By Sheryl Krieg of The News-Sentinel
When the Gaiety Theater opened in April 1909, it featured a Wild West show with real Sioux Indians. Located at 1033 S. Calhoun St., the Gaiety was one of several local vaudeville theaters that vied for the almighty dime of Fort Wayne patrons during the second decade of this century.
Even though vaudeville dates back to saloon and casino riverboat shows in the 1800s, it wasn't until the early 1900s that vaudeville established itself.
Vaudeville encompassed everything from acrobatic stunts to song-and-dance teams. Local vaudeville houses didn't hesitate to use well-known names and gimmicks to lure audiences.
The Lyric, which opened in 1908 at 1014 S. Calhoun St., booked such acts. Hermann the Great impressed the audience with his magic tricks and illusions. LaVerne & Grimm, Agnes Martin, Skinny LaMont and Harrington & Lane were well-known for their comedy sketches. Tate & Tate literally flipped for the crowds with their acrobatic act. The Washburn Sisters and the Pearson Trio danced their way across the stage. Athletic feats were performed by Buel & DeMaris. George Weichman gave clay-modeling demonstrations.
By the 1920s, as interest in vaudeville waned, the Lyric became a burlesque house.
When the Majestic Theater opened in 1904 at 216 E. Berry St., it was well-noted for its acoustics. Sarah Bernhardt and the Barrymores played there in the Majestic's heyday.
Milton Rice, who was a theater veteran and one of the builders, managed the Majestic. Rice was known for his eccentricity, and he proved to be more entertaining than the actors and actresses who played here.
He had the orchestra play "The Star-Spangled Banner" after every play. Rice also once halted a play when he found out the lead actor, without permission, put a substitute in his own role while he sat in the audience. The two were eventually switched, much to the bewilderment of the audience, and the play continued.
Vaudeville shows at the Majestic eventually gave way to movie shorts during the teens. There were occasional acts, such as the Bailhe Trio, but interest in live performances, which could be seen for between 10 and 50 cents, dwindled. The Majestic also became a burlesque house, and it was demolished in 1957 to make a home for Wolf & Dessauer's department store.
The Empress Theatre opened in 1912. This 1,300-seat theater, on the southwest corner of Wayne and Clinton streets, was managed by Harvey Porter, who coined the phrase, "The Empress, where everybody goes." Popular stock-company actresses such as Ollie Eaton performed there.
The name of the theater was later changed to the Strand. The Strand closed in 1918 for renovations. When it reopened, a two-week-long cooking show with Lulu Silvernail was featured.
But the real cream of the crop was the Palace Theater, at 126 E. Washington Blvd. Built in neo-classical French style, it had a marble showcase and fountain at the entrance, and it was more elaborate even than the Embassy Theatre. Mary Marble & Sam Chip, F. Russell Gilbert, Italian minstrels and Japanese jugglers delighted all on its opening night in January 1915.
The Palace had more seats and could offer more acts for less money. Matinees were 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. The private box seats, which surrounded the lower balcony and auditorium, were $1. Evening show prices were 25, 35 and 50 cents.
Other performers to play the Palace included the song-and-dance team Stuart & Keeley, singers Sophie Tucker and Al Shayne, and comedy by the Keatons and the Cliff Dean Players.
Movies eventually squeezed vaudeville out of the Palace as well.