Blue Gate Theatre growing as it continues to pioneer regional musical theater
By Patrick Redmond | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
What happens if you listen carefully to your customers and give them what they want?
“You grow,” said Andrew Rohrer, vice president of sales and marketing for Blue Gate Hospitality, a part of the Riegsecker family-owned businesses that have made Shipshewana a destination for regional theater and entertainment.
Blue Gate Theatre, a division of Blue Gate Hospitality, recently announced it is building a new facility inside the former Shipshewana Event Center it purchased from the town of Shipshewana. Blue Gate Theatre will create a new $3 million, 1,500-plus seat theater at the recently renamed Blue Gate Performing Arts Center on Shipshewana’s south side. Crews are expected to break ground on the new theater in May and complete that work in January of next year.
While it might appear as Blue Gate Theatre just exploded onto the scene, Rohrer said the business’s success has been part of a carefully executed plan envisioned nearly 20 years ago by Mel Riegsecker, its founder.
“To make a long story short, Mel and his family kept listening to what people said when they wanted when they came to town,” he explained. “One of those was something to do in the evening.”
Blue Gate Theatre started small and grew from there.
“At first, Mel put together a local variety act. The restaurant manager was the lead singer, and he put together a variety show. We did that for a couple of years,” Rohrer said. “And then we built the new theater upstairs and started getting in new acts. We started with southern gospel, then added a little bit of country and a little bit of comedy. It might feel like its grown by leaps and bounds to people on the outside, but for us, its just been steady growth. Blue Gate Theatre started back in 2001-02 with these acts no one had ever heard of before and steadily grew to bigger and bigger acts. And so, this year, we’ll have the biggest concert that’s even been seen in Shipshewana, 4,300 people here to see Willie Nelson.”
Along the way, Blue Gate pioneered a new form of stage entertainment, creating original musicals adapted from Amish novels. It’s a formula that’s worked well, creating a dozen new and successful shows.
“Deciding what to put in the theater, Mel thought there’s nothing out there that perfectly fits Shipshewana and Amish country,” Rohrer remembered. “And so he started talking to people about adapting Amish novels, which are very popular and sell millions and millions of copies a year, to our stage.”
Blue Gate partnered with professional producers, playwrights, and songwriters who took a Beverly Lewis novel and adapted it for the stage.
“That was the birth of Blue Gate musicals, all from the vision of Mel. He made it happen,” Rohrer said.
Those shows have proven to be so popular they’ve found an audience outside of Shipshewana.
“Now we’ve adapted a dozen books to stage shows. They always premiere here, because we’re the home of Blue Gate musicals. Then we take them to Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois,” Rohrer said. “We’re working to take them even wider.”
Rohrer said everything his company has learned over the nearly 20 years in business will be used to make the new theater the best experience possible for patrons.
“We’ve paid attention to the small details that make going to the theater a good experience. The new theater will be bigger, yet the seats will be closer to the stage,” he said.
The biggest headache of turning a convention hall into a theater is the floor, he pointed out. Crews will begin by ripping out the building’s existing floor and replacing it with a sloping floor patrons expect to find in a theater. It also has been designed so there is basically no bad seat in the house.
“With the new facility, we turned it sideways, so that even a back seat is a third closer than the seats are right now in our original theater,” Rohrer explained. “It’s just amazing.”
Rohrer said the new theater will allow Blue Gate to bring in similar but larger shows than it cannot currently accommodate due to limited stage space.
“National touring acts bring big lighting equipment that won’t fit in the current space, so what we did focused on making sure there’s enough space above the stage to make sure they can put up those big lighting rigs,” he said. “That will allow us to get some of the big touring acts we haven’t been able to get to this point.”
Despite the new space, Rohrer said the one thing you won’t see gracing a Shipshewana stage is one of the large Broadway shows you see touring the country.
“There’s enough other theaters out there doing those type of shows,” he explained. “When you see a ‘Cats’ or a ‘Wicked,’ it really doesn’t fit the area here. When people come to Amish County, they’re looking to step outside of their normal, daily life, and these musically help them do that because it tells a different kind of a story in a different kind of a way.”
The Shipshewana theater thrives because of its location. Perfectly centered between three major population areas — Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis — as well as smaller cities such as Fort Wayne, South Bend and Grand Rapids, shows in Shipshewana have a large potential audience.
“We feel like there’s enough population around us, we just have to keep growing our market enough to attract those people,” Rohrer explained.
Now with the new Michiana Events Center building up and running, Blue Gate has partnered with that company’s owners to provide it the space needed to bring even bigger names and bigger shows to Shipshewana.
“The MEC and the Fought family who own it have been great partners. When they decided they wanted to do concerts, they realized it’s not a very easy industry. So they came to us and said ‘Would you like to partner with us?’ And so we help them select shows, we help them through the difficult contracting process with these artists, and then we’re their Ticketmaster, their box office,” Rohrer said.
On April 2, the MEC presented Willie Nelson to a sold-out crowd of 4,300 fans. That show sold out almost as quickly as it was announced. Rohrer said he expects to see more shows like that coming to Shipshewana.
“While we’re still kind of feeling that out, we’re going to grow that audience gradually,” he explained. “The Willie Nelson show was a great success for us, and it will lead to more shows.”