The back side of this 1943 postmarked postcard reads “I am dancing at the Indiana Roof, beautiful combination Night Club and Ballroom, where Indianapolis dances every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.” (Image: eBay)
The Indiana Theatre stands guard over west Washington Street, between Illinois Street and Capitol Avenue, an eye-catching, terracotta-clad architectural confection, designed by famed Indianapolis firm Rubush & Hunter. Atop this historic former movie palace sits one of the most unique venues for special events in the city. Throngs of Indianapolitans have walked those vintage floors for wedding receptions, special awards ceremonies, or perhaps even at “The Snakepit Ball” beneath the starry, domed ceiling. Today’s visitors likely do not realize that the room has hosted some of the most famous names of the “big band” era, nor how perilously close the building came to being demolished during the decline of the city’s core in the 1970s.
The Indiana Roof ballroom was constructed atop the Indiana Theatre in 1926. The nearly 9,000 square foot dance floor is surrounded by a “Mediterranean Village,” allegedly inspired by In a Little Spanish Town, a popular song of the era. The dark blue sky is equipped with electric “stars” that simulate an evening sky. For over forty years, the Indiana Roof served as the venue for couples to dance the night away in Indianapolis. Its heyday was the aforementioned big band era of the 1940s and 1950s.
Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Bennie Goodman, and Guy Lombardo all played here. Recognize the names? The popular pops series performed by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra also began at the ballroom in 1952.
An interesting timeline of this era has been kept intact for all to see. Employees of the time created a written record of each act that performed at “The Roof” on a large wooden door that led to a storage area. Next to the name of the performer was a star rating and brief description of the show. What may have been considered a moderate act of vandalism by management at that time, is now a welcome reminder of the space’s rich history. The door is proudly on display for all to see, and is located just to the left of the stage near the entrance of the parking garage.
With the end of the big band era came the end of overcrowded weekend dances. Newer generations did not embrace the sound of swing or ballroom dancing, which lead ultimately to the demise of The Roof in 1971. The Indiana Theatre below, however, held on for a few more years, until United Artists merged their downtown movie theater operations to locate at the Circle Theater. Despite the best efforts of city leaders, downtown was declining, and the possibility of losing this landmark to demolition was real. Fortunately, a deal was struck for The Indiana Repertory Theater (IRT) to convert the building for their performances.
The Indiana Repertory Theater opened in 1980. Although the interior of the auditorium was heavily altered, the landmark was saved. The Indiana Roof ballroom, however, remained mothballed until an appropriate restoration could be financed. The ballroom finally reopened in 1986 after a renovation. Tony Bennett provided the entertainment on its grand re-opening night. Today, the Indiana Roof Ballroom serves as one of the premier venues for hosting special events in the city.