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When It Was City
Terry Doran and the Theater For Ideas look at Fort Wayne in the 50s
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Fort Wayne back in the middle decades of the 20th century holds a strong attraction for a lot of people, and not just the people old enough to remember it.
A bit of anecdotal evidence — FWR’s own “Old School Picture of the Week, which runs on page 15 of every issue. The majority of the photos come to us courtesy of the good folks at the Allen County Public Library, and whenever we run a photo of a bustling downtown street from the 40s, 50s, or 60s, we’ll get a handful of comments or a call or an e-mail. In fact, it’s probably the most consistently commented on feature in the publication.
While it might not be especially surprising to hear that many of these comments come from long-time residents of the Fort Wayne area, people who were old enough to, say, shop at Wolf & Dessauer in its heyday, what’s really interesting is what’s how many younger people — people to whom the 50s might as well be another planet — also seem to enjoy some of the street scenes and images of downtown from decades ago.
Why? Our theory is that images of a bustling, lively downtown Fort Wayne with shops and businesses and pedestrians and (sometimes) trolley cars represents that vibrant, pedestrian-friendly downtown we’re all so keen as mustard to have now — we had it before; we could, maybe, have it again.
Terry Doran likes our theory. Doran is a documentary film-maker and the host and producer of “Theater For Ideas,” an occasional program and public forum that has had a home on public access for the last 30 years.
Doran’s latest Theater For Ideas project is called “When It was A City,” and examines the “glory days” of downtown in the 50s. “The reason I think the topic is important is that the 50s, for all its conservatism, had some things that I think we’ve lost, things that matter,” he says. “I think people felt connected to something that they don’t feel now.”
Guests for the forum include Dr. Tom Hayhurst, an advocate for passenger trains; Jon Swerens, editor of Allen County Photo Book: 1955-59; and Isabel Alvarez, a member of the Fort Wayne Daisies and a Hall’s car hop back in 1952. Artist Terry Ratliff will exhibit six of his paintings of Fort Wayne in the 40's and 50's, and musician Molly Brogan will perform “Where Have All the Trolleys Gone?”
But from the forum’s title and subtitle — “what’s been lost… and at what cost” — it’s obvious that Doran is going for more than just nostalgia here. “When It Was a City” takes a look at issues like outsourcing, the decline of public transportation, and suburbanization, and the sort of changes these things have wrought on downtown. “Sure, nostalgia is the basis,” he says. “I think nostalgia is why people remember it with such depth of feeling. It’s hard to sell issues, but you’ve got a built-in fondness for this time, and I think people start to wonder ‘well, why did it change?’”
“And that’s what Theater For Ideas tries to do,” he adds. “It tries to get a little bit below the surface, so to speak.”
Theater For Ideas has been trying to “get below the surface” of things for 30 years. It first launched in January 1981 on Public Access, and the topic of the first show, Doran recalls, was “Rock n’ Roll: Friend or Foe.” “I think Jefferson Airplane was at the Coliseum or something,” Doran says. “We had a minister from Roanoke on. You know, ‘rock n’ roll is the devil’s music,’ secret messages, that stuff.”
Really? In 1981? For Jefferson Airplane? (who were calling themselves Jefferson Starship by that time and were a long way from the band that gave us “White Rabbit.”) Doran laughs: “Yeah. It was pretty controversial at the time.”
Many, many other shows followed. Some of them were taped, some of them were in a public forum format (like the “When It Was A City” show), and some of them were live. “All those shows we did in the library auditorium,” says Doran. “We did some of them live, took phone calls. We did 52 one-hour live shows in 1981. I barely survived.”
The topics range from politics to social issues to art. Basically, Doran says he sees or hears something — maybe it’ll arouse his curiosity, maybe it’ll move him, maybe it’ll make him angry — and he’ll put together a show on it. “I couldn’t count how many people who have been on the show over the years,” he says, listing mayors, artists, public officials, entrepreneurs, organization leaders… “I interviewed Jim Davis, the guy who does Garfield. I interviewed Alex Haley in Tennessee. I went out to River Haven and shot a part of a documentary at the snake-handling church they had out there…” (he doesn’t know if it’s still there).
And like we’ve said, a guest or a topic can come from anywhere. One interviewee came to Doran’s attention through a letter to one of the daily papers. “I read this ‘letter to the editor,’ this older gentleman in his 80s, blasting the status quo, and he signs it ‘just call me stupid’,” Doran recalls. “I thought it sounded like an interesting story.”
“But we’ve done a lot of different shows, a lot of studio shows. I just try to enlighten people, maybe provoke or challenge them a little bit.”
Theater For Ideas has garnered a few awards, but Doran feels the most important thing the program has done is to serve as a catalyst for bigger things in the community. He cites a show they did on an artist named Justin Blessing. Blessing suffered from schizophrenia; one night, he was struck by a car while wandering along Coldwater road. “The enthusiasm of people coming together to honor him… that inspired people to start the Carriage House,” Doran says. “It’s just an example of bringing people together, putting ideas out, and people think ‘hey, maybe we could do something else.’ It’s just that interaction that leads to some of these changes.”
Doran pulled back a little on Theater For Ideas and started focusing more on his documentaries — FWR talked to Doran for our feature on Oscar, the “Beast of ‘Busco,” in FWR #113; his documentary The Hunt For Oscar was a primary source for the piece. “The documentaries sort of derailed Theater For Ideas,” he says. “There’s just a stretch in there where I was just so possessed to just keep doing these shows. But I got sick. That’s why I don’t push myself to that degree anymore.”
Doran still does Theater For Ideas, just not as often. He’s done about half-a-dozen shows so far this year. In 2009, he did eight. In 2008, he did… well, one. Recent topics have focused on health care issues — one of the 2009 shows was on the closing of the Ask medical clinic. A show on health care also brought Doran to the attention of a “tea party” guy, who wanted to do a debate in Indianapolis in front of a crowd. “This guy wanted to debate me or anyone I could get from the so-called ‘progressive’ side,” Doran says. “None of my friends wanted any part of this. I thought it was a neat idea, you know. I was willing to do it. Granted, it could have been an ambush…” One of Doran’s brothers, Chris, an academic with a PhD in Sociology, stepped in to do a taped debate. “I never heard from the guy after that,” Doran says, shrugging. “I thought it was a respectful debate.”
For “When It Was A City,” Doran hopes to do a little more than just reminisce about the “good old days.” He’s well aware that the 50s, in and of themselves, were not especially good times for large segments of our society. Nevertheless, he keeps returning to the idea that a lot of nostalgia for the time is based on something we had then that we don’t have now. “That nostalgia idea is the basis,” he says. “Otherwise, I don’t think anybody would care…”
But as an example, Doran talks about an interview he did with the sons of Leonard Latz, the man credited with turning Wolf & Dessauer, the famous department store that seems to dominate so many fond memories of downtown Fort Wayne, especially around Christmas, into the downtown gem it became. Sure, on one level, it’s just a department store… “But during the depression, when times were tough, instead of firing people, Latz told employees ‘in order to keep your jobs, I’m going to have to cut your salary. It’s either that or lose your job’.” Latz also took a cut in salary, and when things picked up again, Doran says he repaid the employees who had stuck with him. “That’s the sort of thing that builds loyalty and trust,” Doran continues. “He made the customers and employees all feel a part of it. They felt they were treated with some respect, that they were special. Now, I think there’s so much exploitation if you’re a consumer.”
Doran doesn’t necessarily believe we can “go back to the way it was” or anything that simplistic, but he does point out how some of the things addressed in “When It Was A City” can provide a few answers to some of the issues the United States is facing now. The disappearance of passenger trains and the dismantling of Fort Wayne’s trolley system are perfect examples. “Almost all American cities had this great trolley system,” he says. “That was such a wonderful system of transportation, for community, for energy efficiency… It takes the pressure off cars and traffic jams, on using too much gasoline. There’s too much dependency on cars, but it started with the dismantling of the trolley system. It was systematic. General Motors, they went around the country, city by city, dismantling trolleys.”
“I was trying to find out what actually, physically happened to (Fort Wayne’s) old trolleys,” he adds. “I’ve never seen any, but they had to go somewhere. I’ve read that in some cities, they actually had a bonfire and burned them. I don’t think that happened in Fort Wayne, but I’ve never seen any in junkyards. My dad had a junkyard for a long time, and I’ve never seen a trolley.”
Doran says Theater For Ideas doesn’t lay out a blueprint for a solution to recover what we’ve lost — the problems are complicated and stretch across the globe — but maybe, by posing the question, it might get some people thinking.
Meanwhile, Doran is already preparing for the next Theater For Ideas project: a celebration marking the program’s 30th anniversary. There will be a couple of celebrations during the first week of January, including a two-hour live show on January 6. “Live is always scary,” he laughs. “You have to start on time, that’s the main thing.”
“My main focus is to reach the people who have been on the shows,” he adds. “There’s no real theme, but this celebration is shaping up to be a celebration of art, whether it’s the art of discussion, or the power of art to transform.”
When It Was A City
A Theater For Ideas Community Forum
Tuesday, November 16
7 PM at the downtown Public Library
Meeting Room A