40 Years at Everyone's Place 12

Happy Anniversay to The Tulsa Performing Arts Center

This month Tulsa marks four decades since “Fanfare for the Common Man,” performed on opening night at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, heralded a new era for the arts. In the years following, the PAC became an anchor attraction for downtown when there was little else to draw people to the city center at night or on weekends. Chapman Music Hall and the PAC’s five other performance spaces have hosted what few cities are able to support simultaneously: opera, ballet and orchestral organizations, a myriad of theatre troupes, chamber music and contemporary dance companies, along with a vibrant speaker program and a Broadway series. Through these arts groups, touring shows and the PAC Trust, the Performing Arts Center has made possible scores of events. Additionally, the PAC racks up more than 500 event-days annually, contributing an economic impact to the City of Tulsa of $54 million each year.

Civic leaders such as John H. Williams, Leta Chapman, Katie Westby and Charles E. Norman, who were major PAC supporters, are no longer with us, but many citizens still recall the excitement of opening night with jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, and events through the decades that remain cherished memories.

“Ella’s concert was 40 years ago and I was 19 or 20,” recounts Tulsa bass player Dean Demerritt. He was traveling with the TU jazz band prior to the concert and couldn’t get back to Tulsa in time to rehearse and play with the Philharmonic. His friend from the bass section let him in backstage. “I remember that everything smelled new. Going from the Brady Theatre to the new PAC was like living under a bridge and moving to the Ritz Carlton,” he says. “I remember standing in the wings and watching Ella Fitzgerald sing and Thomas Lewis conduct. I believe Ella’s bass player was Keter Betts! The gala was huge — the coolest thing to happen to the arts in Tulsa. The place was packed. Everyone was dressed to the nines. It was a big deal.”

PAC Director John Scott attended that landmark concert on March 19, 1977, too, but not in the audience, and not backstage. He was first-chair oboist for the Tulsa Philharmonic, performing with Ella. Following Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare” opener, he recalls, the Philharmonic played Alan Hovhaness’ “The Mysterious Mountain” and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” Accompanied by the orchestra and then by her own musicians, Ella thrilled the audience during the evening’s second half.

“The new facility seemed at first like a maze. It could have been very easy to get lost from the stage door to the Chapman Music Hall stage if you took a wrong turn,” says Scott. “The stage situation was pretty much ideal. The natural acoustics were great. The theatre had the latest technology, nice dressing rooms and spaces for the musicians to warm up that the Brady absolutely did not have,” he recounts. “There were no train whistles blowing during the performances, which I experienced numerous times at the Brady in absolutely the worst places in the music. We were on cloud nine,” he exclaims. “We were all aware that Ella was a legend, and to have her on stage with our orchestra opening this brand new concert hall was just a treat beyond description. She was a very gracious lady — very kind to the orchestra and very complimentary.”

Tulsa arts patron Kim Smith was a music and foreign language student at the University of Tulsa in the spring of 1977 and took advantage of the bargain-priced Pop Series student tickets the Philharmonic was offering. Her seat location for opening night was Row BX, seats 103 and 104. She thought they might be located far at the back in the new Chapman Music Hall only to discover she had second row “pit” seats. ”I could see Ella perspire. That’s how close I was and how close she was to the edge of the stage,” says Smith. “She sounded awesome, absolutely awesome.”

Native Tulsan Bette Schlanger Wozobski had less luck. Her $6 seat was in the Balcony level where excitement was as palpable as anywhere else in the theatre. “Everybody in town was there, and dressed up,” she says. Those Balcony seats didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for the occasion a bit, she offers, and in 1984, when Ella Fitzgerald returned to the PAC for a benefit concert, Wozobski met the singer. She’s kept an autographed program as a souvenir.

The star lineup for the PAC’s first year was extraordinary, including Andy Williams, Arthur Fiedler, Van Cliburn, Victor Borge, Red Skelton and the Joffrey Ballet. Also among the highlights were Johnny Mathis, Leslie Caron, Theodore Bikel, Steve Martin, Hal Holbrook, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Beverly Sills. Theatregoers could combine an afternoon at the theater with ice-skating at the Williams Center and dinner at The Magic Pan, Nine of Cups, Cognito Inn or The Ramekin.

Kim Smith took part in Tulsa Opera’s lavish Aida during the opening 1977 season as a University of Tulsa chorus member under the direction of Laven Sowell. To accommodate the large cast, her dressing room was set up in a draped area located near the loading dock. Since the opera was staged in Egypt, singers wore bronzy body paint on any part that showed. “The name of the paint was ‘Texas Gold,’” she remembers distinctly. “Our eye makeup was large, too. It seemed like our eyebrows went almost to the tops of our foreheads! It was great fun. The costumes were beautiful.” Tulsa Opera benefited from a costume provider’s snafu for that production, Smith explains. The company had mistakenly promised Aida costumes to two simultaneous productions. Tulsa Opera ended up with the sparkling new set, which was well suited for a grand new theater debut.

Past president of the Tulsa Ballet Guild and a backstage dresser for dancers over many seasons, Smith is an ardent Tulsa Ballet supporter. One of her favorite Ballet memories was Alfonso Martin in the role of Count Dracula. Bernadette Peters’ Pops concert with the Tulsa Philharmonic also was a standout. “I remember she wore a slinky red dress and draped herself on top of the piano,” says Smith with a laugh. “And I loved Tulsa Opera’s Lakmé with Sarah Coburn. It was the first time I had heard her sing. I would see her in anything.” Smith also has enjoyed Chamber Music Tulsa presentations of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the Imani Winds. A subscriber to Celebrity Attractions’ Broadway series, she’s excited to learn that Hamilton is coming to the PAC in the summer of 2019. “Kansas City isn’t getting Hamilton any sooner than we are,” she notes.

Bette Schlanger Wozobski’s all-time sentimental favorite event was Tulsa Ballet’s The Nutcracker, particularly since she was working backstage while her daughter, Lizzie, appeared onstage as a baby clown. In subsequent years she enjoyed attending Tulsa Ballet performances with Lizzie on Sunday afternoons, and Broadway shows with her girlfriends. “It’s amazing what the PAC has brought to the community,” she says. “Of all the Broadway productions, I loved Memphis. It was such a powerful story,” she adds. Dream Girls appears on her extended list of notables, while her husband, Wynn, singles out The Lion King. Reminiscing about the PAC’s earlier days, the couple mentions the outstanding appearances of Zubin Mehta and Itzhak Perlman.

A big fan of musical theater in general, John Scott may hold the record for seeing The Phantom of the Opera the most times. One of his most memorable moments as PAC Director is not from the show itself though, but how the local arts organizations worked together to clear an already crowded calendar so Phantom could make a Tulsa debut in 1996.

The Phantom organization called the PAC first to see if there was a time the production could fit into the venue’s mid-season roster for five weeks. Since the PAC at that time routinely scheduled events with a dozen different arts groups using a five-year calendar, Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Opera and Tulsa Philharmonic, and anyone else with a hold on Chapman Music Hall, would have to clear their dates to make way for Broadway’s behemoth. That meant a massive shifting of already contracted talent. With much negotiating, the arts groups agreed to an arrangement with Phantom that allowed them to use one performance as a fundraiser. The show was booked, and Phantom fever gripped the Tulsa area for 40 filled-to-capacity performances — 94,600 tickets sold!

Scott has crossed paths with many celebrities during his three decades at the Performing Arts Center and believes the most unique performer he’s interacted with was Victor Borge. “He was such a talent, and yet he managed to be one of the most humble performers I’ve ever met,” says Scott. “He couldn’t have been kinder, and he was not only kind, but funny, even when he wasn’t performing. He was a comedian through and through, but at the root of his performances was a huge piano playing talent that I’m not sure was recognized to its full extent.”

Former Mayor Robert J. LaFortune, who helmed the City of Tulsa during the years the PAC was funded and built, turned 90 in January 2017. He is the only living member of the original PAC Trust board and serves on it still. John H. Williams credited LaFortune with the guidance and know-how to close Boston Avenue at Third Street so Williams could build what is now known as the BOK Tower. Instead of two 30-story Williams’ buildings on either side of Boston, which was the original plan, one colossal structure, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, architect of the World Trade Center Towers, was constructed at Second and Boston. The Williams Green, located between Second and Third Streets and centered near the base of the Tower, left adjoining spaces open for development. A hotel was eventually built on one section of the land, and the Performing Arts Center on the other.

In May 1973 when John Williams challenged Tulsa voters to approve a bond that would match the money he intended to raise for a proposed theatre, Mayor LaFortune served as a touchstone and a great resource for the project overall. Later, when it became clear that the PAC could not be built with the $14 million that had been raised by the successful bond vote and Williams’ fundraising efforts, LaFortune found an additional $2 million in a general revenue sharing program to help close the $4 million gap. “That was a huge accomplishment,” says Scott, “especially in that day and age. Two million dollars was no small matter at all, let alone the original passage of the bond issue.”

Battling to stay ahead of raging inflation, the PAC was completed at roughly $18 million and included not only the 2,365-seat Chapman Music Hall, two black box theaters and an art gallery space, as originally planned, but also the 420-seat John H. Williams Theatre. In the original scheme, the area where the Williams Theatre is now was plotted for 200 parking spaces. In the year 2000, the PAC added the Westby Pavilion reception hall, the Robert J. LaFortune Studio and a large suite of restrooms. One aspect of the venue that continues to connect all spaces with interest and beauty is the Center’s public art collection, valued at over $2 million.

“The Performing Arts Center’s presence has served the City of Tulsa well for these 40 years, hosting blockbuster shows as well as the performances of many local arts groups,” says LaFortune. “The theatre’s support group, the Performing Arts Center Trust, has been a superbly energetic and innovative sponsor of many performances which would not have played without its initiative. Through many years, John Scott has professionally maintained the excellence of the theatre, reflecting a welcoming environment for performers and audiences, as well as responsibly caring for the nearly daily use of a busy, busy theatre.”

Scott credits the staff of the PAC for staying the course in rough City budget years. “Especially in the last five to ten years, it has been a serious struggle given the overall economy and the city’s dependence on sales tax collection to fund its budget each year,” he says. Regardless of economic pressures, a small staff of city employees has managed to maintain a safe and attractive facility and the highest quality of customer service. One of the Center’s most innovative achievements was establishing its own regional ticketing company, MyTicketOffice.com, in 2006.

Contributing to the PAC’s upcoming 40th Anniversary celebration will be social events, an exhibition of art in the PAC Gallery, curated by the University of Tulsa Art Department, and a PAC Trust-sponsored concert on March 12. Jazz diva Jane Monheit will take the stage, appearing with Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The duo released an Ella Fitzgerald album last year. Reminiscent of the opening night concert years ago, the performers will be accompanied by the Tulsa Symphony.

Cue “Fanfare for the Common Man” once again.

The Tulsa Performing Arts Center is a tribute to civic leaders’ vision, to the arts organizations that persevere even in the bleakest times and to citizens and audience members who recognize quality and expect no less from this publicly funded building. “Everyone’s Place,” as the building has been called since its inception, is a beautiful example of what can occur when the private sector and government come together to create something enduring for all to share.