Old Theater Gets A New Life

Art deco Clyde Theatre in Fort Wayne, Ind., profits from investors' experience in audio, live performance

  • by Gil Kaufman
  • Published: February 28, 2018

The Clyde Theatre, a restored movie theater in Fort Wayne, Ind., is scheduled to open as a GA concert venue in May. (Courtesy Clyde Theatre)

As main streets around the nation look to boost their bottom lines with refurbished venues and attractions, Fort Wayne, Ind., has thrown its hat into the ring with a world-class general-admission theater that has drawn some high-profile bookings months before the first ticket has been scanned.

The Clyde Theatre, a 1951 movie palace that had fallen on hard times, is slated to open its doors in May, and General Manager Rick Kinney could not be more excited to show the world what he thinks will be the town's new crown jewel.

"This was an 1,800-seat art deco theater that closed in 1993 and had been vacant ever since," Kinney said of the building, which was a gem in its day but had grown into a decrepit nesting spot for pigeons, with nothing but broken windows to show the outside world. Kinney, who was born in Los Angeles and moved to Fort Wayne at age 5 — where he went on to become a touring drummer, audio engineer, promoter and expert rigger — knew his town was missing a high-quality, SRO GA venue, so in 2010 he started looking for one.

In 2012 he found the vacant Clyde and did everything he could to get his hands on it, finally buying it at a tax sale for $500 that year. "Unbelievably it was structurally in great shape, but the inside had been gutted by previous owners who had torn out the historical features and never finished [the rehab]," he said, noting that the well-preserved roof had shielded the interior from weather damage. "I set out on a capital campaign and had to put together architectural blueprints to transform a vacant movie theater into a world-class GA music hall."

Kinney stopped traveling, took a job at the city's Embassy Theatre as a technical director to pay the bills and found a pair of guardian angels in Chuck and Lisa Surack, local philanthropists and owners of Fort Wayne-based Sweetwater, a leading online retailer of professional audio equipment. He says the couple made a "very generous" contribution to the refurbishment of the building, which, along with financial support from the city and state, helped him realize his dream.

"Rick is a bright young guy with a lot of passion, and he's just trying to make Fort Wayne better," Chuck Surack said. "The theater is a great old facility … and we saw an opportunity to turn it into something unique." Before all is said and done, Surack said, the initial $1.5 million investment he and his wife put down, along with a loan and some money from the city and state, will grow to an investment that is nearly twice what they anticipated.

What was planned as a $5 million rehab will be closer to $8 million by the time the doors open, with nearly half of that coming from the Suracks. "It will be a beautiful thing for the south-side area of town that people would like to see developed, and we're taking a lead position in bringing in other compatible properties." Surack said he and his wife have bought up three other properties in the same shopping center in an attempt to make the area a destination, with plans to fill the spaces with restaurants, coffee shops and other entertainment properties.

But first, there was a lot of dirty work to be done to get the Clyde up to snuff. Kinney had to rip out and replace all the electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems. He also installed more than $200,000 in acoustical plaster and treatments to make the room ready for concerts and added a 7,000-square-foot dressing room and artist hospitality wing to the back of the stage as well as a large production load in and load out area with two stage-level truck docks. "We brought it up to something that Fort Wayne, and probably the region, had never seen before," he said. "It is like an arena load in and load out, but for a 2,200 [capacity] GA concert hall."

After his years of traveling around and countless load ins and outs, Kinney knew what top-notch backstage areas looked like, and he helped design something that would be state-of-the-art not just for a venue of its size but, he promised, for any venue. The main performance hall has more than 21,000 square feet of floor space and will host concerts and be available for rent for community gatherings and special events on non-show days.

In addition to a brand new JBL A12 sound system, he also installed 9 cabs per side flown on the stage and what he called an "amazing rigging and lighting truss" that can handle the lighting and sound needs of national acts. The proof is in the bookings so far for the venue - which opens in early May - which include such headliners as Stone Sour, Fitz & the Tantrums, Chase Rice, and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.

"Usually these things get designed by an architect who doesn't have the hands-on experience [I have], and Sweetwater has put millions of dollars into buildings here in Fort Wayne - they have a huge campus here - so they had expertise as well," Kinney said. The Clyde will fill what he described as an obvious hole in the city's venue portfolio, fitting in between the historic 2,477-capacity seated Embassy Theatre, the 2,700-capacity outdoor seated Foellinger Theatre and the 13,000-capacity Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, as well as a handful of small rock clubs. What was missing, he said, was something in between that was not a seated theater or an arena.

The Clyde - located in Quimby Village on the southwest side of town - will be able to do 2,200 standing GA or 800 seated for more intimate shows. Booking is being done in-house in conjunction with Scott Hammontree, general manager and talent buyer for The Intersection in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I think we got some of those [initial big] bookings because we're so focused on production and artist hospitality and making sure logistically this venue is as accessible as a small arena as far as production goes," Kinney said. The response so far, he said, has been great, with "hundreds" of emails and calls since the press release announcing the venue was released earlier this week.

  • by Gil Kaufman
  • Published: February 28, 2018