Herbert Petrie was well known in the Warsaw area, spending most of his life in both the educational and performance sides of show business. He had founded a concert brass ensemble known as “Petrie’s White Hussars” and that ensemble played concerts all across the country and abroad. At the celebrated Winona Lake Venetian Nights, Major Petrie’s Band was a crowd favorite. An artist or attraction was usually invited to appear once every two or three years. The White Hussars performed in Winona eight out of ten years, something of a record on the Chautauqua Circuit. Winona Lake was also host to the Petrie Band Camp.
During World War 1, Major Petrie attended performances at the Penthouse Theatre in Fort Lawton, Washington, the country’s first theatre-in-the-round. When he returned to Warsaw, he remained so interested in the idea that he was determined to recreate the experience here in his home town.
Major Petrie, his wife Mildred, along with John & Kitty Butterfield held the Wagon Wheel Playhouse’s first season in 1956. Besides the tent for the theatre, they also opened the Wagon Wheel Restaurant at the top of the hill. The second floor of that building became the Petrie’s Warsaw home.
Somehow it all came together. The actual facility was a tent with a gravel floor, canvas chairs, an old chicken coop that served as the shop where they would build the sets and costumes, and also an area for dressing rooms. The “orchestra” consisted of Vernon Rector playing the Hammond organ.
Around 1961 an actual theatre was built on the property. With its wooden shuttered windows and steel roof, the occasional thunderstorm would compete with the onstage performance.
It was a brand new experience: theatre-in-the-round! Audiences so close to the action onstage that they were practically a part of the show. It was the magic of live theatre in Warsaw, Indiana, and somehow it all worked.