By Julie Dean Kessler
Original article here.
The house lights dim, voices hush, and the stage grabs everyone’s attention. A live show is about to begin, and the audience is primed for entertainment.
In Hammond, theater thrives. From small, intimate theaters to a spacious, state-of-the-art venue, there are plays, world-famous performers, variety shows and more to enjoy.
Serendipity had played a role in the 2003 opening of the Towle Theater. Managing director Jeff Casey recalls the search for a new theater site when former Hammond Mayor Duane Dedelow directed some of the town’s allotted revenue from Horseshoe Hammond Casino to revitalizing the downtown through the performing arts. The site of the historical 1903-built Hohman Opera House was vacant, with unexpected advantages: the connection to the arts, enough space, and storage space in a basement that was completely dry—unusual because of the area’s sandy soil.
The Towle, named for Hammond’s first mayor, Marcus Towle, opened with a mission unique to the Region, says Casey. “Having so many community theaters in Northwest Indiana is great, but it seemed unnecessary to do the same programming. So we are known for premiere work for lesser known or brand-new works. It’s been received very well because of great quality and compelling stories.”
Kevin Bellamy, director of administration, researches new works. Excitement is high for next month’s U.S. premiere of “The House of Mirrors and Hearts,” which premiered in London and whose writers will travel here for the second-ever performance run.
The Towle seats 120, “so you’re up close and personal; everyone loves it,” says Casey. John Morse, architect of Chicago’s Steppenwolf theater, designed the contemporary loft style that includes the 180-foot original brick wall where artists’ works are exhibited.
Casey, who founded the Northwest Indiana Excellence in Theatre Foundation and is an actor in area productions, exudes enthusiasm. “It’s such a pleasure and honor for us to present (new) quality work that typically you’d have to drive to Chicago to see,” he says.
The Venue at Horseshoe Casino
It’s an entertainment mecca for audiences craving world-class acts in music, magic, comedy and more. It’s a sound choice: “Artists including Paul Anka and Huey Lewis and the News have told us that the Venue is the best-sounding room they’ve played anywhere in the world. We take a lot of pride in that,” says David Feeley, director of entertainment and retail operations.
The $75 million, 2,500-seat Venue at Horseshoe Casino was designed with attention to excellence in acoustics and visibility, says Feeley. “Sound, layout, lights—it’s all far better than the ballroom-type setups that other places provide.”
“Our multi-million-dollar theater is specifically developed to house the best acts in the world,” he says. Upcoming dates include Penn & Teller and Hitz Boxing in July; Jill Scott, Jeff Dunham and Thunder from Down Under in August; and George Benson and Australian Pink Floyd in September. Feeley says people can know they’ll enjoy a show completely smoke-free.
The Venue room’s flexibility accommodates events from concerts to poker tournaments and more, with gatherings of a couple of hundred people to full-on banquets for 800 to 1,000.
The advantage extends beyond the state-of-the-art theater. “From a night out standpoint, it beats Chicago for convenience and price. For a lot of folks in Hammond and East Chicago areas, it can be quite the project to travel to Chicago to see some of their favorite artists. There’s traffic, paying for parking, figuring where to dine. The Venue is closer, there’s free parking, and you can indulge yourself with a world-class buffet and steakhouse, and immerse yourself in nearly 3,000 slots and 100 table games.”
The versatility of the Venue at Horseshoe means people can plan an entire hassle-free getaway.
Beatniks on Conkey/Hammond Community Theatre
Rip and Bonnie Johnson put together a triple play in theater productions, housing Beatniks Entertainment, Hammond Community Theatre, and Beatnik Babes.
“We try to keep it flexible and fun and fresh, presenting as diverse productions as we can,” says Rip, so the productions include variety shows, musical revues, and plays.
Beatniks Entertainment and Hammond Community Theatre (HCT) are resident theater companies. HCT was producing plays wherever the Hammond Parks Department had space. Now incorporated, HCT presents four plays each season at Beatniks on Conkey. This season there are three, for a combination of the two resident companies in a production of “Charlotte’s Web” July 22, 23 and 24, with a cast of about 20 adults and children. “It’s a perfect learning experience for younger and beginning actors, with a couple of very experienced actors.”
Friends of the Johnsons had asked to perform a play where the Johnsons had a property, the former Southtown Tap. That sparked an inspiration eight years ago for the Johnsons to open a coffee house there, where the former tavern and current coffee house foods allowed for performances in the non-theater-zoned area.
“Hordes of theater people helped us remodel,” recalls Rip, and the Johnsons expanded into the vacant next-door building for theater space. Now there’s a meeting hall, theater, lobby and reception area, with plans to expand the seating, currently at 60.
“We have a unique group, Beatnik Babes, that Kim Bernstein formed, part of Beatniks Entertainment,” Rip says. “Performances in spring and summer offer original variety shows with wonderfully talented people.” Proceeds help fund Beatniks on Conkey.
“When the audience is there and you’re performing, it’s an adrenaline rush, a thrill,” he says. “One of our favorite people said, ‘This is our clubhouse and we get to pretend and be kids again.’ It’s fun—that’s what Beatniks is.”