Enter Stage Wright

Written by Kenneth LaFave Category: History Issue: January 2015
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gammage Auditorium has changed a lot in 50 years, but quality performing arts programs are a mainstay.

It’s been called the “wedding cake” – the imposing, eight-stories-high circular structure that dominates the west end of Arizona State University’s Tempe campus. Driving past, one is struck by the grandness of the 50 concrete columns supporting the perfectly round roof, and the uniqueness of two pedestrian ramps extending for 200 feet on either side. Inside, the long arcs of seats, two balconies, and a cathedral-high ceiling produce a sense of comfortable expectation.

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Grady Gammage Auditorium celebrated its 50th anniversary in September with a concert featuring the combined choirs and orchestras of ASU. But most Valley residents know the 3,000-plus-seat venue as a home to touring Broadway shows, and as the largest university-based performing arts center in the country. Designed originally for a different city and altered over the years to fit the demands of a changing demographic, ASU Gammage, as it is best known today, is a lesson in adaptation.

 In 1958, Arizona State College had just become Arizona State University. Henry Bruinsma, the first dean of ASU’s College of Fine Arts, along with Grady Gammage, longtime president of the university, attended a dinner party hosted by world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a sometime Phoenix resident. In a memoir written by former ASU librarian Gordon Sabine, Bruinsma recalls the genesis of the building:

“After dinner, Mr. Wright banged on the table and said: ‘I feel the need to say something. I believe it’s time that ASU grow up and be a university. You are missing one thing that would tie a university together. That is an auditorium or a concert hall. Dr. Gammage, if you would go with me right now, I’ll show you.’”

Bruinsma then describes a midnight car ride in which the 90-year-old Wright drove him and Gammage to a spot adjacent to Mill Avenue and Apache Boulevard, pulled over to the curb and announced: “This is the site.” Wright shared with Gammage the design of a concert facility he made on commission from the king of Iraq. When the king’s assassination put a stop to the project, Wright found himself with a building, and no place to put it – until that midnight ride. Impressed with the design and Wright’s siting, Gammage sold the idea to ASU’s Board of Regents. Construction of the 75,000-square-foot building began in the summer of 1962, and was completed 25 months and $2.46 million later. Sadly, neither Wright nor Gammage lived to see it happen: Both men died in 1959. Wright’s aide, William Wesley Peters, completed the building.

From its inception, ASU Gammage has drawn major performing artists and events.  Immediately recognized for its spectacular acoustics, Gammage hosted the most famous classical musicians of the day. The Philadelphia Orchestra initiated the hall at its grand opening Sept. 18, 1964, followed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and many other major symphony orchestras. As time went on, and the Valley grew and tastes expanded, Gammage also saw appearances by Johnny Cash, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen.

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In 1991, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack began her current tenure as executive director. In the early-to-mid-’90s, she oversaw the biggest transformation in Gammage’s history. The changing cultural milieu of the Valley had created a demand for first-rate touring productions of Broadway shows, but Gammage was designed as a venue for classical music. Thus the stage was too small and the backstage area far too tiny to accommodate the massive sets and cast requirements of Broadway musicals.

“As the touring Broadway industry changed in the early 1990s, it became necessary to have more stage space at ASU Gammage to accommodate bigger shows like The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon,” Jennings-Roggensack says. “To accommodate, ASU Gammage added ‘the shell garage,’ so that the orchestra shell and the magnificent Aeolian-Skinner organ could be moved off stage during large productions.”

The redesign also altered the hall’s fabled acoustics, which to this day remain a challenge for touring shows. Broadway shows are miked, and Gammage was designed for acoustic performance. If a show’s sound designer doesn’t make the proper corrections, audiences end up hearing an actor’s lines twice – first “live,” and then, a fraction of a second later, miked. To help pay for upgrades, a fundraising group dedicated to ASU Gammage’s maintenance and growth, called the “50th Anniversary Leadership Board,” was formed. “With any historic venue, there are many things that need updates and improvements, including the need for sound enhancement, seating upgrades, window treatments, accessibility improvements and the long-term need for restroom expansion,” Jennings-Roggensack notes.

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Despite any technical difficulties, seating is still always at a premium in Gammage. Jennings-Roggensack is wired into the Broadway community and knows how to get the most recent shows for her audience. Musicals at Gammage over the years have included national touring companies performing such mega-hits as The Lion King, The Producers and Wicked. It was Jennings-Roggensack’s connections that made Gammage the only venue between New York and Los Angeles to host Billy Crystal’s one-man show, A Month of Sundays.

Classical music has not disappeared. Brahms and company are still heard at Gammage, in concerts by students of the ASU School of Music. Jennings-Roggensack has also opened up Gammage for performances by avant-garde dance and theater groups from around the country, part of ASU’s trademarked “Connecting Communities” program, which provides access for artists to diverse audiences. Jennings-Roggensack’s criterion for getting booked into Gammage is simple: The event must have cultural currency. “Our community is smart and our folks are on top of what’s happening,” she says.

That other kind of currency – the green sort – is also well-served by ASU Gammage. It’s estimated that ASU Gammage events since 2006 have generated more than $300 million in business for local restaurants, hotels and shops. Not bad for a midnight drive and a $2.46 million dollar investment.