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Was Stage Center's fate cast with 1968 unveiling?

Oklahoman business writer Steve Lackmeyer, also the author of five books on Oklahoma City history, delves into why Stage Center was doomed before it was built.
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: March 10, 2014

Oklahoma City, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was not into chaos and residents quickly soured on the chaos they saw as beloved old buildings fell to make way for Pei’s vision of a 21st century downtown. Oklahoma City was quickly coming to hate everything associated with chaos and change.

No explanation

In researching the history of the theater, I have found no evidence that Johansen went to great effort to explain his work to Oklahoma City locals or to show how such change can transform a community. The story has been told frequently that locals tried to challenge the design, only to be told by the Ford Foundation that their support was tied to being true to Johansen’s work.

Longtime Chamber executive Stanley Draper even ordered up extensive landscaping to shield the public’s view of the new theater. In 1971, soon after the theater was opened, Scism was struggling to win over a skeptical public while also trying to reverse a massive budget shortfall.

“Once we get the scoffers inside, their opinion changes,” Scism said in a January 1971 interview. “It certainly is better than looking like a post office or funeral parlor. We wanted a theater that didn’t have to fight its environment in order to get a play on, and we didn’t worry about the patina. Like, who worries about Barbara Streisand’s nose?”

A year later, Mummer’s Theater collapsed. A move to a more expensive Equity union contract with performers likely contributed to the theater’s downfall. The Ford Foundation provided Mummers with $500,000 for operations in the new theater, but it was ultimately diverted to covering a construction funding shortfall.

The theater opened with no institutional support — a failure that would doom any community theatrical group. But locals were left believing it was Johansen’s design that ultimately killed the once thriving Mummers.

If there was ever a heyday in the history of Mummers Theater, it was in the mid- to late-1970s when it was redubbed Oklahoma Theater Center and rescued by local philanthropist John Kirkpatrick. The theater went dark again in the 1980s, was renovated and reopened yet again, but clearly was in trouble even before it was devastated by floods in June 2010.

Sculpture or theater?

My visit with Johansen changed my mind about Stage Center. But his visit was too little, too late to reverse the damage. I am only one person, but after talking to numerous leaders in the nonprofits arts community, architects and preservationists, my own conclusion is that either by design or oversight, Stage Center was created more as a sculpture, a statement on how to transform our understanding of architecture, and less about how to create a permanent, successful home for performing artists that would forever be loved by its audiences.

I suspect that future generations will be as harsh in its judgment of current leadership as we now are of those who tore down iconic landmarks like the Criterion Theater in the 1970s.

The client never fell in love with Johansen’s work in Oklahoma City. Johansen knew this, and it didn’t seem to cause him any trouble. That client, and the client’s children, are now showing similar disinterest in ensuring his work outlives the creator himself.

The client and the creator never agreed on the creation, and both are to blame for its pending loss.

by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's Metropolitan...
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