped around the theater's north and west sides.
Miss Page, with over 1,000 pipes ranging in length from 16 feet to 7 inches, took her place onstage in 1928 as well. Instruments in her repertoire include a xylophone, Chinese Gong, harp, piano, castanets, tambourines and wood blocks as well as sound effects like boat and train whistles, sirens, sleigh bells and chirping birds used to enhance on-screen action of silent films.
We loved touring the theater and hearing tales of its storied history.
The opportunity to see this great landmark of Fort Wayne and theater history would not be possible today without the work of a small group of dedicated theater organ enthusiasts during the 1960s and 1970s.
The rise of talkies, the subsequent decline of vaudeville shows and the Great Depression of the 1930s brought hard times to the theater.
In 1952, the Alliance Amusement Company purchased the theater and hotel, christening the former Emboyd Theater as The Embassy Theater, with the theater continuing as a movie palace.
Local theater organ enthusiasts became the unofficial guardians of Miss Page by repairing, restoring and maintaining the instrument, usually as volunteers and with their own money.
Organist Buddy Nolan was part of the group and began performing with Miss Page in a series of Theater Organ at Midnight concerts in 1963. The concerts became a bit of a tourist attraction, drawing theater organ enthusiasts from several surrounding states to the Embassy.
In 1971, the Indiana Hotel closed and things looked grim for the Embassy Theater. One proposal at this time called for converting the Indiana Hotel into a senior residence and demolishing the theater to build a parking lot for 65 cars.
In 1972, a group led by Robert Goldstone organized the Embassy Theater Foundation in an attempt to save the then-deteriorating Miss Page and her aging theater home.
The group needed to raise $250,000 (and that figure is in 1972 dollars, which online inflation calculators tell me translates into over $1.4 million in today's dollars) for the rescue project.
Volunteers continued to work on the organ, fix roof leaks, clean walls and work on a long-term plan to save and operate the theater even as they often spent their own money to purchase coal and keep the furnaces going so that pipes in the organ and the building would not freeze.
Donors, large and small, throughout the community chipped in and the group made its $250,000 with just two days to spare as their deadline to do so approached.
In 1975, the theater re-opened, and the building earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1995, the theater underwent major renovations, including expanding the stage to make it roomy enough to host modern touring stage shows, upgrading seats in the 2,471 capacity theater and renovating the lobby and mezzanine in the Indiana Hotel to use for events.
One of the more visible exterior renovations happened in 2005 with the installation of a new theater marquee for the Embassy based on the 1952 design with digital boards and a lighted canopy and a vertical blade sign based on the original 1928 theater sign.
Today the theater hosts a schedule that includes live musical and comedy concerts, performances of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra, touring companies from Broadway shows, educational programs, classic films, weddings, private parties and corporate functions.
Popular events include a Festival of Trees, a showcase of decorated holiday trees that draws 15,000 visitors annually and raises money to help renovate and maintain the building.
Miss Page also takes the stage at least a few times a year for concerts and her annual appearances at the Festival of Trees.
For the moment, Miss Page is still on leave for routine repairs and restoration, and should return to her Fort Wayne home by next spring.
Some of the favorite parts of our tour beyond seeing Miss Page included seeing the backstage quarters that served as home to Bud Berger, a long-time stage manager of the Embassy, and learning about the "ghost light" perched near Miss Page.
Berger loved the Embassy Theater, devoting his life to caring for the building and its performers to ensure that each show went well. He died in 1965, but many people who work in the building believe Berger still watches over the theater and lets them know when things appear to go wrong.
Should Berger still roam the building, he'll find a small electric light located on the stage, even when the rest of the building is completely dark and otherwise unoccupied.
This "ghost light" is a theater tradition that, depending on what source you consult, is a safety feature or a measure to appease ghosts that might live in a theater and want to perform onstage in the unoccupied building. The thought is that by lighting their way, ghostly performers will have their fun and refrain from cursing or sabotaging the theater and its productions.
More practical explanations for the light include lighting the way for the first person in the theater so they can turn on the house lights without falling into the orchestra pit or tripping on something. Also, many theaters in the early 1800s burned to the ground because of a build up in the gas lines and generators powering the coal-lit gas lamps and a lit flame prevented the buildup of pressure in the lines.
Check out The Historic Fort Wayne Embassy Theater by Dyne L. Pfeffenberger to learn more about the theater, hotel and its storied history.
Thanks to Visit Fort Wayne for sponsoring my recent visit to Fort Wayne, Indiana, providing lodging, meals and help arranging interviews and tours of area attractions for my review, with no further compensation. I was free to express my own opinions about this stay and experiences, and the opinions expressed here are mine.
Text © Dominique King 2014 All rights reserved
Photos © Dominique King and Tim Marks 2014 All rights reserved