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Walker Theatre’s big anniversary party

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Celebrating the birthday of an institution, especially one known for decades of cultural enrichment, requires a truly special and unforgettable event.

The Madame Walker Theatre Centre will be doing that this weekend on a grand scale, with an 80th anniversary gala that attendees could be talking about for years to come.

The gala, which will take place with events on Nov. 16 and Nov. 17, will include performances by popular artists such as R&B/gospel singer Patti LaBelle and jazz musicians Wayman Tisdale and Kirk Whalum, as well as a special award presentation for actress Victoria Rowell and tap sensation Savion Glover.

“What better way to close out our yearlong celebration than with a gathering of our friends enjoying such a high caliber of talent,” said Cynthia Bates, president of the Madame Walker Theatre Centre. “The quality of entertainment we will have reflects the quality of service we strive to offer to this community.”

The gala concerts will conclude a year of anniversary activities that included a book signing by Rowell, community music festival, celebrity golf outing, a weeklong series of performances and youth seminars by Glover and other events.

Throughout its history the four-story, 935-seat, 48,000 square foot facility Madame Walker Theatre has been known as a “city within a city” for housing a theater, businesses, law offices, restaurants and clubs.

Millionaire businesswoman Madame C.J. Walker, who relocated her cosmetics enterprise to Indianapolis in 1910, developed a vision for the facility after being charged 25 cents for a 10-cent show at a theater because she was Black.

“From that incident she felt the need to support the completion of a place where African-Americans could go and not have to deal with those discriminatory practices,” said Bruce Williams, spokesman for the Walker Theatre Centre.

Since it was first opened by Walker’s daughter in 1927, the facility has been recognized nationally as a key symbol of cultural enrichment and economic achievement in the African-American community.

During its heyday from the 1930s to the ‘50s the theater was the center of a growing area of Black businesses and homes near downtown known today as the Indiana Avenue Cultural District, which is on a rebound following years of economic decline.

Bates would like to see the Walker move to the forefront of that renaissance with more appearances by popular performers, expanded performing arts programs for youth and a greater variety of events that will broaden the center’s appeal to different audiences.

“We would like to help bring as many people and potential enterprises back to this historical area as possible,” said Bates.

She added that high ticket sales for recent Walker events and support from corporate sponsors will be very helpful in finishing a few renovation projects, including an expansion of the theater in the rear to provide more seating.

“It’s phenomenal that in 2007 we still have an operational and functional theater that was built in the early 1900’s,” she said. “The Walker Building was constructed during a time when money was tight and segregation prevailed, it has grown with our community as times changed and we’re working hard to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy it as well.”

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