Tulsa Performing Arts Center Celebrates 35 Years


BLUES BROTHERS: PAC Director John Scott, former Mayor Robert J. LaFortune, PAC founder John H. Williams and Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett helped launch the PAC’s Blues Brothers’ themed anniversary celebration.

Courtesy Tulsa PAC

Over the course of my time at the , I’ve had the opportunity to recount Tulsa Performing Arts Center history for the 20th, 25th and 30th anniversaries, and now the 35th. It’s actually a pretty cool story about builders and risk-takers — can-do people and arts lovers. How the was built is a model for civic activism. Together, a few strong leaders and an engaged community accomplished something extraordinary and lasting.

When I’m telling the story, I always start with the Old Lady on Brady. I still marvel at the Tulsa pioneers who built a 2,700-seat theatre in 1914. Amazing. For many years it was a very desirable venue for all of Tulsa’s arts activities, despite the train whistles that interrupted arias and symphonies, but it began to need serious renovaton as far back as the 1930s.

By the 1970s, performers were dissing Tulsa’s Municipal Theatre from the stage. Bond issues to support a new performance hall failed miserably, and a theater study committee formed by Robert LaFortune (Tulsa mayor 1970-1978) and led by Charles E. Norman was on the lookout for a venue that could be inexpensive to renovate.

The message got around that the City was scouting for theater space, and one of the people clued in was of the Williams Companies, John H. Williams. He had just purchased a nine-block area north of Third Street.

Unless you lived in Tulsa in the 1970s, it would be hard to visualize the area around 2nd and 3rd street between Cincinnati and Boulder. I worked for a downtown oil company back then and that decaying part of Tulsa, where the is now, was scary and decrepit. Williams’ plan to revitalize it was far-reaching. The value of what he ultimately achieved goes far beyond what he did for the arts.

Williams’ first idea was to build two 30-story buildings flanking Boston. At the time, Boston was a through street that ran one-way far north of First Street. He had hired World Trade Center architect Minoro Yamasaki, “Yama,” as Williams called him, for the job. One day when they were considering a scale model of the proposed site, Williams had a thought. He put one 30-story building on top of another and moved the new Williams Company home to the center of Boston. What became the largest building in Oklahoma was on the drawing board.

Luckily for the , that new arrangement left land open where the two 30-story buildings had been. Williams recognized that a performing arts center would be a perfect companion to the Williams Plaza Hotel, which would be located opposite the , separated by a green space.

Buoyed by the possibilities, Williams challenged Tulsa voters to raise $7 million through a bond election to match the $7 million he would raise. When the voters came through in 1973, the matching money delivered by Williams was the largest gift to the city in its history. Crucial to Williams’ fundraising efforts was Leta M. Chapman.

When the construction bids were opened by the City, the lowest bid was $8 million more than what had been funded. With the rapid inflation of the mid-1970s, by the time the project was scaled down and rebid, it would have been more expensive yet. To address the dilemma, a private entity called was created: John Williams and Ralph Abercrombie oversaw private sector interests, and Charles Norman and City of Tulsa Engineer Harold Miller represented the City. acquired the land from the City, wrangled through all the machinations of constructing a building at a pace that couldn’t have been possible otherwise, built the , and then turned it back over to the City when it was done.

Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied by the Tulsa Philharmonic, opened the new Tulsa Performing Arts Center on March 19, 1977. Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” was performed, punctuating the theme, “Everyone’s Place,” that was used to rally citizens to vote for the PAC’s bond issue. A Trust was formed with remaining private funds and still operates today with John Williams and Robert LaFortune, the last of the original Trust members, still active.

And so we come to March 2012. After 35 years, has the interest in events at the waned? With multiple performance spaces across Tulsa — the Center, Convention Center, the Cain’s and Brady Theatre in downtown — has business declined?

Last year the hosted 524 events. In this March alone, 15 different groups are presenting 42 performances at the . The Performing Arts Center thanks our long-standing clients that we’ll see on one of our four stages in March: Tulsa Opera, Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Town Hall, American Theatre Company, Theatre Tulsa, Theatre North, Chamber Music Tulsa and the Trust. Newer clients in our theatres in March are Tulsa Symphony, Encore Theatre Arts, Choregus Productions, Actors and Children’s Theatre and the South Asian Performing Arts Foundation. Tulsa Gridiron also presents its roast in March, and we were fortunate to have hosted stellar performances from The Playhouse Tulsa last month.

The is busier than ever.

We hope that you will have an opportunity to attend at least one event in March. We are centering our 35th anniversary celebrations, which are generously sponsored by Jackie Cooper Imports, on a show that is closest to our anniversary date, The Original Tribute to the Blues Brothers, on March 17, presented by Choregus Productions. It’s a fun party gig that we thought would have broad appeal, but all events in March reflect the pride we have for our heritage and this tremendous arts community.

If you would like to come backstage, from the spotlight booth to the basement, and see how the works, please attend our open house on March 19. Tours will be given on the hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 918-596-7122 to reserve your spot. And when you’re at the , drop by our Gallery to peruse a 35th Anniversary exhibit of costumes, photos and mementos. The is “Everyone’s Place,” after all, and yours to share.

Nancy Hermann is Director of Marketing at the Tulsa Performing Arts cener.

Updated 02-27-2012

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