Entertaining reasons to stay • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Entertaining reasons to stay

Options for a fun night out abound, without hassles, prices of Chicago

Theatre at the Center
Munster’s Theatre at the Center production of the Broadway smash “Million Dollar Quartet,” starring Aeriel Williams and Zachary Stevenson, broke box office records in early 2019. (Photo by Guy Rhodes)

While Chicago might seem to corner the market on fun, Northwest Indiana’s entertainment options come with a few more affordable perks for patrons.

And sometimes, residents of the Windy City even come to the Region for its after-hours options.

“This is my first time coming down for something, but I consider Northwest Indiana part of our Region,” said Olga Bautista, who lives on the southeast side of Chicago, which is right near the state line with Indiana.

Bautista attended “C.S. Lewis on Stage” in February at the Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in Munster.

“It’s easy. It’s like a 15- to 20-minute drive. I get to see some amazing artists here,” Bautista said. “A lot of my friends and family have moved to Indiana, so it feels like home.”

Of course, traveling to Chicago from Northwest Indiana is time consuming (at least 60 minutes one way by automobile) and expensive, at least $150 if you factor in gasoline, tolls and parking — not including dinner or tickets to an event.

That’s why more and more Region residents are getting their entertainment fix closer to home — at events from Hammond to South Bend.

More is more

Carolyn Jacobs is part of that group.

The Dyer resident also visited the Center for Visual and Performing Arts with her husband for the C.S. Lewis production.

“We love it. It’s so easy. Parking is free. You don’t have to worry about anything. You just come and relax. We come here a few times a year,” Jacobs said. “It’s hassle free when you come here. And they have a lot of great quality and lots of variety here. It is on a professional level.”

Another patron, Caren Jankowski of Valparaiso, says Northwest Indiana needs more quality entertainment.

“I think this is a wonderful experience,” Jankowski said. “I wish more people knew about it.”

“C.L. Lewis on Stage” director Timothy Gregory, who lives in Dyer, owns Provision Theater Co., which stages productions in and around the Chicago area.

Gregory says Northwest Indiana hasn’t caught up with the exploding market for live entertainment. He said more venues are needed to host productions.

“Right now, there’s an influx of population coming into Northwest Indiana (from Illinois), but the arts haven’t caught up with that influx. There needs to be an influx of the arts. There’s a burgeoning population but not a burgeoning arts community,” Gregory said. “You have artists that are in Chicago that will come over here and work. They just have to have opportunities.”

He said Region officials need to step up to help the arts scene.

“Maybe there is something to do from a municipality standpoint, a civic standpoint,” Gregory said. “If you go to rent a space here in Northwest Indiana, there aren’t that many.”

Phil Potempa (Purdue staff portrait)
Phil Potempa

Phil Potempa, the director of marketing for the Center for Visual and Performing Arts, said the center attracts audiences from the south suburbs of Chicago to La Porte County.

School Town of Munster Superintendent Bret Heller said the board of trustees is considering buying the center’s property and possibly retaining the current tenants. He said members of the community alerted them to the potential sale.

“We were immediately intrigued by the opportunity,” Heller said. “… The fate of the building and its current programming and tenants stands as the primary concern, and currently, there are no definitive plans in place.”

The CVPA is home to the Theatre at the Center, South Shore Arts, the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra and Trama Catering.

Towle Theater
Daniel Rausch, left, and Max Trotter starred in the musical “Story of My Life” at the Towle Theater in Hammond this year. (Photo provided by Wes & Christi Bushby)

Another regional theater is the Towle Theater in historic downtown Hammond. The theater has been a mainstay for professional theater productions for almost 20 years.

“We’re big storytellers here,” said Emily Nelson, Towle executive director. “I don’t want to say we’re cutting edge but like new and upcoming works. Stuff that isn’t very familiar, but many shows tell a significant story.”

Just a block away from the Illinois-Indiana state line, the Towle Theater has a distinct advantage in grabbing Chicagoans to spend their time and money in Northwest Indiana.

“I feel it’s like a 50/50 split. A lot of our audience is for sure in Northwest Indiana, but we do get a lot of people from Chicago,” Nelson said. “I think it’s a vibrant theater but not too many people know about it.”

Nelson said construction in downtown Hammond can make it difficult to get to the theater. But other than that, it’s a great place to catch a production.

“I think this is a very vibrant place, and it is upcoming. It’s such an intimate space, but that creates such great art,” said Nelson, who became director in February. “A lot of people don’t know about us. I think we just have to get out there and share our stories.”

Filling the void

Star Plaza Theater in Merrillville, Indiana
The Star Plaza Theater in Merrillville was torn down in 2017. (Photo by Joey Lax-Salinas)

The big man on campus for local entertainment in Northwest Indiana for more than four decades was the Star Plaza Theater in Merrillville.

At U.S. 30 and Interstate 65, Donna Summer opened the Star Plaza in December 1979. For almost four decades, the theater attracted some of the biggest names in entertainment, from Garth Brooks, Bob Hope and Whitney Houston to Christina Aguilera. But it was closed and demolished in 2017.

For a while, attracting top notch entertainment suffered in the Region, but it’s picked back up thanks to local casinos such as Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Hard Rock Casino in Gary and Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City.

Pitbull, Diana Ross and a host of comedians and top country stars have been coming to the Hard Rock Casino over the past year.

“When the Star Plaza closed down, the market was left really untapped,” said Shane Evans, who co-owns the Hobart Art Theater with Blake Gillespie. “Of course, now you have the Hard Rock Casino involved. They are a big player in the area.”

Blue Chip Casino
Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City featured Journey tribute band ReCaptured on March 9. (Photo provided by Blue Chip Casino)

Blue Chip Casino also is signing some big acts. A Boyd Gaming Corp. spokesperson recently announced a June 1 visit there by comedian Matt Matthews.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority wants to help fill that void with a convention center. A new study that builds on a 2018 analysis confirmed that there is a need in Lake County for an entertainment venue. The state agrees, too, with a promise to match up to $100 million for the construction.

“When the Radisson hotel and conference center closed, it left a gap in Lake County’s event space market,” said Charles Johnson, CEO of Johnson Consulting, in a press release.

His company scored 14 locations for the new facility. Patriot Park in Hobart was the study’s leading site to implement its 145,000-square-foot plan. The Hard Rock in Gary came in second, with Century Mall in Merrillville; the former Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza site at I-65 and U.S. 30; and Kennedy Avenue and Interstate 94 in Hammond rounding out the top five.

“A new, state-of-the-art convention center adding millions of dollars to the local economy every year would keep … momentum rolling and help cement the Region as the place to be,” said Sherri Ziller, CEO of the RDA, in a press release.

Ready for more

Shane Evans
Shane Evans

The Art Theater in downtown Hobart is a venue that is trying to attract talent that’s a notch below what you might find at the Hard Rock Casino, or possibly a new convention center in Lake County.

“(Hard Rock gets) those bigger acts that we really can’t touch, but anything under that, we’re going after,” Evans said.

He said the demand for entertainment options is there.

“The feedback we get from our guests is that our venue is stellar, and they love the experience they get here,” he said.

Evans has operated the Hobart Art Theater since 2019. It originally opened in 1941 as a single-screen movie theater.

“The Art Theater has been around for a long time,” Evans said. “It’s one of those best-kept secrets.”

The theater hosts comedians, comedy acts and tribute bands that cover the classics like Nirvana and even the late Tejano singer Selena.

“We work hard to keep really diverse options. I’m kind of a rock guy, but it’s important to us that we’re doing things that are eclectic and unique and across the board,” Evans said. “We try to have something for everybody if and when we can. We like to mix it up and do things that will appeal to any and all age groups.”

Hobart Art Theater
The Los Angeles-based group L.A. Guns performed at the Hobart Art Theater in February. (Photo provided by Words Can’t Explain Creations)

Evans said the venue attracts followers from near and far.

“Most of it is Hobart and then a lot of Merrillville,” Evans said. “Third is Chicago or the 773 area code. We also get a lot of people from La Porte, South Bend and even Lafayette. We kind of shoot for a 60-mile radius.”

When Chicagoans attend events at the Hobart Art Theater, it’s welcome news to learn that they don’t have to pay for parking and drinks aren’t double digits.

“They’re shocked that they are not paying $20, $30 or $40 for parking, and drinks aren’t $12,” Evans said. “There is neighborhood parking, and we keep concessions and drink prices as low as we can for shows. If you’ve shopped for tickets in the past year, you know how ticketing prices can be nowadays. We work hard to keep tickets at a very reasonable price and moderate level for people for sure.”

Classical tastes

Emily Yiannias
Emily Yiannias

For others who like classical music, the La Porte County Symphony Orchestra offers a 60-member orchestra. It hosts about eight performances a year at the La Porte Civic Auditorium.

“We are in our 51st season,” said Emily Yiannias, executive director of the symphony. “We started out as a community orchestra and have grown into a professional orchestra.”

In addition to hosting four subscription concerts a year in November, February, March and April, the orchestra also hosts the Hoosier Star Voice competition in September.

“We’re in our 19th year. We get contestants from all over the state and from southwest Michigan,” Yiannias said.

The orchestra also performs a holiday pops concert in December and education concerts for children in October.

“We get about 5,000 school children come through over the course of a day for three concerts in October. We also do a summer concert in an outdoor venue in Michigan City,” Yiannias said.

Yiannias said the orchestra is trying to extend its reach into Porter County, which does not have a professional orchestra.

Carolyn Watson
The LCSO re-signed Musical Director Carolyn Watson to a three-year stay. (Photo provided by LCSO)

“It is wonderful to have this professional orchestra right in our backyard here. You don’t have to fight traffic or find a place to park,” Yiannias said.”

One of the orchestra’s bigger performances will be April 20 with the Classical Mystery Tour for Beatlemania! “It’s going to be so cool. They do the costumes and the whole thing,” Yiannias said.

The board of directors also re-signed the LCSO’s musical director to a three-year contract. Carolyn Watson was brought on in 2021 after a nationwide search. The native of Australia directs performances worldwide. She also is principal guest conductor of the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra and the director of orchestras at the University of Illinois.

“Under her leadership, the LCSO has achieved new levels of artistic excellence and will no doubt continue to do so over the next three years,” Yiannias said.

Around the corner

Northwest Indiana is home to a host of smaller venues, including Dunes Arts Summer Theatre. It also offers musical theater classes for students.

Local bars are a good option too, including Hunter’s Brewing in Chesterton.

“Besides good beer, every Thursday through Sunday is live music. They do painting and other family-friendly specials too,” said Jean Morin, a regular patron there. “I’d much rather go local than downtown because of traffic and parking. Plus, supporting local is important.

“I think Northwest Indiana has a lot to offer; sometimes it’s just hard to find it all.”

Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


  • Michael Puente

    Michael Puente works full time for WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio. He covers politics, environment and features in Northwest Indiana, southwest Michigan and Chicago’s South Side. For 11 years, Michael wrote for the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana. Michael also spent two years writing for the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., covering Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Michael is a contributing writer for Cafe Latino Lifestyles Magazine in Chicago and an adjunct faculty instructor at Calumet College of St. Joseph in Hammond.


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