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WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) trained on the Oklahoma A&M campus during WWII, meeting in the Chapel/Auditorium.

Center Stage in OSU's Entertainment District

Monday, December 2, 2019

Southeast corner has been home to campus performances for decades

Oklahoma State University’s performing arts centers have almost always found a home nestled in the southeast corner of campus near Knoblock and University avenues. The McKnight Center for the Performing Arts is the newest and most exquisite facility in the university’s traditional entertainment district. Let’s take a look at the history of stages here.

Assembly Hall (1894)

The Assembly Building was the first name used for the facility now known as Old Central. It was designed for the entire college to assemble and served as the home for the administrative offices, classrooms and laboratories. The largest room was the Assembly Hall on the second floor. The Assembly Hall was 40 by 55 feet, considered “an auditorium of mammoth proportions,” and had the tallest ceilings — 16’4” — in the building. A small platform along the center of the east wall served as the stage.

Some 225 chairs were arranged for the daily chapel sessions that all students were required to attend and where all official announcements were made. The room was also used for large classes and was a home for the pre-college preparatory students. The building had a battery-operated buzzer system for class changes, but no electrical lines, lights, outlets or bathrooms. Gas lighting provided illumination.

The Assembly Hall was a preferred location for meetings and presentations. Oratorical contests were as popular as athletic competitions, and musicians shared their talents at many of these gatherings.

Students gather for a photo in front of the completed Chapel/Auditorium.
Students gather for a photo in front of the completed Chapel/Auditorium.

 Prairie Playhouse (1903)

By 1897, the demand for auditorium space had outgrown the Assembly Hall, which could no longer comfortably seat the enrolled students. College enrollment reached 366 in 1899, and President Angelo C. Scott recommended an auditorium addition to the new library in 1901.

Money was allocated for an addition to the Library Building, later known as Williams Hall, which included a new auditorium. The new chapel, later known as the Prairie Playhouse, was designed for a capacity of 1,000, and up to 1,200 for chapels, assemblies and plays. Completed in 1903, the chapel again allowed the college community to gather in one room. The campus construction in 1901 also led to the first power plant and central heating system connected to all buildings. A water supply system had been installed the year before and when a septic tank sanitary sewer system was completed in 1901, the first indoor toilets were placed in permanent buildings including the library and chapel.

Until the Stock Judging Pavilion was built on the west side of campus in 1911, the rostrum in the chapel was occasionally used for showing and judging livestock in addition to the events and activities that had been held in the Assembly Hall. With the construction of a new chapel in 1912, the old chapel was renovated for use as a library reading room. In 1938, this space was reconverted into a theater named the Prairie Playhouse. It was torn down in 1969 as part of the Williams Hall demolition.

Chapel/Auditorium (1912)

Less than a decade later, enrollment increases prompted a new request for a larger auditorium where all members of the campus community could meet. Construction on the 100- by 150-foot facility began in the late fall of 1911.

This was the first auditorium on campus with a stage and orchestra pit. The stage had curtains, wings and entrances to the performance area. Balconies went up on three walls, with total seating reaching 2,200.

4-H Club Center (Gallagher Hall, 1939)

While not a traditional auditorium, the 4-H Club and Student Activity Building provided the largest venue for entertainment and presentations on campus. The 4-H Club Center was the name used to attract funding from the legislature, but since its dedication, it has been known as Gallagher Hall, the “Madison Square Garden of the West.” Constructed to accommodate the annual gathering of 4-H students from around Oklahoma, the facility had total seating of 6,700. The main auditorium area was divided into three sections with the help of two extremely large curtains that would hang from floor to ceiling so that each 4-H district would have its own meeting area.

Seretean Center under construction.
Seretean Center under construction.

The arena also provided a home for annual band and orchestra contests and concerts. Beginning in the 1940s, big bands came to Stillwater to perform from the floor of Gallagher Hall. In later years, a wide variety of performers would take the “stage” of the largest “auditorium” in Stillwater. In an interesting coincidence, the 4-H Club building just happened to have a maple wood floor that was suitable for basketball.

Student Union Little Theatre (1962)

Part of the first Student Union expansion in 1962 included a small theater that could accommodate an audience of 540. This intimate theater was designed with a thrust stage, which formed a peninsula out into the audience and was surrounded on three sides.

The seating extended up two floors and formed a horseshoe of spectators around the performers. The Student Union Little Theatre was a popular location, utilized to feature visiting dignitaries and celebrities or present panel discussions.

Seretean Center for the Performing Arts with the Viva Locke Theatre (1971)

A new performing arts center had been the dream of several generations of drama and music patrons. The chapel had undergone several makeovers since first opening, but it lacked the auxiliary spaces need for practice rooms, workshops, dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, offices and storage spaces. Momentum began to build in late 1967 when a dramatic expansion and renovation of the chapel auditorium was proposed. This addition would add 75,000 square feet to accommodate these needed facilities. In addition, a 600-seat auditorium with staging would also be constructed. It was designed with continental seating, no aisles, and would house theater productions. Years later, it would be named for Vivia Locke, a longtime drama faculty member.

Federal grants provided much of the financing, but these required the renovation of existing facilities as part of the new construction. The old chapel was stripped down to the bare walls, and the new structure grew up around it with a new façade. Williams Hall and the Prairie Playhouse were demolished. A large donation from OSU alumnus M.B. “Bud” Seretean inspired the renaming of the facility, and the Seretean Center for the Performing Arts was dedicated in April 1971.

Seating in the new concert hall, located in the former auditorium, was reduced to 974. The old balcony was eliminated, and the chairs on the floor went from the orchestra pit to the height of the old balcony placed on one long incline. The stage size increased slightly. Practice rooms were added to meet rehearsal needs. The new facility had “green” rooms to house waiting artists and workshops to create props and scenes. Music and drama departments had offices in the center with enough space to house faculty in humanities and religion. There was even room for a music library.

For over a century, audiences at Oklahoma State University have experienced an eclectic diversity of performances on these stages. The stories of humanity, the joy found in our common bonds, the rhythm and rhyme of music and dance in all its many forms and syncopations have been found here. The sharing of world culture, wisdom, inspiration and entertainment have all been applauded on these stages.

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