The Madame Walker Theatre Center first opened its doors on Dec. 26, 1927. Then it began its legacy as the hub of entertainment, business and pride for the African-American community.
Eight-five years later, the theater still accompanies Indiana Avenue as one of Indianapolis’ only National Historic Landmarks owned and operated by African-Americans.
The historic Walker Building, has long symbolized the spirit of creativity and community pride in the city of Indianapolis. Named after America’s first self-made female millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker, the site represents the achievements, art forms, culture and history of African-American people.
Madam Walker began the development of the Walker Building and theater prior to her death in 1919. Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, and Walker Company attorney and manager, Freeman B. Ransom, completed the project.
During the mid-50s, the building and its surrounding neighborhood began a gradual decline. By the late 1970s, the Walker stood nearly abandoned. A group of Indianapolis citizens recognized the structure’s rich history and dedicated themselves to preserving it. In 1979, the group purchased the building from the Walker Manufacturing Co. and began planning for its restoration.
After the renovation supported by Lilly Endowment, and other donors the center reopened in October 1988. That same year the name was changed to Madame Walker Theatre Center to highlight the pivotal role of the theater in African-American performing arts history.
Today, the Walker building’s survival is a testament of community efforts.
“The Madame Walker Theatre Center has a skill to survive and thrive despite obstacles and sometimes limited access to resources through its passionate staff and with generous partner support. People in Indianapolis are passionate about the Walker and many work to see it succeed,” said Patrick E. Chavis IV, interim CEO of the Madame Walker Theatre Center.
Without the support, the Walker would not have contributed to launching the careers of Indianapolis natives and jazz musicians Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard and J. J. Johnson.
The Walker continues to be a platform for African-Americans as it hosts an annual summer arts camp called Kamp Kuumba that educates youth on careers in the arts, self-confidence and esteem. It also offers etiquette classes, entrepreneurial programs and leadership seminars. The Grand Casino Ballroom is the site of hundreds of fraternity dances, sorority galas, debutante balls, Walker Beauty School graduations, wedding receptions and fashion shows.
According to Chavis, hundreds of thousands of people have entered this building and had their lives changed through awards, teaching, training and recognition.
The Madame Walker Theatre Center is moving toward a bigger and broader business model.
“No longer will we be just the place for the arts and for amazing performances. But we’ll be the source for educational tools, for start-up businesses and for the highest quality entertainment,” Chavis said. “Indy should expect a complete renovation of our historic theater that stays true to our original architecture. Indy can expect for our name to be synonymous with business, fun, arts and a full-service, all-inclusive experience.”