For nearly 100 years, The University of Arizona has played a leadership role in Tucson’s cultural life, providing and sponsoring all manner of activities relating to the arts.
It all began in 1891 and 1892, when believing the study of the fine arts to be an essential ingredient of education, the University provided not only instruction in music and art for individual credit but also training in group singing and opportunities to perform to all students. Formal organization of a UArizona School of Music came in 1926 and with it planning for public artist series began. Initially supported by public subscription, then later supplemented by student fees, the venture was a serious financial risk. At that time the largest gathering place in the University was the old “Aggie” Auditorium seating fewer than 500 people – a dreary, barn-like structure, drafty in the winter and stifling in warmer weather. Some guest artists charged close to $1,000 an appearance. Enough tickets needed to be sold to cover the added expense of renting the Tucson High School Auditorium. Competition emerged when the Saturday Morning Musical Club erected the Temple of Music on South Scott Street and was also offering a concert series.
The inevitable rivalry between the two enterprises turned out to be a fine arts bonanza for music-conscious Tucson as each group attempted to out-do the other in providing the finest programs. This remote desert town of about 30,000 people were treated to musical feasts rare in many communities several times its size. As the years passed, a multiplicity of other programs developed emphasizing contemporary and classical music, theater and dance.
The doors of the Main Auditorium opened April 22, 1937 and featured a two-hour evening performance attended by 2,500 people. The major highlight of the evening was a cantata for voices, band and orchestra entitled, “Land of Light.” Other parts of the program included a ballet, a one-act play by Thornton Wilder, presented by the Drama Department, a film of the UA-Michigan State football game and remarks by UA President Paul S. Burgess. The evening closed with the audience being led into singing the school’s song, “All Hail, Arizona.”
In the years following, Centennial Hall (formerly Main Auditorium) played host to the masters in classical, jazz and pop music.The hall became synonymous with the word, “variety,” by housing more and more acts that spanned the musical spectrum. And as this change occurred, the University’s student body grew. The auditorium found itself doubling as a lecture hall, a trend that lasted from the late 1950s to the early 1980s.
In 1984, under the leadership of University President Henry Koffler, work began on the renovation of the auditorium. Costing an estimated $4.3 million, the project focused on constructing additional exits and new fire alarms, restoring sprinklers and installing a new sound system, remodeling and possibly enlarging the stage and backstage areas (including the all-too-small dressing rooms) and replacing deteriorating or obsolete lighting, mechanical and electrical systems.
With historic building status, the exterior of the hall remained the same; the interior was gutted, rebuilt and decorated. The hall’s front doors were pushed forward, doubling the size of the lobby and making room for a ticket booth in the center.
Of the 3,000 original seats, 2,454 were refurbished while the rest, from the balcony, were taken out. By tearing most of the balcony out, workers enabled the hall to give sound a place to bounce back. This was done by installing acoustical panels which reflected the sound and allowed it to diffuse into the audience.
The enlargement of the backstage areas began with the dressing rooms. A chorus dressing room, two star dressing rooms and a restroom were torn out to be replaced by one large cloak room for orchestra members. The old dressing rooms which used to measure a total of 2,000 square feet now measure a total of 6,200 square feet – thus doubling the original number of two star dressing rooms to four with enough space for as many three people per room.
Bigger Stage, More Space
Critical to the hall’s reconstruction was increasing the size of the stage. In the old auditorium, the stage area totaled to 2,000 square feet. Today, the stage is over twice that, nearly 5,000 square feet.
Much of the space was created when the auditorium’s old backstage wall was demolished and the building was extended. With a bigger backstage area and fly space (any space above the stage proper), Centennial Hall is equipped to bring large productions and touring versions of Broadway shows to Tucson.
The front of the stage can be elongated as well. With the aid of a hydraulic system, the orchestra pit can be converted to part of the stage too, if a production deems it necessary.
A New Name
The last thing that needed remodeling was the name of the auditorium. Calling it “Main” belied the character it added to the university campus and said nothing about the historic hall. Thus, in accordance with the UArizona’s 100th anniversary, the building’s name was changed to Centennial Hall.