whatzup2nite • Wednesday, October 1

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Things To Do

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National Shows

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Music & Comedy

American Idol Karaoke w/Josh — Karaoke at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 422-5055

Comedy Open Mic/Improv — Hosted by Chagrin Comedy at Latch String, Fort Wayne, 8-9 p.m., no cover, 483-5526

Dueling Keyboard Boys (Paul & Brian) — Variety at 4D's, Fort Wayne, 7-10 p.m., no cover, 490-6488

Shut Up & Sing w/Michael Campbell — Karaoke at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., cover, 483-1311

Soul & Sun — Variety at CS3, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., $5, 456-7005

Karaoke & DJs

American Idol Karaoke w/Josh — Karaoke at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 422-5055

Shut Up & Sing w/Michael Campbell — Karaoke at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., cover, 483-1311

Stage & Dance

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Art & Artifacts

America’s Spirit: Evolution of a National Style — Collection drawn from FWMoA’s permanent collection chronicling American art from 1765-1900, Tuesday-Sunday thru Jan. 25, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467

Contemporary Realism Biennial — National invitational highlighting the strength and innovation of America’s current trends in realism, Tuesday-Sunday thru Nov. 30, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467

Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Craft — Arizona State University Art Museum and Ceramics Research Center in the Herberger Institute’s comprehensive collection of craft holdings and new international requisitions in wood, ceramic and fiber, Tuesday-Sunday thru Dec. 21, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467

The Next Generation — Works by high school and college art students, daily thru Oct. 5, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102

Featured Events

Fort Wayne Dance Collective — Workshops and classes for movement, dance, yoga and more offered by Fort Wayne Dance Collective, Fort Wayne, fees vary, 424-6574

IPFW Community Arts AcademyArt, dance, music and theatre classes for grades pre-K through 12 offered by IPFW College of Visual and Performing Arts, fees vary, 481-6977,

Sweetwater Academy of Music — Private lessons for a variety of instruments available from professional instructors, ongoing weekly lessons, Sweetwater Sound, Fort Wayne, $100 per month, 432-8176 ext. 1961,


Lesbian Gay Dinner Dance

6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4
Grand Wayne Convention Center
120 W. Jefferson Blvd.,
Fort Wayne
Tix: $10 dance,
$50 dinner & dance, 260-744-1144

Lesbian Gay Dinner Dance

Dancing in the Dark No More

Early fall brings with it a remarkable variety of social events and performances, providing an eclectic offering for those in Fort Wayne looking for something to do. For the last 25 years the Lesbian Gay Dinner Dance has been a highlight of the first Saturday in October, and once again this year the event takes place in the main hall of the Grand Wayne Center.

The event was originally established as a fundraiser for the AIDS Task Force, a groundbreaking organization when it first appeared in the area during a time of crisis in the AIDS epidemic. The inaugural dinner dance attracted 50 people to its original site in the women’s room of the Chamber of Commerce building. Since that time there has been both tremendous growth and some waning attendance. At one point attendance grew to over 1,000 but has settled in recent years to about half that. Photographer David Kirk, an AIDS Task Force board member and event committee member, has seen it all in the last quarter century.

“I started going the second year of the event, so I was participating long before I was officially involved. But since I was a photographer, I used to set up and take pictures because many of those attending didn’t feel comfortable going anywhere else. Now, of course, it’s much more accepted, and people come with their phones and their own video cameras, so I don’t need to do that anymore.”

Those changes in attitudes, not to mention changes in the perception and severity of the AIDS epidemic, have been a double-edged sword. On the plus side, the social stigma of being gay in northeast Indiana has made an event dedicated to being open with others and dining out with a partner less necessary. And less problematic on many other levels.

“In those early years, people were terrified to go to a place like the Grand Wayne Center attending a gay event. People would take circuitous routes to go in so they wouldn’t be seen. And taking a camera in would be the last thing you’d consider doing. But now people walk in with their own cameras and there isn’t any worry about it. Hey, people are getting married now!”

In fact, Kirk wed his own partner Michael in a ceremony just hours before the window closed, during the days of June 25-27 when the marriage ban was lifted just long enough for many couples to exchange vows. During that time, as they stood in line to marry, Kirk and his husband-to-be were approached by a newspaper writer asking to take their photo and ask some questions.

“We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Sure,’ and just a couple of years ago we never would have done that. So that goes to show how much things have changed in just a couple years.”

The downside of that is many also no longer fear AIDS as they once did, leaving them somewhat ambivalent about attending a fundraiser.

“A lot of our younger people think AIDS isn’t that big of a deal. They don’t remember what it was like to have your friends die. They don’t have the mindset to support it anymore, so we’re trying to reach out to the younger crowd to let them know what the AIDS Task Force does so we can get the word out.”

And while it’s true that the AIDS virus need no longer be an automatic death sentence, there is still much to be done, and the local AIDS Task Force has much to do and much to fund.

“The task force serves 400 clients in 14 counties,” says Kirk. “So it’s not just Allen County we’re dealing with, it’s a large group of counties. The need for funding is certainly there. We have 20 people on our staff, so there are budgetary problems. We have so many people who need assistance, who need help getting their medications. And among the goals of the task force is to help educate the public. I think with our new director [Jeffrey Markley] we’re taking steps in that direction. We’re the only agency in town that does that work, and we were the first agency of its kind in Indiana.”

While there’s important work to be done, the event which promises to fund those services is anything but work. The evening begins with cocktails and socializing before the dinner is served, followed by a short program. This year’s speakers will address the significant changes and progress in marriage equality this year, a timely and historic topic for everyone. A new DJ will get people on the dance floor while a silent auction will continue throughout the evening. A live auction will also feature larger prizes like vacation getaways.

Although one of the original goals of the Lesbian Gay Dinner Dance was to provide a safe semi-formal occasion for couples who were otherwise afraid to be seen in public, the current lack of secrecy and the growing support of the straight population have made this a “come one, come all” event. Kirk says the tagline for this year is “Everyone Is Welcome, No Matter Who They Love.” Making things even easier is a new online ticket site,, which provides a convenient way to join the fun.

Kirk says another added attraction this year is the return of the Bag Ladies of Indianapolis, a group he says he just learned about a couple years ago himself.

“They’re a group of guys who dress in drag, but they don’t try to make themselves pretty. They really do caricatures and help raise money for AIDS related causes. We had them here last year, and the crowd just loved them. They really know how to work a crowd, and they know how to make some money.”

Which, when all the dining and dancing is done, is the event’s most important outcome. 

Michele DeVinney

B.B. King

Prime and Twilight Time

One note. That’s all it takes to recognize B.B. King. At least that’s all Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana and several other of the world’s great guitar players need. One note. One note to recognize the King of the Blues and his famous guitar, Lucille. One note to evoke any of a hundred songs. One note to bring on the blues in the best possible way. One note to realize that greatness is in the house.

Thankfully, we’ll get to hear far more than one note when Riley B. King and the great Robert Cray take the stage at the Embassy Theater on Wednesday October 8.

B.B. King turned 89 the other day, and the show is being advertised as his last trip to the Summit City, with the implication being he may stop touring elsewhere as well. But that’s news to Robert Cray.

“I haven’t heard that,” Cray told me in a phone interview. “As far as I know I don’t think he’s ever going to quit. They’ll have to drag him off the stage.”

Cray should know. He’s played with B.B. King many times and will probably do a number or two with King after his band, The Robert Cray Band, wraps up its set. And if ever there were a band to open for B.B. King, it’s Robert Cray’s. Between them they have amassed 21 Grammy Awards, including King’s 1987 Lifetime Achievement Award (I think they owe him another one of those), released some 60 albums and played thousands of shows. In 1956 alone, King and his band played 342 performances.

While reviews of recent B.B. King concerts depict a man past his prime (at 89 who wouldn’t be?), Cray is smack in the middle of his. His 17th CD, In My Soul, released in April of this year, is as strong as any he’s recorded. With his band – longtime bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Dover Weinberg (returning to the group following a long absence) and new drummer Les Falconer – Cray keeps on putting out inventive, top-notch stuff. He said the songs on In My Soul, produced by Steve Jordan, fell together with surprising ease.

“I’ve done two previous records with Steve Jordan,” Cray said. “He’s just great to work with. Steve is a great organizer. Everybody has the utmost respect for him. He makes everyone so comfortable in the studio. We had a ball. He played on a bunch of stuff also, so it was like having a fifth member in the band.”

Cray has always played with a lot of soul, whether he’s playing blues or R&B tunes, but he was surprised when the In My Soul sessions began to find that he and everyone else brought songs that were so soulful.

“It just happened,” Cray said. “I was in contact with Steve, and like most producers he was looking for new material. He suggested (Otis Redding’s) ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine,’ and then he thought of (the Isaac Hayes/David Porter song) ‘Your Good Thing is About To End.’ But then the rest of the guys were writing soul songs too. We had all this soul material. That just happened. Then ‘Deep In My Soul’ (Bobby Blue Bland) that just came up in the studio.”

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing on, said the song “Fine Yesterday” “is so gorgeous it makes heartbreak seem welcome.”

Cray, who was born in 1953, said the first time he heard the Beatles, he wanted to be George Harrison. Then when he heard Jimi Hendrix, he wanted to be him. But then the blues got hold of him, and he wound up being Robert Cray – which has turned out to be just fine.

The Robert Cray Band released two albums in the early 1980s. Both were well received critically. But their third record,  Strong Persuader, blew everyone away. The songs “Smoking Gun” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me)” peaked at No. 2 and No. 27 respectively on the Mainstream Rock charts. “Smoking Gun” earned him his first of five Grammys. After that Cray and his band continued to wow audiences and critics with exceptional guitar playing and singing.

He is the youngest living musician to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In 1978, while living in Eugene, Oregon, he got a role in Animal House as the bass player for the fictional band Otis Day & the Knights.

“I had to borrow Richard Cousins’ bass,” he said. “They had already cast the guitar player.”

With a live album slated for release in the fall, Cray is not about to slow down. But for King, the slowing began a few years ago. And why shouldn’t it? King has been the world’s most famous blues musician for half a century, if not more. His generosity with his time and talent is unmatched.

Born in a cabin on a Mississippi cotton plantation in 1925, King went to Memphis 23 years later to start his career as a guitar player. He had followed the guitarist (and his mother’s first cousin) Bukka White to the blues city in Tennessee. King made his first recordings with Sam Phillips who later started Sun Records.

His first big break came when in 1948 he played on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show out of West Memphis. That led to more and more gigs. And while there were plenty of guitar players around in those days, each hoping to make his mark, the style King developed – playing single notes with left-hand vibrato – caught the ears of listeners, possibly because of its voice-like quality.

What King calls his “breakthrough moment,” however, came at a show in the late 1960s in San Francisco in front of an all-white audience at the Fillmore. King thought he was at the wrong gig. But later he discovered that the influence he and other black blues players had on white musicians like Peter Green and Eric Clapton had introduced the blues to a new and eager audience. King also got help from Frank Sinatra who helped open doors in Las Vegas clubs that had previously been closed to black musicians.

In the 1990s King began opening doors of his own. He now has five blues clubs around the country. There’s a Youtube video of the Robert Cray Band playing at B.B. King’s in New York City in March of this year.

The show at the Embassy will be a great chance to see two remarkable musicians, one in his prime, one in his twilight, but both in the heart and soul of the blues. 

Mark Hunter

Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra

Grand Masters of Funk

It’s fitting that this year’s Battle of the Bands XI competition ended on September 11. Normally, the competition doesn’t stretch into the last few weeks leading up to the official start of autumn, but there was uncertainty as to whether or not there would be a Battle of the Bands XI this year. 

With whatzup scaling back its involvement this year, it was left to Richard Reprogle of Columbia Street West and Bob Roets of Wooden Nickel Records to organize and manage the competition, now in its 11th year.

That meant some changes, including a screening process in order to ensure that there would be a certain quality to the bands that would perform rather than the come one-come all approach of previous years. 

Reprogle said that if he saw a positive attitude in what the bands wrote down in their description on the application, and if he was already familiar with them, they would stand a greater chance of being allowed to participate. 

“I made a lot of phone calls, and we got a few bands that I didn’t know, but most of them I knew and already had a relationship with them,” Reprogle said.

The quality-over-quantity approach seemed to work, at least according to Roets, who said this year’s competition was among the best he’s seen in the seven years he has been a judge. 

The competition’s eventual winners, Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra would probably agree, as band leader Aaron King acknowleged in an interview some weeks ago that “the competition we’re going against is no joke.”

Nor are Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra. For a nine-member orchestra that’s only about six months old at this point, the group has already distinguished themselves in the local music scene as being one of the premiere acts of their chosen genre. With a single, “Elevatin’ the Funk,” and a victory in this season’s Battle of the Bands XI competition, the group has achieved some remarkable  feats in a relatively short amount of time. 

“It has really morphed into something even bigger than what I anticipated, and it’s been a lot quicker than I anticipated too,” King said, “We did Rock the Plaza with the Freak Brothers, we did a show with Hillbilly Casino, and we did a show with Orgone at the Botanical Conservatory. Those are pretty big shows for somebody just starting out.”

King describes the Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra as having more of a hip-hop feel while retaining the characteristics of classic funk. The group performs original tunes composed in the style of classic P-funk (a term coined by funk legends, Parliament-Funkadelic) as well as covers of classic gangsta funk hits to give their setlist more variety and accessibility. 

King believes the audience responds better to the band’s original material.

“Everybody wrote out their own part, and it just fits like a glove,” he said. “It’s genuine, and it’s really the music that we’re feeling.”

Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra consists of nine members, all of whom are veterans of the local music scene. Handling percussion are Jamont Simmons on drums, Dave Latchaw on piano, Will Brown on congos and Drake Bates on bass. The horn section includes Aaron King on trombone (and the occasional rap verse), Jason Westerman on trumpet and Quincy Sanders on alto and soprano saxophones. To round out the lineup, Dave “Catfish” Pagan plays guitar and sings backing vocals, and Tony Didier sings lead vocals.

Didier was the first person King contacted about forming Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra earlier this year, and from there it was just a matter of seeing who else he knew that would be on board to join the band. 

According to King, not a whole lot of persuasion was necessary to form this supergroup of sorts. 

“It didn’t even seem like a question. It seemed like it was meant to be.”

It helped that King was looking for personalities that would fit, as well as musical chops.

“I really wanted to put together a conglomerate of the best people I knew, and not just good players, but people who were low maintenance and are easy to get along with,” he said.

“That’s why to me it’s so special, because there’s no drama. Nobody’s bringing any outside garbage into our organization. Everybody here is real low key. They all work hard and play their butts off, and that’s my favorite part of it,” he said.

Cooperation among band members also means that writing songs is a collaborative effort where no one member is responsible for writing all of the music. According to King, everything the audience hears the band perform was written by the people playing it. 

The work ethic of the members and lack of internal drama has contributed towards the band’s success, but that doesn’t mean they don’t encounter some challenges along the way.

Latchaw said that one of the challenges includes finding enough time to practice.

“We’re all busy, and we have a lot of projects going, but when you have this collection of people, there’s a lot of us to organize. So the size of the band, that’s a bit of a challenge. But it’s an orchestra,” he laughed.

Early on in Battle of the Bands XI, Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra made an impression with both audiences and judges. One distinction that set them apart from other competitors was the fact that they were the only funk band competing this year. Another distinctive element was their years of experience on stage. 

“They all represent some of the finest artists in their particular instrument in town and to get them all together and on stage is great,” says Roets. “When they’re in the groove, it’s a great thing to see.”

The battle may be finished, but Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra have more gigs lined up in the coming months, performing at venues such as the Phoenix, Rack and Helens in New Haven, Piggy’s in Angola and yes, Columbia Street West. They have also been working on writing, organizing and rehearsing enough original material for a full-length LP which King hopes to release by summer 2015.

For now, the group feels blessed to have won Battle of the Bands with such formidable contenders in the mix. 

Colin McCallister

The Lion, The Witch
and The Wardrobe

A Classic Season Kick-Off

For all the lamenting about the fate of the book industry, there is no denying that for many of us there is nothing more satisfying than a good read. Never is that more true than in childhood where, despite all the video and computer options out there, kids are still more than happy to listen to their favorite grownups read to them and later, when they can, read to themselves. The sharing of one’s favorite childhood books with another generation keeps them alive in our own hearts forever.

Among the classics that have charmed children and adults alike for decades are books from the 1950s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and among that classic set of stories,The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is perhaps the most beloved. Included by Time magazine on a list of the 100 best novels of all time, C.S. Lewis captured a magical and fantastical world which speaks to people of all ages, in all eras.

   A book with that rich history is a perfect choice to kick off Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s own historical season, one in which they celebrate 80 years of providing creative education for young actors while performing remarkably professional shows for its audience. Leslie Hormann, executive director of Youtheatre, says it’s a perfect way to begin celebrating their anniversary.

“It’s just an incredibly popular story. The book is popular, the [2005] movie is popular, and it’s always a popular choice on our audience surveys of what they’d like to see us do. When we were choosing shows for our 80th anniversary, we wanted to feature ones that we hadn’t done in 20 or more years.”

Hormann has a history of her own at Youtheatre. She herself was a student and performer there before later becoming known as Doc West’s radio partner and later rejoining Youtheatre as director. But those years there did not include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, since it was performed after her years as a student and before her current position began. There’s also another first for her in this production, one involving the legendary Harvey Cocks.

“I have always wanted to direct Harvey in a show, and this was my chance, so that was a big attraction for this show. He’s going to play the Professor which is perfect for him. We also have Jim Clauser playing Father Christmas and Ennis Brown playing Aslan, and with his big booming voice that’s going to be great.”

Those three adult actors will join dozens of youngsters, the youngest among them eight years old. There is, as always, a lot of diversity among a cast that is slightly larger than Hormann had originally intended.

“I had thought I would do this one smaller, but we had 187 kids audition which was crazy. So I thought, I can’t do this, I need to cast more kids. So we ended up with 46. But I did cast a more mature group because this isn’t a fairy tale-ish show. There are some pretty mature elements to the story. But I think what makes the show so popular are the themes: good versus evil and sacrificing for the greater good. There are some incredible scenes, and I look for scenes that we can act out through dance. There are two big scenes – the slaying of Aslan and the final battle – that really work well with dance and with such a big cast.”

The show not only kicks off the season for Fort Wayne Youtheatre, it provides the first of several celebrations associated with its 80th anniversary. Following the Saturday, October 4 performance, which begins at 11 a.m., there will be a birthday party for Youtheatre, one which is open even to folks who haven’t attended the performance. The gathering, which will take place in the gallery of the Arts United Center, will feature what Hormann calls “a family reunion,” a get-together of Youtheatre alumni.

“It really is a family because if a child is in the program, the whole family gets involved. For this show I had three siblings audition. Two of them were cast, and the third is on our stage crew while the mom is volunteering. So everyone does get involved, and it becomes a big family.”

Other upcoming shows for the 80th anniversary include December performances of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, a classic Hans Christian Andersen tale adapted for the Youtheatre stage by Harvey Cocks, and on a more serious note The Boy From Kokomo: The Ryan White Story.

“This year is the 25th anniversary of Ryan White’s death so it’s a milestone in the fight against AIDS,” says Hormann. “There’s a generation that doesn’t even know that at one time AIDS was considered a death sentence or that there was a time when a kid in Indiana wasn’t allowed to go to school because he was infected. Greg Stieber, who used to work for us in our outreach and education and is now with the Fort Wayne Ballet, wrote it, and it’s really a great story.”

Speaking of Fort Wayne Ballet, Youtheatre’s recent collaboration with them for the first annual Fairy Tale Fest in May proved a big success and helped the ballet expand its audience with three packed audiences. Hormann, who admits a fondness for dance in her own directorial work, enjoys collaborating with both the ballet and with Fort Wayne Dance Collective. In fact, Hormann performed in FWDC’s own recent fundraiser, proving her own performance days are not yet behind her. And with Cocks still going strong at 89, he serves as an example for her.

“Theatre keeps you young, and mentoring children keeps you young. Working with children is one of the best ways of staying youthful, and Harvey is still so spry at 89. It’s a lesson for all of us.”

Michele DeVinney

Annie Moses Band


The Annie Moses Band is a family affair through and through. Led by frontwoman Annie Wolaver Dupre, this seven-piece band, which took its name from the members’ pioneering great-grandmother, will be at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert Saturday, October 4 at 7:30 p.m., giving audiences a taste of their take on Americana, folk, Appalachian bluegrass, jazz and roots music.

Made up of six Wolaver siblings and one sibling-in-law – Wolaver Dupre (vocals), Alex (viola), Ben (cello), Camille (harp), Gretchen (violin/mandolin/guitar), Jeremiah (electric guitar) and Berklee (vocals) – the band will be in Van Wert as part of their Rhapsody in Blue Grass Tour.

According to Wolaver Dupre, the new album (the group’s 12th) is an attempt to “cover the scope of the American musical landscape.” It features favorites by American composers Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, among others. 

“We can’t wait to share this experience with audiences,” said Wolaver Dupre.

The Julliard-trained Wolaver clan began performing together in 2001 and quickly gained a reputation for high-energy live shows that spotlight the young musicians’ talent and passion, two things they seem to have inherited from their parents. Robin and Bill Wolaver are musicians in their own right, and achieved fame in 1988 when country legend Sandy Patti made their song, “Make His Praise Glorious,” a No. 1 Christian radio hit.

Annie Moses worked in the cotton fields of Depression-era Texas. She also worked hard to nurture Robin’s musical talent, and Robin was determined that her children would likewise grow up surrounded by song. Wolaver Dupre told CBN that The Annie Moses Band is a celebration of four generations of that legacy. 

“Hopefully [we’re] creating something that’s a very powerful message for our generation,” she said.

Charlie Daniels Band


At 77, Charlie Daniels, the man and pen and fiddle behind 70s mega cross-over hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” is still touring, and he’s bringing The Charlie Daniels Band to T. Furth Center for Performing Arts on the campus of Trine University Saturday, October 4.

The bushy-bearded, cowboy-upped Daniels grew up in North Carolina and was exposed to gospel, bluegrass, R&B and country from a very young age. As a teenager he was already an accomplished fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin player. He cut his teeth playing for others – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams Jr. and The Marshall Tucker Band, to name a few – but finally hit it big when he formed his own eponymous band in the mid-70s and released that song about a fiddler and the devil and their activities down Georgia way.

The Charlie Daniels Band snagged a Grammy for that one, not to mention some serious fame when the song was selected for the soundtrack of the film Urban Cowboy.

Decades later and Daniels is not about to slow down. And while he might be more famous at the moment for his political activities (he has a book out titled Ain’t No Rag: Freedom, Family and the Flag), there’s no question that the man can still play. When it comes to fiddlin’, he just might be the best there’s ever been.

Jim Nelson

Natural Born Performer

As the oldest of five children, Jim Nelson learned to be “loud and noticeable” from an early age. In fact, he says, “I was pretty dramatic from the get-go.”

His dramatic personality translated naturally into theater performance.

“I think I was interested in performing the moment I took my first breath,” Nelson says. “I used to watch TV shows and make up my own scenes based on them and impose on friends to play them out.”

He was a fan of “campy sci-fi” shows such as Lost in Space and Land of the Giants. He also did a mean imitation of Walter Brennan’s walk from the 1950s sitcom The Real McCoys.

His penchant for the spotlight wasn’t born just out of a need to be noticed, however. It was bred into him. “My mother performed and took acting classes when she was very young,” he says. “My paternal grandfather, Raleigh Nelson, was a comedian in the Vaudeville circuit. He was ornery and had the biggest, heartiest laugh of anyone I’ve known.”

He attended local shows from a young age, starting with a Youtheatre production that featured a classmate of his. He says the first “big person” show he saw was Hello, Dolly! starring Rosy Ridenour (Dolly), the late Wayne Schaltenbrand (Cornelius) and Dan Butler (Barnaby) at the now-defunct Franke Park Outdoor Theatre.

As much as he appreciated attending theater, Nelson was surprisingly late to the game of performing himself. He attended Elmhurst High School but did not participate in any school productions, and his first theatrical audition – for Pal Joey at Arena Dinner Theatre – was less than stellar. 

“I didn’t make it,” he says. “I made the mistake of going in without really knowing what I was doing, including singing a song that didn’t fit me or the show. Live and learn.”

And learn, he did. 

“I took tap, ballet, and jazz at the Fort Wayne Ballet so I could work on becoming good chorus material,” he says. This led to an audition for The Music Man at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre in 1976, and he was cast as a featured dancer.

Under director Richard Casey and choreographer Mary K. Perkins, he worked harder than he ever had before. “We were there every night, Sunday through Friday, rehearsing our hearts out,” he recalls. “I made lifelong friends from that experience.”

In addition to the friendships he made, he learned the value of discipline and hard work in putting a production together. 

“You were expected to be on time, warmed up and ready to go at the start of the rehearsal,” he says. “Being sick was not an option. If you slacked, your reputation suffered. I cherish that about [Casey] because he modeled and nurtured a respect for the work. He had high expectations and held you responsible.”

The lessons sometimes came with a price. 

“The downside was he didn’t seem to have a lot of respect for your ‘day job,’” he says. “Tech rehearsals could last until 2 a.m., and I had to be at work six hours later.”

Nelson says that although directors in Fort Wayne no longer hold such rigid standards (a positive thing, he says), he still owes a lot to directors like Dick Casey and Larry Life “for showing me the sweat it takes to put on a production.”

Nelson continued his theater education, earning a bachelor of arts in theatre/performance from IPFW in 1988. He decided not to make theater his life’s work, however, and earned a masters degree from Ball State University in speech-language pathology in 1996.

Today he works in the public school system, but he says speech therapy and theater have a lot in common. 

“What I feel I use most frequently [in my job] is theatricality to keep my kids interested and challenged with what they are doing,” he says. “If [a session is] getting too serious or bogged down, I try to raise the mood with a more animated, fun activity which is entertaining and educational.”

In the meantime, Nelson has continued performing as a hobby. He has worked with the majority of the city’s theaters, but he considers Arena Dinner Theatre his “home base.”

“I love the intimacy of [Arena],” he says. “I love the people who work there, on the board, in the shop and in the box office. The executive director [Brian Wagner] is one of my best friends. They work very hard to produce quality theater.”

He also has fond memories of working with the IPFW Dept. of Theatre over the years. “I especially loved working with Larry Life, because we did some timely and sometimes controversial theatre,” he says. “Many of the shows sparked emotions and created dialogue, which is what theatre is supposed to do.”

In 1986 they staged The Normal Heart. 

“It was a new play about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in New York City and how it impacted a group of gay men,” he says. “That was an amazing, emotional and satisfying experience, and I learned so much from it. My character, Mickey, has a nervous breakdown on stage during Act 2, and Larry guided me every step of the way during that scene. I had never done anything that dramatic in my life. Emotionally, it opened a lot of doors for me acting-wise. I wanted to test my limits.”

His limits were tested during one performance on a night when emotions were running particularly high. “I could feel myself going over the edge a bit,” he says. “It was scary, but Larry told me later, ‘Now you know how far is too far.’”

Another space he loves is First Presbyterian Theater where he was cast in the lead role in the 2014-15 season opener The Foreigner.

With all the roles he’s played over the years (he estimates it’s been between 60 and 80), he says that choosing his favorite role “is like asking which kid is my favorite.”

He cites the role of Sam Byck in the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins as his most emotionally challenging. “Sam Byck attempted and failed to kill Richard Nixon in 1974 by attempting to hijack a jet and crashing it into the White House,” Nelson says. “He made audiotapes to send to famous people, and the rage level in these monologues went from zero to 60 within a matter of seconds and then back down to zero just as quickly. He was tough. Fun, but tough.”

His current character – Charlie in The Foreigner – is a completely different animal from Sam Byck. In the early stages of rehearsals, he says, he worked to “map out Charlie’s character growth from the beginning of the play – ‘shatteringly, profoundly boring’ – to the end when he has come into his own.”

As rehearsals commenced, he collaborated with director Christopher J. Murphy to find more character nuances together. “Rehearsals are a great place to play and try different ideas,” he says.

Nelson has collaborated with Murphy many times over the years. 

“I love working with Chris,” he says. “I trust him and his vision, and I always know he will do what it takes to make a production everything it should be.”

He refers to the cast – which includes theatre veterans Susan Domer, Emily Arata, Joel Grillo, Reid Henry, Robb Scrimm, and Adam Kelley – as “a very creative bunch” and says the set has “a very fun, relaxed atmosphere.”

As experienced an actor as Nelson is, he still gets nervous at auditions. “I just tell myself to keep my head on and do [my] best,” he says. “The director is just trying to get a sense of you as a character. It’s not a full-blown performance, and they aren’t expecting one.”

Performances aren’t honed even in the early stage of rehearsals. It can take weeks for the actors to feel comfortable in their character’s skin and to discover how they fit into the world of the play. Nelson says in the beginning of rehearsal he concentrates most of his effort on learning his lines. As the lines become more ingrained, he begins finding his own personal connection with his character. 

“That’s my way in,” he says, “and then I build off of that.”

Nelson says the true satisfaction of acting is delving into a character and discovering and building his relationships with other characters. 

“I love actors who come prepared to work and aren’t afraid to play and try things,” he says. “Fort Wayne has a great community of actors, and I feel very lucky to get the opportunity to work with so many of them.”

Jen Poiry-Prough


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