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Famous in Fort Wayne
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I was in a play in Fort Wayne a few years ago and after a performance a woman approached me in the parking lot and asked me to sign a program from the show. I figured she was related to someone in the cast, and was just collecting signatures as a memento, but no, she just wanted mine. I found this to be radiantly bizarre, but I complied, anyway, and signed the program. After I handed it back to her she let out a little victory whoop, which almost made me jump out of my skin, and then proceeded to tell me which of my previous stage roles were her absolute favorites. I kept waiting for friends to jump out from behind cars—this was obviously a practical joke—but it never happened. The woman was sincere. She remembered performances from years ago that I had totally forgotten about, and she complimented me on plays that I was flat out terrible in. After an extremely awkward minute or so (I was too stunned to speak), she thanked me profusely and walked away, clutching her program as if she had something truly valuable in her hands.
I was mortified for weeks. The notion that somebody sincerely wanted an autograph from a community theatre actor was just too “Waiting for Guffman” for words. I’d like to say that I was flushed with pride for a moment—having a deranged fan is all the rage, after all—but the whole encounter left me depressed and mildly embarrassed for my hometown. If I could be considered a mini-celebrity to someone in Fort Wayne, then maybe our city was as backward as our critics claim.
Since then I’ve been trying to figure out if there is such a thing as “celebrityhood” in Fort Wayne, and, if so, who would make the cut as the most famous people in our city. After months of research and careful study, I’ve concluded that there is a real dearth of celebrities in Fort Wayne, and that unless you do weather reports on television or get thrown in jail while running for mayor, the odds are pretty high that few people will turn their heads when you walk into a restaurant. Initially I tried to come up with a Top Ten list of conceivable Fort Wayne celebrities, but I soon realized that that number was overly optimistic. The true number of Fort Wayne celebrities, I think, is three.
The reasons for this tiny number are varied, but primarily Fort Wayne is just a little too small to sustain a strong plurality of locally famous people. In most large cities, celebrities can be categorized as belonging to one of five worlds: politics, television, sports, the arts, and money. In Fort Wayne, three of these worlds don’t really register as viable celebrity producers. We have sports teams in Fort Wayne, but they’re semi-professional; our performing artists, although known in certain circles, rarely transcend their niche audience; our millionaires are the modest, Midwestern, endowment-giving sort, as opposed to the brassy, Richard Branson sky-diving breed.
In politics, though, Fort Wayne has one authentic celebrity, and it isn’t the guy in the mayor’s office. In the 2007 election, Tom Henry displayed many admirable qualities, but I’m certain even his staunchest supporters would have to admit that his most outstanding quality was that he wasn’t the guy in handcuffs. Usually mayoral campaigns are pretty dry, with key words like “progress” and “time for a change” bandied about, but with Matt Kelty’s campaign we got to hear new, fun election words like “grand jury” and “indictment.” Out of nowhere Kelty vaulted to the front rank of Fort Wayne celebrities, proving that jail time can do wonders for your “Q” Rating. On the “honorable mention” list I should mention party chair Steve Shine, who was constantly on television at the time, trying to spin the Republican nightmare in a positive way and invariably tossing more grease into the fire. Everything he tried was a disaster--he was like the Cam Cameron of local politics, and it was so gruesome you couldn’t help but be fascinated. But it’s Kelty, the unnervingly photogenic candidate, who is the political star.
There are only two other Fort Wayne celebrities, and it should come as no surprise that both do the weather for a local television station. With apologies to Melissa Long, Linda Jackson, and Heather Herron, the true stars of the six o’clock news are Sandy Thomson and Greg Shoup. I have no idea why the weather is of endless fascination to people in Fort Wayne, I just know that it is. Try to have a conversation with anyone this month without mentioning it. People listen to the headlines, they catch the sports scores, but they only truly pay attention when the weather is on. And Thomson and Shoup have the kind of personalities that viewers like in weather reporters—friendly, knowledgeable, a little geeky. Plus, they’re both immediately identifiable—Shoup with his shambling, brown suits and Thomson with her high cheekbones and red umbrellas. Weathermen probably go unnoticed in the bigger cities, but here, in Fort Wayne, they’re the leading players.