Nothing has come easy for Stage Center or for its supporters, it seems.
Forty years ago, though, optimism blossomed as local headlines announced that
internationally-renowned director and actress Margaret Webster would direct the
planned inaugural play in the building, “A Man for All Seasons.” (1)
Stage Center was known then as Mummers Theater. And getting a permanent,
landmark location to perform plays in Oklahoma City had been a dream of actors,
actresses, directors and audiences for years leading up to that inaugural
The theater had started with outside tent performances in the late 1940s, and
since had moved into a warehouse on West Main. But organizers were looking for
something more permanent.
The key to getting that going happened in 1962 when the Ford Foundation made
a $1.25 million grant to the Mummers Theater.
But the grant came with a big string attached.
The money only would be awarded to the organization, the foundation
determined, if locals could raise another $750,000 as a match.
That goal was achieved by a capital fundraising drive in June 1963. Once the
fundraising goal was achieved, Mack Scism, managing director of the theater,
told reporters about contacting four different New York consultants to explore
potential designs for the new place to perform.
Scism already knew what he wanted in a new theater – a main performance hall
featuring an open stage, with audience seating on three sides.
Preliminary plans also called for a smaller theater capable of seating an
audience about half the size as its larger counterpart. (2)
By 1967, Scism and other theater officials had selected a downtown location
for their project, a three-acre site bordered by Sheridan, Hudson, California
and Walker held by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority.
While a story revealing those details noted that a purchase price for the
land had not been published, it also conjectured that officials expected that
Urban Renewal only would seek a price of about $200,000 for the land. (3)
John Johansen and Associates of New Canaan, Conn., had been selected to
design the project – and Scism liked what was planned.
The building, he said, would be “sculptural in form using concrete as the
basic material. You will walk under, through and around these buildings,’ Scism
Once the project was getting built, however, people like one woman who got
her first glimpse of it from the bus station across the street were not as
“Why in God’s name would a planning commission OK such a thing in the midst
of moder construction?” asked the woman in a letter to the editor of The
Its design, for those who are unfamiliar, set it up as a three-part, or three
armed building. The biggest of the three parts contained a 592-seat “Space
Stage” theater, built in the three-quarter round, meaning it was flat only on
The “middle” segment of the building contained the “Little Theater,” capable
of seating 240 to watch experimental and less orthodox plays.
The smallest segment contained business, administration and ticket offices,
along with a 2nd floor children’s acting school and round rehearsal stage.
Below ground, the building design included space for dressing, scene,
wardrobe and prop rooms.
Each of the building’s three parts is connected by walkways, while tubes and
pipes above and blow conveyed water, steam, air and electricity to each of the
parts. Heating and air conditioning units are set in box-like crows’ nests high
atop concrete pillars, keeping them out of the way but making them conspicuously
visible, as well.
One Oklahoman article noted that locals had various descriptions for the
building, calling it a hatbox, a pipe dream, and more imaginative – and
unprintable descriptions, an article about the project reported.
However, the writer also noted, the theater – preparing to open within weeks
for its inaugural season – also ought to have been able to win “an Oscar as the
scene-stealing superstar of the downtown construction show” known as Urban
“It has raised more eyebrows and dropped more jaws than a bowlegged grandma
in a miniskirt,” the author noted.
Scism, director and producer for the theater, summed up its design by calling
it a “jungle gym for adults.”
He went on to call the building “the most advanced and fluid theatre in the
And, once the theater opened, Scism told an AP drama critic who toured the
project in early 1971 that “once we get the scoffers inside, their opinion
“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?” Scism asked. (5)
Two years later, though, Scism and the Mummers Theater had to close the
building’s doors. Season subscriptions hadn’t been going as well as hoped, and
about $180,000 in pledges made initially as part of the capital campaign to
match the Ford Foundation’s grant to build and operate the building never had
Still, Scism expressed pride at what had been accomplished, noting that a
building like the one that had been built was a chance for him and his company
that only came along once in a lifetime.
“For Oklahoma City, it was … The only chance we would have had to build such
a theater for the next 50 years,” Scism told columnist Jon Denton of The
“Whatever we built had to remain usable beyond the year 2000. I think it
would have been a great exhibition of shortsightedness to build a building just
for the moment.”
When asked what he thought should be done with the building, Scism replied
that “You can’t do one thing with it except build a theater company. If it isn’t
a theater, it will just have to be torn down.
“That’s rather like tearing down the Paris Opera House. It’s going to be a
famous building … it IS a famous building, a landmark structure and an advanced
structure, particularly for Oklahoma City,” he said.
Fortunately for Scism and the building’s backers, community philanthropist
John E. Kirpatrick stepped onto the stage.
“We have a plan,” Kirkpatrick told a reporter, when referring to the
building’s potential future. “It still has to be accepted by the people who can
make it work, and by the city and the community. The community has to embrace
the plan and get behind it. Unless such a plan is supported, there’s no use in
going ahead.” (7)
His plan, Kirkpatrick explained, would be to form a community theater. This
new community theater would be operated similarly to one created in Dallas where
the local arts organization would pitch in money to help keep the operation
going, where volunteers would help out to cut costs to operate the building, and
the local city government would step in to help pay for landscaping and utility
costs. Tentatively, Kirkpatrick said the building would be renamed the Oklahoma
Theatre Center at Mummers Theatre.
His plan worked. The Kirkpatrick Foundation paid the outstanding theater
center mortgage of about $230,000, and provided an additional $100,000 to help
pay for needed improvements to the building. The community bought in as well,
and a new slate of shows were scheduled for the building starting in October
The following year, the Oklahoma Theater Center hired Russell Walton as its
business manager and publicity director, and in May1974, theater director Lyle
Dye noted the operation ended its performances that year with money still in the
“But just because we made a couple of thousand doesn’t mean we are affluent,”
Dye warned. (8)
In 1978, the Oklahoma Theater Center was attracting its largest audiences
ever, but theater officials were saying they still believed much of the
community didn’t realize the center still was open and operating.
In 1984, a fundraising event for the center sold out, leaving Kirkpatrick and
others thankful they had stepped in a dozen years earlier to save the building
from closing after Mummers Theatre had failed.
“The theater is basic to Oklahoma City,” Kirkpatrick noted at the time. “If
it was allowed to go broke, it would be a black mark against the development of
that entire area,” he said. (9)
By 1985, the center had yet another name – Stage Center – and made the
headlines early that year when its designer, John M. Johansen, visited the
location for the first time since its opening.
“The Mummers is 14 years old now and is known in every country in the world,”
noted Johansen, who had won the highest award the American Institute of
Architects confers for its design.
Johansen told a reporter then that the building was one of the major
buildings of his career.
“And it is the best,” he declared. (10)
Also in 1985, the center hired a public relations head to help out with what
managers at the time called a period of “accelerated growth.”
But just as it looked as if the center’s worries were over, the oil bust hit,
causing subscription sales and single ticket sales for the theater to begin
In January 1986, James Tolbert, president of the center’s board, announced
that four plays scheduled for the center would have to be cancelled, and that
seven members of the center’s staff had to be let go. (11)
Tolbert tried to put a positive spin on the decision.
“If you look around at our own performances, the level of interest and the
age of the audience is very encouraging, but the economic conditions aren’t,” he
said, also noting that about half of the available tickets had been sold for
previous theater performances that year.
“Both of those things say to us ‘You better not get any further into debt.
You better use the resources and the talents that you have to get out of debt so
that the organization can survive and prosper.”
Prudent plans? Yes. But unsuccessful, unfortunately. Stage Center closed in
August, 1986 with $90,000 of debt.
Still, though, community arts lovers refused to let the center die. In 1987,
the Arts Council of Oklahoma City voted to approve buying the property for an
undisclosed price from the Kirkpatrick Foundation.
As part of that agreement, the Arts Council also had to commit to raising
money to make needed improvements to the property.
In 1988, Jackie Jones, director of the Arts Council, outlined improvements
that were planned for the building, including adding an elevator, a covered
walkway and replacing vital equipment.
Arts council officials also noted they would opt to manage the building
differently than it had been done in the past.
“There are primary differences in the way we are approaching things,’ a
council spokesman said. “The theater has always been used as a home base for a
single agency. From the studies we have done, we don’t feel like any one agency
can sustain that building.
“It has now broken the back of several (arts agencies); so now to manage it
right, we have to have a variety of companies, and keep it very busy,” the
spokesman said. (12)
While internal improvements were planned, the spokesman added that no real
changes were planned to make the unique building blend in more with its
“We really believe that this is a special piece of architecture, and we want
to leave it as it is, as much as possible to preserve it. We really see it as
kind of like a puppy that is so ugly, it can be cute. If you can get inside and
enjoy it, we really believe you can get used to its outside,” the spokesman
But getting the building reopened proved to be more daunting than what
supporters had hoped. By the end of 1991, the center remained closed, and it
would take nearly another two years before it would be open and operating again
with the Arts Council of Oklahoma City as its landlord.
That arrangement continued until about four years ago, when the City of
Oklahoma City was asked to step in and operate and maintain the building by the
arts council. Council members agreed to a deal expected to last through early
Ward 6 Councilwoman Ann Simank said then the city needed to help out to keep
the unique structure from closing once again.
“The last thing our city needs is another empty building,” Simank said. (13)
But will city leaders stay the course, now that the building is closed once
Heavy June rains this year poured more than 5 feet of water into the
building’s subterranean offices, rehearsal spaces and prop and costume shops.
The Arts Council of Oklahoma City, Artworks, Carpenter Square Theatre,
Metropolitan School of Dance, the Oklahoma Community Theatre Association and
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park were forced out of the building by damages the
Allied Arts President Deborah McAuliffe Senner told a reporter then the
building could be closed for at least six months.
Here’s hoping the community comes together at least one more time to save
this unique jewel that is part of Oklahoma City’s downtown landscape.
1. “Noted Director and Actress To Guide Inaugural Play,” The Oklahoman, Sept.
2. “Scism Explores Theater Designs,” The Oklahoman, June 8, 1963
3. “Land Ho! Mummers Fog Lifts,” The Oklahoman, June 15, 1967
4. “a brand new challenge, by Phil Frey,” The Oklahoma, October 18, 1970
5. “Scoffers’ Views Change inside Mummers Theater,” The Oklahoman, January 10,
6. “Mummers … In Retrospect,” The Oklahoman, April 9, 1972
7. “Save Mummers Plan Eyed,” The Oklahoman, April 9, 1972
8. “OTC ends year in black,” The Oklahoman, May 12, 1974
9. “Theater Center Benefit Sparks Hope for Future,” The Oklahoman, June 14,
10. “Architect Still Marveling Over City Theater Center,” The Oklahoman,
February 10, 1985
11. “Mummers Theater Board Votes to Drop Four Plays,” The Oklahoman, January
12. “Theater’s Renovation Planned,” The Oklahoman, March 8, 1988
13. “City subsidy will keep Stage Center alive,” The Oklahoman, March 30, 2006