With three active burlesque troupes in Indianapolis, we seem be to in the midst of a burlesque revival. While the average person equates burlesque with strippers, the art form started in the late 17th century as a form of parody with humorous dramatic, musical, or literary works mocking and caricaturing more serious works. By the 1860s burlesque came to America and during the height of popularity (1890s through the 1940s) the popular performances were often presented in a variety show format in clubs and theaters. The shows featured bawdy humor, two-person acts, comedians, musical acts, and seductive dances and teases performed by shapely ladies wearing risqué costumes.

According to Howard Caldwell in The Golden Age of Indianapolis Theaters, burlesque started in Indianapolis in the Empire Theatre on Wabash Street in 1892.

Lately I’ve been fascinated with some bird’s-eye views of Indianapolis at the Library of Congress. In 1907 a photographer from the Detroit Publishing Company climbed up the clock tower stairs of the Marion County Courthouse and made at least four views looking over the city. The amazingly clear glass negatives provide a great view of buildings, and show some that were rarely photographed. This image looks northwest from the Courthouse toward the intersection of Market and Delaware Streets. In the middle of the block is Empire Theatre which was tucked away in a narrow alley (today named Wabash Street) making it difficult to photograph the building from the front at ground level. (Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company glass negative, 1907)

The Empire Theatre is clearly seen from this high elevation. The building was constructed by the Heuck Opera House Company from Cincinatti, Ohio and managed by James E. Fennessey, Charles, Zimmerman, and Henry K. Burton. In its nearly thirty year existence, the 2,000 seat theater hosted opera, burlesque shows, dancers, wrestling matches, dramatic readings, vaudeville acts, and later moving pictures. (detail, 1907)

By the mid-1910s the name changed to Columbia Theatre, as seen in this 1920 view looking west on Wabash Street from Delaware Street. An advertisement from 1914 states that moving pictures were played every Sunday. With a national press and religious backlash against increasingly racy performances, along with the enactment of Prohibition, many burlesque theaters closed in the 1920s and ‘30s. In early 1920 Wheeler City Rescue Mission, a Christian social service organization that helped the homeless and needy (and still operates today), rented the building by the month and used the stage for religious speakers and traveling evangelist shows. One can imagine that their staff and board felt that this was a more worthy and wholesome purpose for the theater. (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Co., #70339)

Newspaper ads indicate that after Wheeler City Rescue Mission left in the early 1920s, the theatre once again became a burlesque theater. By 1931 the structure was known as the Empire Garage. Alterations included removal of the decorative brickwork and arched windows near the roofline. (Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Co., #220276)

Surprisingly the old theater building still stands, but is merely a shell as the interior was stripped decades ago. Although the arched entrance still exists, the balcony is gone and most of the windows are bricked in. Note that the faded and rusty old signs appear to be quite old.

For several decades the old theater building has been a garage and today it is managed by Management Trust as a monthly parking garage for downtown workers. (Current photos by Joan Hostetler, November 23, 2011)

[Would you like to see your old photographs featured in this Then and Now column? If so, attach a high resolution jpeg or png and any details about the building within our “Say Hi” link in the footer of our website.]


5 responses to “Then and Now: Empire Theatre, 126 Wabash Street”

  1. Jeff Downer Indianapolis says:

    Those downtown alley ways (streets) were at on time a thriving part of the downtown scene. Just a few doors down Wabash from the theater was the Cozy, perhaps my all time favorite watering hole. It remained on Wabash through the late 1990’s.,

  2. Dave Brewer says:

    This past year, I found a couple of old ledger books at the Midland Antique Mall that someone had used as scrapbooks of newspaper clippings for the different acts appearing at this theater. They all dated from around 1914-1916, if I recall correctly. The price was a little high for me, so I passed on them. I stopped by there last Wednesday and saw one of them had been put on hold up at the front desk. Hopefully they’ll go to a good home.

    Dave Brewer

  3. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    Those were from Keith’s and were purchased at the estate sale of Robert Braun, former president of Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (now Indiana Landmarks)–I had wanted to buy them but had to leave before they made it to the auction block. 🙁 I knew a Midland dealer had bought them because someone else told me soon after they’d seen the books at Midland.

  4. DavidE says:

    I added this theatre at Cinema Treasures and they were able to proivide added information: “Seating was provided for 1,010″, and ” it was screening moving pictures on Thomas Edison’s Vitascope. It was renamed Columbia Theatre in 1913 and was offering burlesque, with films playing every Sunday. Just before its closure in 1923, it went back to its original Empire Theatre name. One of its final attractions was headed by a young Ethel Waters.” For the full listing see:

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