Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Courtesy Pulse Opera House in Warren is in its 31st season in a renovated 1884 theater.

  • Courtesy Wells Community Theater is producing “The Addams Family” this summer. The cast of Pulse Opera House's 2015 production of "The Addams Family" includes, front, from left, Linda Willard, Travis Fisher, Jana Henly and Lina Willard, and back, from left, William Sackett, Henry Tarr and Darren Turney.

Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am

Theaters take place on community stage

JIM CHAPMAN | The Journal Gazette

On the Web

More information on the regional theater groups and upcoming performances can be found at:

Wagon Wheel Theater: www.wagonwheelcenter.org

Pulse Opera House: www.pulseoperahouse.org

Wells Community Theater: www.wellscocreativearts.com/theater

This Warsaw theater has featured musical acts such as Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith and Donny and Marie performing in the round.

In Warren, the playhouse's production of “Nunsense” advanced to the American Association of Community Theater's regional competition after competing at the state level.

In Bluffton, meanwhile, the community theater really doesn't have a home, though its players continue to bring the house down with musicals and other shows that began with the mayor in a leading role in the “The Music Man.”

Wagon Wheel Theater in Warsaw, Pulse Opera House in Warren and Wells Community Theater in Bluffton continue to prove you don't have to travel to larger cities to see talented actors and actresses on a big stage.

“There's a lot of talent in the area, a whole lot of talent,” said Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok, artistic director at Pulse Opera House.

She and the thespians at the other two theaters agree. They point to volunteers in the region who make the productions happen, and they're not just talking about the actors. Some make the costumes. Others build the sets.

“They probably work during the day and volunteer at night, either acting or painting,” said Joel Harmeyer, executive director of Creative Arts Council of Wells County, which oversees Wells Community Theater.

All three theaters started from humble, and in one case historic, beginnings.

Wagon Wheel

The Wagon Wheel is the brainchild of Herbert Petrie, who as a major during World War II went to productions at Penthouse Theatre in Fort Lawton, Washington, the country's first in-the-round theater. When he returned to his hometown, he wanted to create the same experience.

When the theater opened in 1956, it consisted of a tent with a gravel floor, canvas chairs and a chicken coop that served as the shop where sets and costumes were built. In the early 1960s, the facility transformed into the theater that patrons have come to know and love at 2515 E. Center St.

Now in its 62nd season, the theater has 10 rows with 836 seats that form a circle surrounding the stage.

“There's not another place like it,” said Jay Michaels, executive director of Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that has operated the theater for about five years. “When you sit in the front row, you're on stage. You truly are never more than 10 rows from center stage.”

Michaels, executive director since October, has been involved in the theater since the early 2000s. Blake Shelton, The Lettermen, Oak Ridge Boys, Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith and Donny and Marie have all taken the stage at the Wagon Wheel over the years.

“When we had Rascal Flatts, it was one of the fastest sellouts we've ever had,” Michaels said. That concert in 2000 was also where Michaels met his wife of 14 years, Abby.

This summer, theatergoers will see “Newsies,” “Footloose,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Crucible, “Into the Woods” and “Next to Normal.” In October, Howie Mandel will be at the Wagon Wheel.

Pulse Opera House

Smyth-Wartzok decided to renovate Pulse Opera House in 1986 and reopen it the next year. “I just fell in love with it,” she said.

Capt. Silas Pulse constructed the building at 127 N. Wayne St. in Warren in 1884 as an opera house. It bills itself as “Indiana's oldest operating opera house.”

Smyth-Wartzok, her husband, Ron, and others have had their work cut out for them. The stage had to be rebuilt. They obtained seats from a Muncie movie theater. Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne donated lights.

“There was no electricity when we started,” Smyth-Wartzok said. “You can see the lights where the gas lights had been installed.”

Now in its 31st season, the 200-seat theater, a nonprofit organization run by a board of directors, is known for a wide variety of entertainment for all ages.

“We try to make sure every child gets to see a live production before they graduate,” Smyth-Wartzok said.

Recently, the Pulse's production of “Nunsense” competed at the regional level with other productions in the American Association of Community Theater. Jana Henly won best supporting actress in the regional competition.

This year, theater-goers will be entertained by “Big Fish,” “Twelve Angry Men” and “Elf the Musical Jr.”

“Our biggest problem is we need more room,” Smyth-Wartzok said. “You'd think after all these years, it would be perfect.”

Wells Community

Wells Community Theater is rooted in a 2000 production of “The Music Man,” with Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis as professor Harold Hill.

Seventeen years later, the theater still doesn't have a permanent venue for performances.

The theater is a function of the Creative Arts Council of Wells County, and its 24 productions have been presented at several venues, including the old and new Bluffton high schools, the basement of the Arts, Commerce and Visitors Centre in Bluffton, and Embassy Theatre in Fort Wayne.

“We're nomads,” Harmeyer said.

He's proud of the talent that has come through Bluffton to put on shows such as “Kiss Me Kate,” “Hello Dolly,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Godspell” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

At least six theater alumni, he said, have gone on to professional acting roles. This summer, patrons will see “The Addams Family” at Bluffton High School and “The Last Five Years” at the Arts, Commerce and Visitors Center.

“One cause we haven't figured out yet; … we want our own space,” Harmeyer said.

jchapman@jg.net