By CHARLES CANTRELL
ARTISTIC PROCESSION: The Brady Arts District received a boost when Living Arts of Tulsa moved last year from Kenosha Avenue to 307 E. Brady St. Above, patrons, artisans and other friends of the Living Arts of Tulsa participated in a ceremonial parade to the new location.
GTR Newspapers photo
There is no better place to begin a series on Greater Tulsa’s past, present and future than with the epicenter of it all, downtown. Most everyone knows by now the city’s downtown is undergoing an economic and cultural rebirth as a regional center for entertainment, art, commerce, business and residential living.
Newly renovated downtown streets, once empty and quiet after quitting time for mainly white collar businesses, now come to life after sunset, teeming with young and old alike on their way to concerts, sporting events, drinks with friends, art show openings and dining, and even some are headed home to an urban loft for a quiet evening on the couch that would likely include a marvelous, close up view of the city’s nighttime skyline. One result of all this patronage is that distinct districts are emerging within the parameters of downtown each with its own identity.
One of these emerging districts constitutes what many believe to be the very heart of historic downtown Tulsa, The Brady Arts District. The district boundaries run from Archer Street north to I-244 and west from Elgin to Denver Avenues. Within this relatively small patch of downtown real estate are structures and stories that tell of the city’s diverse cultural heritage.
Starting with the Brady Theater, sometimes referred to as the Ole Lady on Brady, one can trace back nearly a century to 1914, a mere seven years after statehood, when Wyatt Tate Brady, one of the young city’s pioneers and early entrepreneurs, contracted the architectural firm of Rose and Peterson out of Kansas City to build the finest and largest municipal auditorium and convention hall between Kansas City and Houston. The new hall featured 4,200 seats, a 13-foot forward slope to the stage using jacks or “screws” to raise the floor at the back of the auditorium increasing the line of sight for the audience. It also hosted the only municipal pipe organ west of the Allegheny Mountains paid for by popular subscription. Brady’s dream was to create an opera venue unequaled in the region and thereby provide a cultural counterpoint for a growing city rapidly filling up with early day oil boom roughnecks, roustabouts and other such truculent riffraff. To make his point that the city was in tune with contemporary culture, Brady brought to town the world-renowned tenor, The Great Caruso, Enrico Caruso. Thus began more than nine decades of hosting entertainers from Will Rogers, Rosemary Clooney, George Cohen and Louis Armstrong to Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson, Cyndi Lauper and many others.
In 1924 Brady also built what would eventually become the city’s premier musical attraction. Located at 423 North Main the structure was originally meant to be a garage until Madison W. “Daddy” Cain purchased the building in 1930. He named it Cain’s Dance Academy, installed a “spring-loaded” dance floor constructed of curly maple on steel joists and launched what became Cain’s Ballroom, the city’s most iconic musical venue.
The history of Cain’s has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Good times ensued when new ownership stepped in to refurbish the facility and give it a new lease on life. The most recent revival of Cain’s is by far the most successful of all past renovations. The old dance hall now features a fabulous sound system made possible by eliminating the old dropped ceiling. This also exposed the steel girders supporting the curved roof to create a more open feel. Ample restrooms have been added along with a small club and bar to the side of the big hall. Remaining on the walls are all the wonderful old photos from the western swing days, the red neon star overhead looking down on the refurbished dance floor and tucked away on the wall is a small 1930s sign announcing, “10 Cents A Dance.”
Nestled around the Ole Lady and Cain’s are many vintage, red brick buildings that house small businesses relating to the arts like The Living Arts of Tulsa, Miller Photography, Tulsa Glassblowing Studio, Gallery, Main Street Productions, Tulsa Violin Shop, Boston Artists Studio and Theater Tulsa. There are a variety of restaurants, including the Bowery, Caz’s Chowhouse, Mexicali Border Café and the Spaghetti Warehouse. In addition there are numerous small flourishing businesses sprinkled in to the mix to create a persistent vibrant energy level to a once seemingly dead segment of downtown.
The future for this part of downtown looks even brighter as big plans are in the works to further the cause of making the Brady the go-to district for art, culture and entertainment for the region.
A Visual Arts Center () in downtown Tulsa has been a dream of the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa board of directors since 1998 according to its executive director, Ken Busby. Busby has been hard at work putting together the pieces to make the dream a reality since 2006, first by forming a partnership with the City of Tulsa to secure a 99-year lease on the old Mathews Warehouse building located in the heart of the district at 100 E. Brady St. The $18.3 million project is nearly funded through private and foundation donations and construction is scheduled to begin soon with completion projected in 2011. When completed, the facility will house artist studios, galleries, classrooms and offices. (See www.ahct.org/about/vac.cfm)
In addition to the project, another $33 million project is in the works for the district. The Oklahoma Museum of Music and Popular Culture, or Oklahoma Pop, plans to be a top tier museum celebrating the broad scope of Oklahoma creativity. In a May, 2009 press release Ken Levit, president of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, announced a $1 million challenge grant to launch the project.
“Mr. Kaiser and I believe Oklahoma Pop will become a centerpiece for the further development of the Brady Arts District,” said Levit. “This museum will enhance Tulsa’s image as a center for the arts and will contribute to the continued economic development of the emerging northern part of downtown from the Center to the ONEOK Baseball Stadium. The new museum will help us market Tulsa as a magnet to artists, tourists and conventions. (See www.okhistory.org/pressreleases/051509.html)
The planned structure will enclose 45,000 square feet and house a broad array of memorabilia, artifacts and displays celebrating Oklahoma’s own popular cultural icons and the mere one-degree of separation connecting them to the wider world of popular entertainment. Efforts continue to raise the necessary funding through private donations and a proposed state bond issue pending legislative approval. Dr. Bob Blackburn of the Oklahoma Historic Society is spearheading the funding drive and projects the timeline for completion will run through 2012 with completion sometime in 2013.
A few days prior to the announcement of the Oklahoma Pop Museum, another group of Tulsans rolled out a plan to create a Cain’s Ballroom Museum on property located a few doors south of the historic dance hall. The $2.5 million vision will showcase Cain’s illustrious history. There will be interactive exhibits like the “Mini-Cain’s Ballroom,” using boards from the original ballroom floor along with exhibits of memorabilia from the ballroom’s storied past.
Directly behind Cain’s Ballroom to the east between Boston and Cincinnati Avenues with I-244 to the north and Cameron to the south is property owned by Channel 6, Griffin Communications, L.L.C., a privately owned Oklahoma media company. Eventually the company will build a new station facility once “the economy is back and we feel safe to build” according to a spokesperson.
A public park created by the City of Tulsa just south of the Brady Theater, urban apartments overlooking the district from the refurbished Tribune Lofts Building with more such residential projects in the plans, Tulsa Tough Cycling Festival and other festivals and entertainment events, flourishing restaurants and clubs are all part of the unique Brady experience. The vision for The Brady Arts District as stated in its small area plan submitted to the Vision 2025 board was as follows: “To develop and foster an active pedestrian-friendly, mixed use neighborhood boasting a historic feel and identity as an arts and entertainment destination.” With the help of private, city and state funding a marvelous parcel of historic Tulsa real estate is coming back to new life in ways that promise an even brighter future. (See www.thebradyartssdistrict.com)
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a multi-part series about the past, present and future growth of Greater Tulsa. In this series Newspapers will look back on the history, examine current developments and explore the possible future of various sectors of Tulsa and surrounding communities to give readers a better overall perspective of the many unique and vibrant parts that make up the whole of what we believe to be the greatest place in the world to live: Greater Tulsa.