Without dispute, Jim Tolbert is regarded as the guardian angel of Oklahoma City's troubled Stage Center theater.
He's an unlikely theatrical guardian in some respects; he carefully chooses his words, he's quiet and reserved in public, and not one prone to drama. Yet that's what he's facing as he acknowledges the theater he's loved for so long may soon be reduced to rubble.
Since attending the theater's opening night way back in 1972, Tolbert has stepped in as the theater's savior multiple times, and the name of his mother graces its main performance hall.
Floodwaters in June 2010 devastated the theater and it's been closed ever since. Arts agencies have relocated — probably for good — and building ownership reverted Friday from the Arts Council of Oklahoma City to the Oklahoma City Community Foundation.
The theater, which previously closed for several years in the late 1980s, may be facing its closest brush yet with a wrecking ball. Despite international acclaim for its design and the pedigree of its architect, John Johansen, Tolbert knows the theater's unusual appearance has its share of detractors locally.
“I love the way it feels; I love the way it flows,” Tolbert said, explaining his decades-long love of the theater. “But that's me personally. I'm personally and emotionally invested in this building. It's an architectural icon and nationally and internationally recognized. It's the work of a great architect, and there are not a lot of examples of his work left.”
Even so, even Tolbert is ready to accept that the theater soon may be history if a New York consultant hired by the city, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and Devon Energy Corp. concludes it is no longer viable.
To understand how Stage Center is about to face destruction on the eve of its 40th anniversary, one must delve into what Tolbert refers to as its “Perils of Pauline life.”
The I.M. Pei Plan
When architect I.M. Pei was hired in 1964 by Oklahoma City's civic leadership to draw up a plan for a new downtown, the centerpiece of his vision was a park — what is now known as Myriad Gardens — and a theater.
Pei's conceptual rendering showed a fairly popular theater design for the time, one that could be described as a scaled-down version of Lincoln Plaza in New York City. Mummers Theater, meanwhile, was a hip and trendy theatrical company that was outgrowing the warehouse it called home.
A $1.7 million grant from the Ford Foundation in 1963 made just such a hiring possible for the theater. Johansen had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and was one of the “Harvard Five” — five Harvard-educated architects who had led the modernist movement by creating showcases for their work in New Canaan, Conn.
Johansen had just won accolades for his design of Baltimore's Mechanical Theater. But if Mummers Theater patrons thought they were getting another Mechanical Theater — a big concrete monument of a building — they were mistaken.
“I had been through many buildings of modern design,” a 92-year-old Johansen told The Oklahoman in a 2008 interview. “I had different phases — new brutalism, all concrete, thicker than necessary. I was looking for something more light, more volatile, less monumental. I tore it apart, part concrete, and attached to that were the light sheet metal, highly colored elements that resulted in a conversation between the heavy and the light.”
Johansen's designs for Mummers Theater were like nothing ever seen before — a Tinker Toy approach to architecture where “pods” were linked by enclosed walkways — a building with no facade that could forever be expanded if one wished.