‘Old Lady of Brady’ Offers Interesting History in Tulsa
On Architecture By ROGER COFFEY, AIA
BRADY THEATER: Opened in 1913 as “Convention Hall,” the building has hosted conventions, musicals, operas and many other events over the years.
GTR Newspapers photo
Some buildings are worth writing about because of their excellent architectural design. Others are notable because of the events and celebrities that utilized the space there. The Brady Theater is one of the latter. In reality, the building is just a big barn but a big barn filled with memories of famous and not so famous performers, so many that to list them would fill a book. Of course there is one, Memoirs of the Old Lady by Jamie M Townsend.
In 1912, Tulsa, with a population of barely 30,000, was chosen as the site for the International Dry Farming Congress Convention, to be held in 1913. The Commercial Club (forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce) in tandem with the Hyeehka Club lobbied for a new convention hall. A $100,000 bond issue was passed and a lot 200 by 140 feet at the northwest corner of Brady and Boulder avenues was purchased for $9,000. Architects Rose & Peterson were selected and T. O’Keefe won the bid for general construction. The style of the building was said to be “Richardsonian / Western Classic Revival.” But as with many public projects, work took longer than planned. Ground was broken in the winter of 1913, and the building wasn’t ready for occupancy until May 1914. Its massive pipe organ wasn’t installed until 1915.
The building was a showcase for Tulsa with a seating capacity of 3,000 and storage facilities, which could accommodate Metropolitan Opera Productions (at the time it was one of only 16 like facilities in the United States). The rake stage had a 13 inch fall from back to front. Two hydraulic jacks enabled the wooden floor to be lowered in the back of the auditorium and the seats removed in order for the structure to serve as both a conventional hall and a theater. A generous balcony provided additional seating and the building’s structure allowed for a second, higher balcony (which was never built). Large wall fans provided the only ventilation. There was no air conditioning. Thus, the facility was seldom used during the summer months.
By 1930, Convention Hall was looking tired and ragged around its edges. A $60,000 bond issue was passed to renovate and modernize the building. A young Bruce Goff with Endicott, Rush & Goff was commissioned to handle the design and given only 30 days to complete the work. The wooden floor was removed and a bowl-shaped concrete was poured. Opera style seats from American Seating were installed with racks underneath each seat to store a male occupant’s hat.
An art deco treatment was developed including a lowered acoustical tile ceiling (painted in a checkered pattern), the balcony facing and the stage proscenium. Five 16 foot-long chandeliers were hung from the center of the theater. The east, south and west walls were completely covered with red velvet drapes with 12” black borders. Finally, a custom-painted drop curtain in a distinctive art deco design was designed by muralist Olinka Hrdy.
By 1952, Convention Hall was again showing its age. A $250,000 bond issue was passed and the name changed to Tulsa Municipal Theater. The building front was expanded to accommodate upstairs and downstairs lobbies, new dressing rooms and restrooms, new heating and lighting systems and a new roof. The infamous slanted stage was lowered and deepened. The red brick exterior was painted a light green. At this point in its history, the building was the performance home to the ballet, the symphony, and the opera as well as a location for numerous other events. In 1965 the Frisco Railroad promised to refrain from blowing whistles during performances. Despite the many changes made to the building for over 60 years, its acoustics remained excellent.
The Tulsa Municipal Theater closed in 1977 when the new Performing Arts Center opened. In 1978 Peter Mayo, third generation of a Tulsa family heavily involved in the arts, bought the building for $37,777 with a seven-year non-compete clause. The inside had been stripped of most fixtures and the organ was sold for parts. Peter has been gradually restoring the building now called Brady Theater. Four hundred tons of air conditioning, stage, furnishing, new seating and a new color scheme have been added. The blue green paint has been removed from the red brick exterior and landscaping added. As more and more events are scheduled, the future is looking bright for the Brady Theater.