The History and Downfall of Stage Center
An iconic building which used to provide theater and arts to downtown Oklahoma City could soon be on its last legs.
Stage Center has been closed since massive flooding in 2010 and now the city wants to sell it.
But, another group is working to get the building on a list of historic places.
In June of 2010, nearly a foot of rain fell in a very short time devastating parts of Oklahoma City.
Carpenter Square Theatre Artistic Director Rhonda Clark says the rainwater filled the below ground loading dock like a swimming pool.
“The steel doors were sheared off their hinges and these were heavy duty doors. And, when they were sheared off the water flowed in.”
Even though the water line was waist high in the basement, Clark remembers Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park and Carpenter Square Theatre volunteers rushing in to salvage what they could.
“It really is shocking what water can do. We had props and there was furniture in the building that had been taken by the water a hundred feet from where it had been sitting.”
The act of nature seemed to put the final nail in the coffin of a building which has been a source of controversy for forty years.
Originally named the Mummers’ Theater after its first tenants in 1970, it was built by renowned architect John Johansen, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The building garnered an American Institute of Architects award in 1972, and Johansen himself called it one of his best works.
Catherine Montgomery with the A.I.A. says the modern building had unique construction with its duct work and electricity on the outside, which allowed extra room and flexibility for the actors.
“That’s kind of how he compartmentalized things, there were ways for people to move, there’s ways for HVAC to move and then the stages themselves are the larger round portions that focus all their energy on the stage.”
The building included two theater spaces, one in the round with audience members on all four sides and a thrust stage with audience members on three sides.
An uncommon style for the late 60s early 70s.
And then the short glory days of the building ended.
The Mummers’ Theatre didn’t last long because of financial issues, and the name was changed to the Oklahoma Theatre Center.
Oklahoma City Attorney John Belt served as President of the Oklahoma Theatre Center for a time in the 70s
Belt’s first impression upon seeing the building was how dramatic a structure it was.
“I was young and theatre was a part of my life in those days. It was very exciting to see that theatre and it was new and it was vigorous and there was so many things you could do with it.”
But the Oklahoma Theatre Center didn’t make it either, and the building again closed in the eighties.
After changing ownership to the Oklahoma Arts Council it reopened in the mid 80s as Stage Center with the help of downtown advocate Jim Tolbert and architect Rand Elliot.
“For a while it did okay as stage center when it reopened, carpenter square theater moved in. You had other theatrical venues move in and do their performances,” Oklahoman reporter Steve Lackmeyer says.
Lackmeyer says there was still a lack of support from the community.
Ownership changed yet again. This time, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation stepped up, and then came the 2010 flood.
For two years the building has been shut down as the foundation tries to determine what to do with it.
Lackmeyer says he’s disappointed to see reluctance from so many people to save the building.
“As someone who loves history who has seen some pretty historic buildings in this town torn down some that shouldn’t have been, it can tear at you.”
Meanwhile, Carpenter Square is still performing shows downtown in a building near Main and Classen Boulevard.
Rhonda Clark says she’s not sure what should happen to the old Stage Center.
“I just have such mixed feelings about it. I love it and yet i understand why it’s a difficult building to maintain.”
So, it sits.
An odd juxtaposition in the shadow of new downtown development with the new Devon tower and refurbished Myriad Gardens as well as a new elementary school and the new MAPS 3 conventions center.
While an application has been sent to add Stage Center to the list of National Historic Places, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation has protested the move effectively blocking approval.
Foundation officials say there are between eight to ten potential buyers and about 30% want to keep the building.