The Gem of Northern Indiana

Tucked right off US30, the Wagon Wheel is known locally as a “gem” to its rural community. For more than 65 years the Wagon Wheel has inspired audiences, launched artists’ careers, and strengthened the arts community of Northeast Indiana. What started as a dream under a canvas tent has become a legacy built on a foundation of community-mindedness and strength in service.

Our Founder - Major Herbert Petrie Image

Our Founder – Major Herbert Petrie

Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts was founded by Major Herbert Petrie, his wife Mildred, and their friends John and Kitty Butterfield in 1956 as the Wagon Wheel Playhouse. Petrie was the catalyst, artistic director, and dreamer behind the theatre. A World War II veteran, Petrie was the 1st trumpeter in the Army Band under the direction of John Philip Sousa. Petrie was well known in the Warsaw and Winona Lake communities for his Winona Lake Band Camp, brass ensemble the White Hussars, and his dedication to both the arts and education. Petrie, as his family and friends would say, was a gentleman and a showman.

Our History

1956 – 1960: Petrie Pitches a Tent

In 1940, Petrie attended performances at the Penthouse Theatre in Fort Lawton, Washington, the nation’s first theatre-in-the-round. His dream was then sparked to recreate the theatre-in-the-round experience for Warsaw. In 1956, a large tent was pitched on the property where the theatre stands today. The original theatre started as a simple tent with a gravel floor, canvas chairs, and two old chicken coops that served as the scene shop and dressing rooms. The orchestra consisted of only Vernon Rector playing the Hammond organ.

1961 – 1975: Building a Tradition

The tent saw its last season and a summer structure was built with wooden shutters and a steel roof. Tom Roland was hired as the theatre’s first Artistic Director. Tom had been on Broadway in New Faces of 1956 and was at the time a professor at Machester College. Tom began the tradition of hiring some of the country’s finest young non-equity talent, giving these young professionals career-building skills, training, and education. In 1970, Petrie retired and sold the Wagon Wheel to a group of Warsaw businessmen: Charles Bertsch, Blaine Mikesell, Bob Steele, Gay Robinson, Loren Miller, and Larry Castaldi.

1976 – 1995: Seasons of Change

Jimmy Bohr, who would later go on to become the casting director for daytime dramas Another World and the Guiding Light, became Artistic Director in 1976. Tom Roland would return in 1982 as Artistic Director bringing with him a young graduate of Northwestern as his set designer, Roy Hine. The Warsaw businessmen sold to a new partnership in 1984 comprised of Tom Roland, Bill Whitney (the husband of popular Wagon Wheel actress Ann Whitney), Dave Wilkinson, Mike Hall, and Bruce Shaffner. Several changes were made to the theatre during this time including winterizing the building, updating the lobby and seating, expanding the stage, and adding a rehearsal hall to the back of the building. In 1995, Bruce Shaffner became the sole owner of the theatre.

1996 – 2010: Legacy Continued

In 1996 Roy Hine become the new Artistic Director. Roy built on the tradition of the Wagon Wheel serving as a training ground for young professionals with the addition of several guest Equity artists each year. Roy hired Wagon Wheel favorites Ben Dicke, Andy Robinson, Mickey Fisher, Jennifer Dow, and Scott Michaels for several summer seasons. Mickey, Ben, and Andy launched summer youth programs for local students ages 6 to 18. In 2007, Roy Hine passed away the day after rehearsals started for the Holiday show, Cinderella. The cast rallied to still produce the show and Scott Michaels, who was hired as choreographer, stepped in to direct the show. Scott became Artistic Director in 2008. Bruce gathered a team of loyal supporters and local individuals to start to work towards the Wagon Wheel becoming a nonprofit. The Wagon Wheel formalized as Wagon Wheel Theatre, Inc. and became a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, led by Board President, John E. Hand (owner of Hand Industries) in 2010.

2011 – 2015: The Wagon Wheel Family Grows

In the first 5 years as a nonprofit organization, the Wagon Wheel hired its first full-time staff members, Scott Michaels as Artistic Director and Jennifer Dow as Creative Staff. Scott and Jen met at the Wagon Wheel at the start of their careers and found love for each other and the Wagon Wheel gem. Together, they launched the Wagon Wheel Jr. program which started producing 3 professional quality musicals each year for young audiences performed by local youth. In 2013, the board would expand the Wagon Wheel family again by asking local resident and art educator, Jennifer Shepherd to start a community theatre program (now known as Wagon Wheel Community Theatre). Shortly thereafter, the Wagon Wheel would also acquire the Symphony of the Lakes orchestra and hire Thomas Stirling as full-time Music Director for the theatre and symphony. In 2014 the first encore show, RENT, was added to the Summer Season to market to a more diverse and wider geographical audience. The encore performances would go on to include shows like Bridges of Madison County, Next to Normal, and Avenue Q.

2016 – Current: Art Sparks the Hope of Resilience

In December 2019, Thomas Stirling, Theatre and Symphony of the Lakes Music Director passed away unexpectedly. The theatre also finalized the purchase of the Wagon Wheel property and the adjacent building at the end of 2019. In March 2020, the Wagon Wheel shuttered its doors as the global health crisis striked. During the pandemic, the Wagon Wheel hosted free virtual classes and theatre content on social media and went back to the tent days with performances of Always… Patsy Cline starring Jen Dow and Kira Lace Hawkins in the parking lot that August under a canvas tent. Wagon Wheel hired Kira Lace Hawkins, a veteran performer, as the first Education Director and Thomas Hall as Music Director for the summer season and Wagon Wheel Junior shows. In June 2021, the Wagon Wheel reopened the summer season with The Wizard of Oz and celebrated Scott’s 25th season at the Wagon Wheel. In October 2021, the Wagon Wheel board hired Lakesha Green as Executive Director.

Archive of Past Shows

Look back on your own memories of past seasons, from 1956 to today! See the complete list of all our past Wagon Wheel Professional Theatre shows.

View Past Shows

The Stars of the Wagon Wheel

Stories don’t end at the Wagon Wheel, stories take off! The stars who have appeared on our stage have traveled wide and far pursuing their dreams. Learn more about our past stars.

What are our recent alumni up to? What Broadway tours, movies, or TV Shows might you be in next? While our actors careers are constantly changing, we try to keep updated on where some of our recent stars are now.

Are you a recent alumni? Share what projects or productions you have currently working on!

Share What You Have Going On!