Right before the first performance after the $53 million renovation to the Civic Center Music Hall during the original MAPS, the lights came down. But so did the air conditioning and the sound system, because a lightning strike killed the power.
Kirk Humphreys, who then was mayor of Oklahoma City, suggested headline performers Jimmy Webb and Michael Feinstein try an a cappella performance, and if nothing else, it would be a test of the new acoustics at the renovated, cozier main theater.
“They went out there with two grand pianos and no amplification, no microphones for their voices, and played a concert,” Humphreys recalled last week. “Some people will tell you it was the best concert they'd ever been to. My wife leaned over and said, ‘This is special. This is romantic.' In the back row on the balconies, you could hear every note. Every word.”
The Civic Center Music Hall celebrates the 75th anniversary of its opening this year. Humphreys and former Mayor Ron Norick say it's a shining example of the city's renaissance and evidence the region's cultural gems should be lovingly polished and refurbished.
In the years before the MAPS renovation, the Civic Center was criticized as aging and outdated. It failed to attract significant performances.
Architects got to work on the refurbishing plans and decided to shrink the size of the main auditorium to create a more intimate venue.
The result was better acoustics, along with state-of-the-art amenities, and a soaring, five-story atrium to greet patrons where the rear of the auditorium used to be.
Clear sightlines in the atrium help create a buzz on performance nights, building Event Manager Richard Charnay said.
“My favorite is when there's something in all four venues we have,” Charnay said. “You can see everyone moving around, the people coming and going. You can feel it. The building really comes alive.”
In addition to the main auditorium, now called the Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, the Civic Center also has the Freede Little Theater for smaller performances, the minimalist theater CitySpace, and the Meinders Hall of Mirrors, which can be used for weddings, performances and other events.
The Civic Center now attracts top local performing groups and the country's best touring acts, including traveling Broadway shows.
MAPS also paid for the nearby Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library, and private investment spurred by the city's cultural development efforts led to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
The west end of downtown is now a focal point of the state's arts scene.
Norick said that's no coincidence. He and Humphreys credited city policymakers and staff with the vision to identify the Civic Center, paid for by federal stimulus money during the Great Depression and finished in 1937, as something worth saving and improving upon for future generations.
“If you're going to have good quality of life, you've got to have activities for everybody. Not everybody likes sports, not everybody likes the opera, and not everybody likes the library,” Norick said.
“But the population as a whole needs all of it. It needs to be well-rounded.”
As Oklahoma City's renaissance settles into its third decade, Humphreys said leaders in the public and private sector should take note of the impact made by taking a historic building and preparing it for its next act.
“There are just a lot of memories in that building,” Humphreys said.
“In Oklahoma City, for forever, we tore everything down. It's almost like we had no civic identity. With MAPS, we started doing things right. We saved that building.”