Adieu, Stage Center: The Long, Often Sad History of an American Icon
by Robyn Arn and Lynne Rostochil. Current-day photos by Lynne Rostochil, vintage photos as marked.
The Mummers Theater troupe was formed in 1949 by eight recent college graduates and military veterans with ambitions of leaving Oklahoma City for the stages of New York City but with little funds to go much beyond the city limits. To keep their dreams of performing alive, OU graduate and local high school speech teacher, Mack Scism, became director of the fledgling troupe and later recalled, “We had absolutely no money – actually $8.40 – so any existing theatre was ruled out, because we couldn’t afford it. A former carnival man whom I happened to know had a tent; a man that I was buying gasoline from had a vacant lot; we scrounged the dump yards and found enough scraps to put together a stage, and we produced old-fashioned melodramas.” From these humble beginnings, the small troupe grew and soon left behind the tents that barely protected patrons from the harsh Oklahoma elements and moved to the upper floor of the Civic Center, where they shared space with the Oklahoma City Orchestra. After a few more successful years, they were regularly performing in a deserted oil equipment warehouse on Main Street, the theater’s first home where they weren’t required to clear the set after each night’s performance.
As the Mummers continued to flourish over the next decade, the amateur group gained the attention of other regional directors, such as Nina Vance, who ran the famed Alley Theater in Houston. Scism and his cohorts recognized the need for a proper theater space, and it was through the group’s connection to Vance that Scism received a $10,000 Ford Foundation grant to investigate what the rest of the country and Europe was doing with their regional theater spaces. He returned to the city with big ideas, which were soon rewarded with an even larger Ford Foundation grant of $1,250,000 in 1962 for the troupe to build themselves a theater. With this gift, the Ford Foundation hoped that the Mummers would evolve from its current status as an amateur troupe to a fully professional theater, something that had never been accomplished in America to that time.
There were two caveats to the gift, however; the people of Oklahoma City had to contribute $750,000 to the new venture and the building had to both meet contemporary theater needs and boast a provocative design by a “visionary” architect. Times were booming in the oil-rich Sooner State, and enthusiastic local arts patrons with plenty of cash on hand lined up to contribute to the project, meeting the Ford Foundation’s first condition within a month of beginning fund raising efforts.
With funding assured, Scism met with stage designer, David Hays, who was affiliated with the Ford Foundation, and the two travelled to New York to interview possible architects for the new, state-of-the-art theater. When they met with a brilliant architect named John M. Johansen, they knew they had their man.
Johansen was one of the famed Harvard Five, a group of architects (including Harvard-educated Philip Johnson, Landis Gores, and Eliot Noyes, as well as Harvard instructor, Marcel Breuer) who clustered together in upscale New Canaan, CT, after the war and created some of the country’s most inspired Modernist residential architecture. A fierce and ever-curious individualist, the energetic Johansen saw the widespread technological advances and the fractious social upheavals of the swinging ‘60s as opportunities to design thoroughly unique, even sculptural, structures for an emerging, complex, and completely new kind of society. No longer would he be hindered by uniform design and building methods or archaic ideas of what a building should be and how it should function. The future was now and anything was possible.
Scism and Hays embraced Johansen’s optimistic architectural vision and tasked him to design a new and innovative space for the Mummers’ new home on the dusty, flat prairie in Oklahoma. With Hayes’ valuable input, Johansen would spend the next four years working to design a remarkably creative, even avant garde, space that would become perhaps the most controversial building in Oklahoma City’s history….
During the four years it took to locate an appropriate downtown site for the building and get the project off the ground, Johansen was able to freely explore the many aspects of current design He based the Mummers’ layout on an electrical circuit system that seemed chaotic at first but ultimately had its own logic. In a later video interview, Johansen called the design motif “ad hocism,” a response to what was needed that also reflected a very regional look — a landscape he saw scattered with grain silos, barns, and scrapped automobiles.
Comprised of three concrete pods connected by tube-like, steel tunnels, Johansen’s vision also was designed to heighten theatergoers’ overall experience by encouraging them to explore the maze-like building en route to their seats in one of the three theaters (a traditional thrust set up, a theater in the round, and a rehearsal hall). According to Johansen after his creation was realized, “My purpose was to excite, intrigue, tempt, and entrap. In the Mummers Theater, theatergoers are drawn into a building as stage set and feel themselves actors among professionals on the stage itself, in a total, combined performance.”
As Johansen explored new architectural concepts in his one-of-a-kind design, Scism and his Mummers began the transition from amateur to professional theater in 1967. They planned that, by the time the new theater opened in 1970, they would be fully professional, just as the Ford Foundation had hoped they would.
There were still hurdles to overcome, however.
(Oklahoma History Center)
When Johansen’s early sketches of this “adult jungle gym” were deemed unacceptable by the local review board and investors as being too unusual, the city’s major funding was threatened. The Ford Foundation, which fully backed Johansen’s innovative design, felt Oklahoma City might not be ready for this major cultural and architectural leap and balked, but after a few back-and-forth exchanges between the two groups, ruffled feathers were soothed and by 1967 the foundation even added another $535,000 to the Mummers pot.
Obtaining affordable downtown space was also key to getting the theater built, and with the aid of the ongoing Urban Renewal program a square-block lot that had recently been cleared of 19 blighted downtown buildings was purchased. With everything finally set, ground breaking took place in January 1969.
The next hurdle the Mummers Theater faced was the complicated construction phase, where builders found themselves challenged in all kinds of new and interesting ways, especially when they received Johansen’s plans. The experimental design of the theater made creating exact working drawings so challenging that Johansen wrote “Good Luck” across the bottom of the plans, a note of hopeful, fingers-crossed encouragement for the people hired to implement his grand vision.
As building got underway, passersby began to realize that something truly unique was being constructed in downtown Oklahoma City. Half sculpture, half building, Johansen’s Brutalist beauty seemed uncharacteristically light and airy, with normally dense concrete pods seeming to precariously suspend in mid-air, light as a feather and with little obvious support. Daring colors and varying textures on ramps and hanging “boxes” containing mechanical systems also added to the Tinker Toy effect, giving the entire building a whimsical feeling that few, if any, other typically heavy-handed Brutalist structures have ever been able to accomplish. To be succinct, there was no other building like it in the world, something that some Metro residents enthusiastically embraced and others vehemently eschewed.
(Oklahoma History Center)
In October of 1970, the Oklahoman devoted its Sunday section, Orbit, to the upcoming opening of the nearly-completed theater, which was the first of the impending Urban Renewal projects to be finished. In the opening piece, writer Phil Frey mentioned that, though local contractors and engineers were definitely challenged during the construction of the unusual building, they also seemed to enjoy coming up with solutions to all the unique design aspects. It was a once-in-a-lifetime project for most of the workmen, “like telling your grandchildren you installed windows in the Empire State Building or braided wires for the Golden Gate Bridge,” as one commented at the time.
Though there were hints of skepticism in other Orbit articles, Frey wrote in a positive tone, “As you sort out people tubes from air ducts and mechanical boxes from those enclosing lounge, coatroom, ticket and truck dock, you begin to understand its direct, no nonsense design.” He continued, “You could compare the whole futuristic layout to a wagon wheel, where the hub is the central theatre; the rim is the audience access ring; and the spokes that converge between open spaces are ramps that lead you inside…. All of it does wonders for your psyche, which is part of its intended goal.”
Also quoted in the article, Scism said, “You must learn to appreciate its brutal beauty. We won’t paint it with a slick patina. We don’t want a theatre that anyone could confuse with a post office or funeral home.” Frey finished with, “Obviously this $3 million plus people playhouse can thank its lucky tubes, ramps and pill boxes that Henry Ford got rich making automobiles. But thanks to Ford, the Mummers and a lot of stage-struck theatre fans Oklahoma City has an enviable asset that is unique in all the world. It’s weird. It’s wild. It’s functional. If you look at it with your mind halfway open, it’s even a little bit cute.”
The newly professional Mummers Theatre opened with great fanfare on December 2, 1970 with “A Man for All Seasons,” followed by a champagne party in the arena theater for the benefactors (including reps from the Ford Foundation). Unfortunately, the accolades from celebrity guest stars, theater directors, and respected architects wasn’t enough to keep the equity company afloat. According to reporter Arthur Ballet, the new, now-professional theater company was composed mainly of outsiders, and “a lot of local actors and theatre buffs were alienated.” In addition, businessman and arts patron, John Kirkpatrick, ultimately reneged on his substantial donation pledge of a few years before, leaving the Mummers group with a $178,000 debt it had no way of repaying.
The very John Kirkpatrick who helped cause the demise of the Mummers Theater turned around and offered to relieve the troupe’s debt if the Mummers board was replaced with his own non-profit group. With no other alternative, Scism and his Mummers agreed, effectively dissolving the 22-year-old theater group within a year of the building’s grand opening. With the ousted Mummers now history, the theater was renamed the Oklahoma Theater Center, and Scism soon left his home state to become a director of the Theater of the Deaf in Chester, CT, a position he held until his untimely death from cancer in 1986.
As for the building, it remained controversial. Although it was considered an instant classic in architectural circles and by many in the community, a lot of people scratched their heads when they first looked upon all of that concrete, tubing, and color. The building’s arch nemesis was The Oklahoman publisher, E.K. Gaylord, who hated the building so much that he advocated tearing down the year-old structure when the Mummers Theater dissolved. However, even with the controversy, the newly-named Oklahoma Theater Center received the highly-coveted AIA Honor Award in 1972 and was featured in such publications as Time, Architectural Forum, and Architectural Record, among others. However, that didn’t stop one moneyed Oklahoma City big shot from investing thousands of dollars planting shrubs, trees, and ivy around the theater to hide as much of the building as possible.
And so the theater continued on, producing successful shows and entertaining thousands of locals … until the debilitating oil bust in the mid-’80s. Suddenly, sponsorships almost completely dried up, much like the parched Oklahoma land itself. Wells were abandoned, many formerly successful speculators grimly filed for bankruptcy or quietly moved away in the night, businesses were shuttered, and the Metro settled into a bleak economic hibernation from which it wouldn’t awake for well over a decade. Yes, Oklahoma City’s heady, optimistic oil boom days were certainly over, with one victim of the hard times being the Oklahoma Theater Center, which disbanded in 1987. Even as the last box was packed and the theater doors were locked, threats of demolition once again swirled in the air. However, an old Urban Renewal covenant stating that the site must be home to a theater until 2000 likely spared the building from more talk of tearing down Johansen’s creation, and the Oklahoma City Arts Council, led by president Jim Tolbert, stepped in and took control of the space.
With new blood in the control seat, the theater received yet another new name, Stage Center, and the owners immediately hired local architect, Rand Elliott, to spearhead a $2 million makeover of the space, making the theater more user friendly and multi-functional. Elliott’s award-winning design pleased most people but infuriated the aging Johansen, who complained that he wasn’t contacted by either the Art Council or Elliott about the renovation plans. Elliott quickly remedied the situation by consulting with Johansen and receiving the architect’s approval for the changes. Once the renovation was complete, the new Stage Center opened and for almost two decades, the building’s performance spaces and halls served a variety of theater companies and arts groups and even housed offices for several non-profits. However, outright success still proved elusive.
As the 21st century dawned, Oklahoma City found itself finally awakening from its long and hard economic hibernation, thanks mainly to the newly-completed, voter-approved MAPs projects that began bringing tourists, new residents, developers, and even an NBA team to town. Things were looking up in the Metro, especially in the arts, with the completion of the new Oklahoma City Museum of Art and the opening of more galleries and art spaces in revitalized areas like the Plaza District, Automobile Alley, the Paseo, and Midtown. By all rights, Stage Center should have been among those about to receive the bounty of the economic upturn, but a historic, 100-year flood in 2010 caused millions of dollars of damage to the aging theater and did what all of the building’s critics and arch enemies never could do, force Stage Center to close its doors for good.
Preservation groups tried to get Stage Center listed on the National Register and others who simply loved the building and knew what an important icon it was for Oklahoma City tried to brainstorm ideas for a new use, such as a children’s museum or theater/activity space for the new John W. Rex Elementary School being built across the street. Fundraising deadlines proved too tight to allow for a grass roots creative solution, however, and the building was sold to a developer, Kestrel Investments, in 2013 with plans to build an office tower with commercial space on the bottom floor. The new building will be named after anchor tenant, OGE Energy Corp., and here’s what the owner says it will look like:
Although the architects and developers of the new office and retail complex vow to somehow pay homage to Johansen’s glorious Mummers Theater in their plan, they do not intend to incorporate any part of the theater building into the new design. It seems that those who have hated Johansen’s sculptural delight for decades finally have their wish to erase every vestige of his brilliant creation as if it never existed at all. So cavalierly removing such an internationally significant building from our skyline and replacing it with something much less exciting and inspiring is short sighted and only serves to deplete Oklahoma City’s rich and distinctive architectural landscape. When the wrecking ball takes that first swing at Stage Center one terrible day in the near future, our city will not only lose an architectural icon and symbol of fierce, mid-century individualism and innovation, we will also find ourselves one step closer to a lazy, bland homogeny that will soon make Oklahoma City look just like Indianapolis just like Dallas just like everywhere else. What a shame.
RIP, Stage Center.
Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage by Joseph Wesley Zeigler. University of Minnesota Press. 1973.
“A Mummers’ Tale: A True-Life Story” by Barbara Koerble. Featured in Cite magazine, issue #25, Fall 1990.
Various issues of the Oklahoman.