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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.

This postcard art shows dancing being advertised on the marquee of the Indiana Theater. The building on the left operated as the Capitol Theater until its closure in 1935. The artist chose to omit the Claypool Hotel that would have been to the immediate right. (courtesy ebay)

“Pictures” and “Dancing” headlined this former marquee at the Indiana Theatre. The building on the left operated as the Capitol Theater until its closure in 1935. The artist omits in this rendering, the massive Claypool Hotel that would have dwarfed the theater to the immediate right. (Image: eBay)

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.

indiana theatre

Indiana Theatre, designed by Rubush & Hunter, 1970. (Image: Library of Congress)

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.

The earth mingles with the twinkling stars during the 2014 International Citizen of the Year awards banquet (courtesy of The International Center)

The earth mingles with the twinkling stars during the 2014 International Citizen of the Year awards banquet. (Image: The International Center)

6 responses to “At Your Leisure: Dancing on the Roof”

  1. pam rubush barnes says:

    my grandfather was architect preston rubush of rubush and hunter. he designed
    the indiana theatre etc.

  2. Joan Hostetler says:

    Hi, Pam…I’d love to talk to you about your grandfather. I indexed the Rubush and Hunter Collection at the Indiana Historical Society and have always been fascinated with their work. Would like to know more about them as individuals. You can contact me at heritagephotoservices@gmail.com. Thanks!

  3. Therese Kamm says:

    Hi Jeff!

    Loved the article with all the pictures and historic information about the Indiana Roof Ballroom! So thankful IRT came to its rescue and had the foresight to preserve and restore it for future generations to enjoy. My parents (your grandparents) met at one of the early 1940’s “big band era” dances before World War II and would have truly enjoyed reading your article about its history. Thanks for the memories!

  4. Anonymous says:

    5

  5. Lady Mccrady says:

    The importance of Indy architecture can’t be overstressed, and the chic Indiana Ballroom was a legend for its Big Bands and dance crowds. 18-piece Harry McCrady and His Orchestra played there often and throughout Indiana in the 1940s, with vocalist Toni Benson. Harry McCrady invited Miles Davis and his musicians to Indianapolis to play at Westlake where they rolled back the roof as they played ‘Stardust’, and swam with Miles in the lake at Westlake. An Indy era of forefront African-American jazz musicianship in the thriving neighborhood of jazz clubs and community on the Avenue, few realize it was on a par with NYC, St Louis, and LA.

  6. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Hadn’t heard that about Westlake–especially since it was segregated. Thanks for sharing!

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