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While Stage Center's future remains cloudy, it's hardly the first obstacle in the iconic building's history

C.G. Niebank July 13th, 2011

An eccentric masterpiece of modern architecture, Oklahoma City’s Stage Center is a longtime subject of both conversation and controversy.

The iconic downtown building’s immediate future is unclear as community groups await the release of a study commissioned to help decide its fate. The structure has stood unused since torrential rains forced its closing in June 2010.

Architect John M. Johansen designed Stage Center in the 1960s, and it was constructed as a permanent home for Mummers Theater, a local troupe that dated back to 1949, and gave the building its original name. In 1962, a $1.25 million grant from the Ford Foundation and $750,000 in community matching funds funded the construction. Three years later, Ford gave another $535,000 for building costs.

Credits: Photo: Shannon Cornman

Stage Center’s site, which stands in the long shadow of the under-construction Devon tower, was available for placement of the theater following ’60s urban renewal efforts downtown that razed buildings on the north half of the extended block bounded by Sheridan, Hudson, Reno and Walker avenues.

‘Special place’
Johansen, whose long career is built on a relentless pushing of design boundaries, told Oklahoma Gazette that Stage Center’s seemingly random form and appearance sprang from two ideas.

“I was trying to distance myself from what the profession was doing at the time, which was sort of tame to me, and also to distance myself from myself,” he said. “The progress of my career was never to repeat myself.”

The son of two highly regarded portrait painters and a student of Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Johansen said that with the design of Stage Center, he wanted to distinguish himself from the austere designs of contemporaries like Mies van der Rohe and I.M. Pei.

“I respect Mies, but he was very sober and limited in his expression,” Johansen said. “What he has to express, really, is the forming of lineal steel elements, which are rolled out and chopped into lengths and fitted together beautifully, but it’s about as far as he can go to say anything creative visually.”

Critic Robert Hughes suggested in a May 31, 1971, Time magazine review that Johansen Stage Center’s design offered a rebuttal to the starkness of buildings like New York’s Lincoln Center.

“The Mummers Theater, by contrast (to the Lincoln Center), with its simple materials and modest scale, does not try to stimulate the audience’s sense of self-importance; it is entirely directed toward the events onstage. It is literally a playhouse — open, light, improvisatory, gamelike,” Hughes wrote.

The building’s direct informality attracted the sustained support of OKC’s Myriad Gardens Foundation Chair Emeritus Jim Tolbert. He attended opening night of the first production mounted there, and remains a longtime admirer of the building. The larger of its two theaters also bears the name of Tolbert’s mother, Mary Noble Tolbert.

“I think it’s an exciting, playful special place. It is probably the most internationally recognized building in Oklahoma, with the possible exception of the Price Tower in Bartlesville. It is studied by architects everywhere,” Jim Tolbert said. “I think it would be a tragedy for Oklahoma City to lose something that I think is a treasure.”

Stage Center emerged from longtime Mummers managing director Mack Scism’s dreams of establishing and maintaining a strong regional theater in Oklahoma City.

“Mack came to the attention of the Ford Foundation. The (Mummers) had developed something of a national reputation, and the foundation was very interested in regional theater. They gave Mack a grant to go on a tour, studying regional theaters,” Tolbert said. “The Ford Foundation also wanted good architecture or unique architecture, creative architecture, so the Mummers … began a fundraising campaign and engaged John Johansen as the architect.”

Stage struggles
Despite early philanthropic and community support, and ongoing international kudos from architecture students and admirers, Stage Center has presented its supporters with a series of challenges.

“The Mummers group was not able to raise as much money as they would have liked, and ultimately had to ask the Ford Foundation for permission to use the endowment grant to finish the construction,” Tolbert said. “There was to be an elevator under the main stage, and that was never added. But basically, the building was finished, and the Mummers moved into it in 1971.”

But both edifice and actors almost immediately were beset by difficulties that grew out of ambition and the OPEC oil embargo of the early ’70s.

“The early productions were very elaborate, because (Scism), in effect, rolled the dice because we were all in difficult times in Oklahoma City. He hadn’t raised enough money; he didn’t have strong business people on his board,” Tolbert said. “So he tried to gamble by putting on very elaborate productions to get the strong support of the community to build his financial base, and it didn’t work. The Mummers’ group failed in the first year of operation in the building, which was a terrible loss to the community, because we’ve never had anything of that caliber since.”

Stage Center was then taken over by creditors, but rescued by philanthropist John Kirkpatrick, who created the Oklahoma Theater Center to run Stage Center as a nonprofit. He subsequently ceded control of the facility to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, which later placed the building’s ownership with the Arts Council of Oklahoma City.

Tolbert and Kirkpatrick then teamed up to form the New Mummers, which mounted productions at Stage Center from 1984 to 1986.

“We did pretty well for a couple of years. Then Oklahoma City went into its worst (economic) tumble, when the economy cratered and the Penn Square Bank failed,” Tolbert said. “As a result, the New Mummers struggled, were not able to raise new money in quantities that were needed, so they disbanded and the facility closed.”

But by then, he said, the Arts Council had moved its headquarters to a city-owned building across the street from Stage Center, and began hosting art festivals there.

In 1987, the Arts Council entered into an agreement with the Oklahoma Center for Science and Arts (now Kirkpatrick Center), he said, whereby the council bought the Stage Center building, but control of the land remained with the Oklahoma Center for Science and Arts.

Future hope?
Arts Council of Oklahoma City then oversaw Stage Center operations until 2006, during which time it raised $2 million for renovations, which were carried out using plans drawn up by local architect Rand Elliott.

Tolbert said in that year, the Arts Council entered into an agreement with the city, under which the council would pay a management fee to Oklahoma City, which would manage and operate the building.

“That lasted until the recent flood when the building had to be closed,” he said.

To address repair and restoration questions, a study was commissioned earlier this year by a consortium of interested groups that included the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, the Oklahoma City Cultural Development Council, the Oklahoma Arts Council and Devon Energy. Delivery of the study, first expected at the end of June, has been delayed 30-60 days at the request of the consultants.

Johansen said Stage Center’s repair and restoration should be a relatively simple matter, since many of the structural elements used at the time of its design were selected from farm equipment catalogs.

“The joy in that is the elements … have been around in the building industry for decades,” he said.

Johansen noted that concerns about future flooding could be addressed easily.

“Sump pumps (are) often built into buildings, accepting the possibility that there will be a flood,” he said.

While it has been suggested that the city’s theatrical community might be better served by a new facility, Tolbert said he thinks renovating Stage Center would be more cost-effective.

“I’m emotionally invested in the building … so I don’t want the building taken down under any circumstances,” he said. “I also think the building can be renovated and put into a state-of-the-art condition for significantly less than you could recreate those spaces in a new freestanding facility.”

 
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