Need some holiday cheer? Meet 7 OGs of Fort Wayne’s arts & culture scene who bring it every year

I have worked in Downtown Fort Wayne for most of the last 25 years. During this time, I’ve seen the vibe of our city change dramatically.

In the late 1990s, when I first started working on Main Street at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, there were few reasons to stay Downtown after five o’clock—except for the activities happening at the museum and other arts organizations.

While Downtown revitalization has brought many more things to do in the heart of our city, I want to show some love to the organizations that have been here all along—those that have stood the test of time.

They may not always make headlines, but they still offer incredible opportunities to experience the arts with a local flavor. They have also contributed to the economic development of our region and set the stage for the resurgence of Downtown.

It’s only fitting to pay our respects to these Fort Wayne establishments at this busy time of the year when they’re working overtime to make sure our holiday season is merry and bright. (After all, what would our end-of-year celebrations in Fort Wayne be like without the Festival of Gingerbread or the Nutcracker?)

Here are seven OGs of the Fort Wayne arts and culture scene with holiday traditions we have come to know and love. 
 
  1. Fort Wayne Civic Theatre - Holiday Productions
Arts United Center | 303 E. Main St.

In 2022, the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre brought back Elf the Musical.
 
Originally started by a group of dedicated volunteers in 1928, The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre continues to thrive as one of the premier Downtown destinations. The Theatre’s traditional holiday production kicks off the season each year three weeks before Thanksgiving.
 
In 2022, the theater brought back Elf the Musical. In previous years they have put on productions of The Christmas Schooner, Miracle on 34th Street, Shrek the Musical, White Christmas, and the musical A Christmas Carol.
 
“We are thankful that this year’s production of Elf the Musical was a huge success as patrons are finally returning to their usual holiday festivities,” says Executive Artistic Director Phillip H. Colglazier. “There was a spirit of joy, excitement, and gratitude. Thank you, Northeast Indiana!”
 
  1. The History Center - Festival of Gingerbread
The History Center | 302 E. Berry St.

The Festival of Gingerbread 2022 started the day after Thanksgiving and runs through December 18.
 
Each year since 1985, the aroma of spicy gingerbread and sugar confections fills the halls of 302 E. Berry St., tempting visitors with fantastic bakery delights. The History Center’s Festival of Gingerbread has become one of Fort Wayne’s most cherished holiday traditions.
 
The Festival of Gingerbread 2022 started the day after Thanksgiving and runs through December 18. There are 135 gingerbread creations by local artists, from pre-k students to professionals, on view in the restored Shields Room. 
 
Beginning in 2020 and continuing this year, the History Center offers a virtual tour of the Festival of Gingerbread to accommodate guests who can’t make it Downtown. The tour is a professionally produced streaming video available for purchase through the History Center’s website. 
 
  1. Fort Wayne Ballet - The Nutcracker
Arts United Center | 303 E. Main St.

"The Nutcracker" is a popular annual performance by the Fort Wayne Ballet.
 
Nothing exemplifies the magic of the holiday season quite like toys coming to life in a land of sweets and fairies. The Fort Wayne Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker has been delighting audiences young and old for more than 60 years, firmly planting this classic Christmas ballet among the ranks of our favorite local traditions.
 
What keeps people coming back? Executive Director Jim Sparrow says, “It’s not just a show, but a holiday experience.”
 
The Fort Wayne Ballet has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years with the addition of a professional dance company. For The Nutcracker performances, Fort Wayne now has 20 professional dancers along with the children of the ballet academy and community character spots, making this a very different production from what it was in the past.
 
In 2021, the Ballet added the Kris Kringle Village to the holiday magic of the Nutcracker, too. The Village, a pop-up outside of the Arts United Center, takes its cue from traditional German Christmas Markets that fill the holidays with food, entertainment, and seasonal ornaments, gifts, and fare. It opens with a “Market Preview” during the Downtown “Night of Lights” festivities and remains open on weekends until Dec. 11.
 
In the spirit of collaboration—and to provide an even greater holiday experience—the Ballet partners with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic to provide a live orchestra for The Nutcracker on their opening weekend. 
 
  1. Fort Wayne Philharmonic - Holiday Pops
Embassy Theatre | 125 W. Jefferson Blvd.

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic gives concert-goers the opportunity to enjoy the holiday spirit at many themed events each winter.
 
The Fort Wayne Philharmonic gives concert-goers the opportunity to enjoy live versions of old and new holiday favorites at their Holiday Pops concerts, gracing the stage of the Embassy Theatre this time of year. 
 
At these annual performances, the audience is encouraged to sing along, and join in the holiday cheer. Patrons are treated to the joyful noise of Christmas classics, the Hallelujah Chorus, a Hanukkah Suite, and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus.

On Friday, Dec. 16, the Phil is also hosting MESSIAH BY CANDLELIGHT, Handel’s most recognizable and revered masterpiece, by the warm glow of candlelight at 7:30 p.m. at the Auer Performance Hall.
 
If you don’t enter these events in the spirit of the holidays, you’re sure to be in the mood after the musical spectacular!
 
  1. Fort Wayne Youtheatre - Holiday Productions
First Presbyterian Theater | 300 W. Wayne St. 

Returning by popular demand in 2022, the Fort Wayne Youtheatre​​​​​​​ presents "Frozen Jr."
 
The Fort Wayne Youtheatre was established in 1934 as an offshoot of the Old Fort Players, now the Civic Theatre. It’s the fifth oldest active children's theatre in the nation, holding classes, camps, and theatrical productions to introduce the theatrical arts to a younger audience.
 
The performances put on throughout the year include one holiday-themed show in December. In recent years, their holiday productions have included: A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Carol, Elf Jr., and returning by popular demand in 2022, Frozen Jr
 
For the first time this year, the Youtheatre is offering a sensory-friendly version of their holiday show. This special performance, for one night only, has been adapted for the comfort of the audience by altering the lights and sound and will include a pre-show touch tour and preparatory materials.
 
  1. Embassy Theatre - Festival of Trees
Embassy Theatre | 125 W. Jefferson Blvd.

The Festival of Trees, a display of evergreens decorated by community members and designers, was started in 1984.
 
The Embassy Theatre, one of Fort Wayne’s most iconic buildings, was mercifully saved from the wrecking ball in 1972. (I am thankful for the people who saved it every time I enter this fantastic space!)
 
The Festival of Trees, a display of evergreens decorated by community members and designers, was started in 1984 as a fundraising event for this magnificent theater. What keeps people coming back to this event year after year?
 
“We offer a multifaceted holiday experience,” says Chief Marketing Officer Carly Myers. “There is such a sense of magic in seeing these historic spaces transformed into a winter wonderland with close to 60 unique and creatively adorned trees alongside local performances on stage, Santa in Santa Land, and our vintage holiday windows on Harrison Street.”
 
Anyone who has ever been to this sparkling event would certainly agree. The Embassy Theatre, a sight to see on its own, becomes even more spectacular as the backdrop for this holiday tradition.
 
Myers says the Embassy knows how much the community loves this festival. “We had a wonderful year with strong attendance,” she says. “The tree decorators once again wowed the onlookers with their creativity and ingenuity.”
 
  1. Fort Wayne Children's Choir - Various Holiday Programming
For the holidays, the Fort Wayne Children's Choir participates in numerous performances across the community with eight different choirs. Here, they perform at the Embassy Theatre's Festival of Trees.
 
The Fort Wayne Children’s Choir (FWCC) was created to meet the need for an extra-curricular choral opportunity for area youth. Since its first iteration in 1973, the choir has expanded to nearly 300 singers from 85 schools and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season.
 
For the holidays, the FWCC participates in numerous performances across the community with eight different choirs. The organization collaborates with other arts organizations including: the Fort Wayne Philharmonic for the Holiday Pops; the Fort Wayne Ballet for The Nutcracker; the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust for Cocoa and Carols during the Night of Lights; and the Festival of Trees at the Embassy Theatre. After a hiatus due to the pandemic, the youth are also returning to perform at assisted living facilities across the community. 
 
“Over the years, we have stopped trying to worry about putting on our own shows, and have instead leaned into collaborations with others,” says Executive Artistic Director Jonathan Busarow. “It's been great seeing (and hearing) how the FWCC fits in with so many other wonderful community events.”
 
Fort Wayne is home to many amazing sights, sounds, and experiences of the season. And thanks to these arts and cultural organizations, our city has a unique flavor that is all our own during the holidays.
 
So here’s to you—the OGs of the arts and culture holiday scene. Thank you for making our spirits bright this time of the year!

This story was made possible by underwriting from Arts United.

Read more articles by Jennie Renner.

Jennie Renner is a Hoosier native who has lived in the Fort Wayne area for most of her life. She believes that art, in all its forms, makes everything better. Her work can be found in Glo Magazine and Input Fort Wayne and self-published on Medium.