Music, theater add to NWI night life

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T00:31:09Z Music, theater add to NWI night lifeSusan Erler susan.erler@nwi.com, (219) 662-5336 nwitimes.com
March 16, 2014 12:00 am  • 

At 85 years young, Mary LeVan, of Hammond, never misses a show at Beatniks on Conkey in her hometown.

"I hit just about every new show that they have," said LeVan, who grew up on Conkey Street and still lives not far from Beatniks, 418 Conkey St., Hammond.

Like a modern-day vaudeville theater, Beatniks offers a mix of entertainment from sketch comedy and magic shows to improv and stage plays, some featuring Beatniks own acting troupe and others put on by Hammond Community Theater.

Describing itself as a coffeehouse-black box theater, where art meets Joe, Beatniks holds up to about 52 people on big, comfy chairs.

From small, intimate settings like Beatniks to the slightly larger but no less intimate Front Porch in Valparaiso and the two Gino's Steakhouse dining and entertainment venues, nightlife in Northwest Indiana takes many forms.

Gino's features entertainment Friday and Saturday nights in Dyer and Merrillville. A recent month's lineup included local musicians Dave Alamillo, Angelo Cicco, Joe Marcinek and others.

Frank Sinatra-style crooner Jim Bulanda is a regular, Gino's Steakhouse owner Dean Frangos said.

As many as 600 to 1,000 patrons dine and enjoy entertainment at Gino's combined two locations, 600 E. Lincoln Highway, Merrillville, and 1259 Joliet St., Dyer, on a typical weekend, Frangos said.

"We just want to give them that little extra they can't find at other places," he said of the chain's decision to add entertainment to its restaurants.

The Front Porch hosts an eclectic lineup in the lower level of its music store, 505 E. Lincolnway, Valparaiso, and provides an open stage each week, usually on Thursdays and some weekend nights when there isn't another show.

Recent concerts featured acoustic rocker Willie Nile, country folk-rock artist Eric Lambert and the Chicago Kingsnakes with a Chicago style brand of blues and harmonica.

"It's a coffeehouse setting," owner Chad Clifford said. "I'm trying to have a place where people come not to drink or talk but to enjoy real music."

Front Porch opened in 1991 and Clifford bought it in 2007, expanding music choices to include rock and jazz from its earlier, almost exclusively folk music, venue, Clifford said.

The 72-seat house is designed for those who buy a ticket to watch a performance. "It's designed to be much more intimate, for the music lover," Clifford said.

Celebrating its sixth anniversary in January, Beatniks got its start when owners Rip and Bonnie Johnson agreed to host a play in the then vacant building they own at 418 Conkey St., Bonnie Johnson said.

The couple cleaned up the building, installed new ceiling tiles, repaired the floor, and the show went on, hooking the Johnsons for good.

"Our audience definitely has grown," Bonnie Johnson said. "People come from Chicago, from Lowell, from Valparaiso, and we get quite a few from Hammond," she said.

February performances included Hammond Community Theatre presentations of "The Mousetrap," by Agatha Christie, and "The Vagina Monologues" by Eve Ensler. Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is scheduled to run April 4 to 13.

A new revue, "something a little more risque than our regular Beatniks show," is under consideration for the future, Johnson said.

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