Naughty and Nice . . .

‘Tis the Season…frosty morns and ebony nights illuminated by bright multicolored lights — reflected and shimmering on moist pavement — and the scent of pine and candle wax everywhere. Shoppers scurry amid the tinkling of Salvation Army bells and children’s eyes are full of wonderful delights. A special treat might be an afternoon or evening taking in a seasonal theater tradition, The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol. Ah, yes; Holiday Traditions.
When one thinks of the holiday traditions surrounding the Christmas season, illustrations of a Victorian era family gathered around a decorated Christmas tree and the images of Scrooge and Tiny Tim come to mind. But, what about theater offerings? Certainly, live stage performances echoed the spirit of the season.
Indianapolis theater goers for many years were entertained with live stage performances at the city’s first theater, Metropolitan Hall on the northeast corner of West Washington and Tennessee (Capitol Av) Streets. This 1,200-seat theater was the first structure in the city designed for theatrical performances. Following the Civil War, the 2,500-seat Academy of Music was built on the southeast corner of Illinois and Ohio Streets. Early holiday season stage offerings found the infamous tragedian J. Wilkes Booth appearing as Richard III and Sallie St. Clair in the melodrama Black Eyed Susan. McKee Rankin entertained with a performance of Rip Van Winkle. Hardly the warm and delightful theater of today’s holiday season.
Holiday theater offerings became a little merrier in the 1880s with the addition to the city’s theater scene of English’s Opera House on the Circle and Dickson’s Grand Opera House, on the east side of Pennsylvania St north of Market St. The London Opera Co performed the Pirates of Penzance and the legendary Joseph Jefferson & His Comedy Co appeared at the Grand, while theater goers could be entertained by the Barlow, Wilson, Primrose & West’s Mammoth Minstrels at the English. However, melodramas and an occasional romantic comedy were the norm.
During the summer of 1892 a new venue was added to the Indianapolis theatrical scene. Amusement entrepreneurs Herbert Heuck and James Fennessy of Cincinnati engaged architect Oscar Cobb to design a theater, and the Indianapolis firm of Jungclaus & Schumacher to build it on the northeast corner of Wabash and Talbott Streets, west of Delaware. The work was done by all union men and completed in seventy working days. The Empire Theater, with its Indianapolis pressed brick exterior, galvanized iron cornices and terra cotta trimmings, opened on Labor Day, September 5, with a matinee performance of Whalen & Martell’s The South Before the War, a minstrel show featuring both white and African-American entertainers. The vaudeville company of Reilly & Woods appeared shortly after the theater’s opening
The Empire continued offering variety performances and vaudeville/burlesque became a staple with C. W. Williams’ Specialty Co, Gus Hill’s Aggregation, and O’Neill & Pickett’s Paris Gaiety Girls performing during the theater’s first season. In the week before Christmas 1892, Sam T. Jack’s Creole Burlesque Co performed. This was the first African-American burlesque show and “the first to feature beautiful, lavishly costumed black women in the leading roles.” The Creole Show included original songs, sketches, and comedy by African-American artists.
Nick Roberts’ Humpty-Dumpty & Double Specialty Troupe provided “rapturously humorous entertainment” for Empire audiences during the 1895 Christmas season, and in later years crowds were regaled by May Howard Extravaganza Co, The Merry Maidens Burlesque Co, and Matt J. Flynn’s Big Sensation Burlesquers. In the early years of the new century, the Empire booked “grand holiday attractions” — The Imperial Burlesquers and Fred Irwin’s Big Show. Some elements in Indianapolis objected to this form of entertainment, and the show bill at the Empire Theater drew the attention of Indianapolis clergyman Rev. Samuel J. Tomlinson who denounced it as being a place “where morals of a low standard were allowed to exist.” A change in ownership and name came in the summer of 1913. The new Columbia Theater offered to “give Indianapolis a burlesque performance without an offensive word or an offensive song,” and the Big Dreamland Burlesque Company appeared during the following holiday season to a crowded house.
The stage lights dimmed in the fall of 1916 when local authorities declared the Columbia Theater “a public nuisance” and charged that it “has been kept for the purpose of lewdness; that the conduct of the performers is indecent and obsence and that vile and lascivious dances are given by women performers.” With assurances that there would be no “lewd or immoral performances,” the theater continued as a boxing and wrestling venue, but reverted to its old name the following summer. Although the Empire Theater advertised a return “with burlesque of the old school,” it continued to host pugilistic events until the lights went out in the fall of 1917.
The theatrical days of the Empire appeared to be over. The Wheeler Rescue Mission leased the property for visiting evangelists to conduct services, and at the start of the 1919 holiday season a “Big Jubilee Service” with gospel hymns was held in the old hall. However, the stage lights briefly came up once again when Ethel Waters & Co led a bill of African-American vaudeville performers in The Jazz Queen during the first week of January 1923. Then the Empire Theater passed into the theatrical history of Indianapolis. The sturdy brick building was repurposed by the contracting firm of Hugh J. Baker Co into the Empire Garage, a five-floor parking facility with a 300-automobile capacity. Two years later, a fire confined to the top floor of the garage destroyed eight cars and caused the roof to collapse. Today the old Empire Theater building stands, albeit greatly altered. Most of its windows are bricked in and the iron signage that once proudly proclaimed “Empire Theater” has rusted beyond recognition.
If The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol are not quite your holiday thing, take a walk on Wabash Street and stand before the façade of the old Empire Theater; close your eyes and hear the ghostly echoes of long ago hilarity that rose from the crowds behind those walls when vaudeville and burlesque were the “traditional” holiday theater entertainment.