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TPAC History

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Entertaining, Enriching & Educating through the Arts

- TPAC's Mission -

“To foster the performing arts through excellence in programming by providing for the advancement, promotion, presentation, and development of the arts to meet the diverse cultural and educational needs of our community.”


Topeka Auditorium, early 1880s

A center of social activity
Long before a municipal building occupied the land between Seventh and Eighth, Quincy and Monroe Street, in Topeka, Kansas, the ground was the site of Colonel George W. Veale's Victorian home, the first in Topeka with electric lights, a furnace and bathrooms. President Grant was honored there at a gala, as were every Governor and United States Senator from Kansas from the time the state was admitted to the Union.

Probably because of all this activity at that site, the people of Topeka wanted that land for its civic buildings. In the late 1800's, the land was acquired, the home leveled, and a two-story brick building (right) was constructed that housed an auditorium, a fire station and city offices. The dedication services continued for three days in September, 1900. Included was a Mendelssohn oratorio and a soloist singing "I'm Living a Ragtime Life." The Auditorium attracted music lovers from great distances.

8th and Quincy just prior to starting
construction of Municipal Auditorium, 1937.

In the late 1930s the Federal Public Works Agency (PWA)approved a grant for the City of Topeka for nearly $7,000,000 for construction of a town hall. Designs for city offices were added to the north side of the structure. Contracts for the building were awarded to F. M. "Earl" Spencer, general contractor, A. Tucker Electric Co. for wiring, and U.S. Engineering Co. of Kansas City for plumbing, heating and ventilation.

The building, which took three years to complete, used over one mile of bricks, steel weighing two million pounds, concrete to pave 5.5 miles of highway and enough plaster to cover seven blocks. There were 303 windows, and 420 doors. The building could be evacuated within two minutes. Safety was a prime factor for the Auditorium stage. In case of fire, the asbestos fire wall could be dropped in seconds. An orchestra lift measuring 50 feet by nine feet was one of only eight such lifts then in use in the United States.

Municipal Auditorium under construction, 1939. View is north, toward current stage position.

The construction suffered from delays, but finally on May 12, 1940, a standing-room-only crowd gathered by representatives from churches throughout the city to dedicate the new building. The celebration continued the following day with a parade that included floats, bands, drill corps and 6,000 school children.

The first road performer was Paul Whiteman and his orchestra; tickets for the performance were $2 a couple. Festivities continued for a week. The grand finale drew 8,000 more people than could be seated in the 4,200 seat arena. The musical revue was broadcast over WIBW radio for those who didn't get to see the show.

The next 49 years the Municipal Auditorium was the center of Topeka entertainment. The multi-purpose facility was home to basketball games, circuses, trade shows and Broadway touring companies. Its stage was graced by Imogene Coca, Fred Waring, Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley.

Municipal Auditorium under construction, 1939.

Many Topekans received their high school diplomas on its stage, and some took the Kansas Bar Exam in its basement. The facility housed the community Thanksgiving dinner and the Junior League Next-to-New sale. In June of 1966, it served as a shelter in the aftermath of the killer tornado that struck Topeka. It was the site of town meetings, political speeches and gubernatorial inaugurations.

During the 1951 Topeka Flood, the largest concentration of about 1,500, were fed, entertained and bedded down in the Municipal Auditorium, the emergency relief headquarters. The situation, which had resembled a fairly orderly dormitory Wednesday night when only North Topeka's and Shunganunga evacuees were on hand, turned into organized confusion Thursday evening as hundreds of Oakland and East Topeka residents registered for aid. By mid-afternoon, the auditorium facilities were taxed to the limit, and the 500-cot station at the Masonic Temple Building was full.

Topeka Grew
As the center of population in Topeka grew south and west, so did the center of activity. In 1987, the Kansas Expocentre opened, and once the proud Municipal Auditorium seemed to have been replaced. On September 25, 1987, in vaudeville style, Max Morath performed the closing performance in the Municipal, appropriately titled "I'm Living a Ragtime Life," a selection from the 1900 opening, featuring the art slide collection of Topeka historian John Ripley. What transpired next would open a new chapter for entertainment in the capital city of Kansas.

Municipal Auditorium, c. 1980s - note the flat floor.

The Renovation
In 1985 a task force of private citizens, with the support of Mayor Doug Wright and City officials, pursued the possible renovation of the Municipal Auditorium into a performing arts facility because the new Expocentre, which lacked a permanent stage, did not lend itself to such programs. With architects, designers and engineers, the Auditorium was inspected and found to be structurally sound.

In 1987, the task force presented a proposal for a $5 million renovation that would result in an auditorium suitable for Broadway touring companies, world-class orchestras, and major dance companies. A first-of-a-kind public/private partnership was formed, with the City funding $2.5 million, and the balance to be raised from corporations, foundations and individuals from within the community.

The highly successful capital campaign raised $2.7 million, led by the naming gift of $500,000 from Andrew J. and Georgia Neese Gray. The general contractor for the renovation was Murray and Sons Construction Co., Inc. of Topeka.

The purpose of the renovation was to convert the existing structure into a state-of-the-art performing arts center without departing from the original Art Deco style.

Wim Chulindra, Kiene & Bradley Design Group, was the architect on the design team for the renovation. Participating on the Auditorium renovation was especially rewarding for him because of its function as a public building. According to Mr. Chulindra, the ticket lobby of the Auditorium contained the best Art Deco design and "dictated the character of the rest of the building."

The structure of the building gave the architect flexibility in the renovation. The economy of the 1930's allowed for a lengthy construction time; it kept people employed. There was less competition and not as much pressure to make a profit. Consequently, the Municipal Auditorium had the structural capability to sustain the enhancements designed by the architect that will allow its use well into the twenty-first century.

Acoustical renovation was a priority. The original shape of the arena was rectangular with hard surfaces. Sound waves bounced off the parallel walls, ceiling and floor and created "bad sound." The new performance hall has many treated surfaces, designed to create "clear sound" throughout the hall. Elements designed to provide this sound include acoustic clouds (suspended geometric ceiling sections) and fluted walls (see above, 1990). A reconfiguration of the shape of the hall, including curved loges (box seats). A curved balcony section, a raked (sloped) floor and improved sightlines, allowed patrons to see the performers on stage.

Construction delays were encountered as a result of the need to remove asbestos from the building. The troublesome asbestos was in the skim coat (finish coat) of the ceiling. The ceiling had to be removed because the new acoustic clouds were to be suspended from it, and drilling into the ceiling released asbestos dust. Legislation requires asbestos to be removed from public buildings because it is considered a health hazard.

Renovation was completed in the spring of 1991 at a final cost of $6.25 million. The dream of a world-class performing arts facility for Topeka and northeast Kansas with outstanding acoustics easy access, comfortable surroundings and excellent sightlines became a reality as the new Topeka Performing Arts Center opened March 23, 1991, with "On Broadway" featuring Ben Vereen and Judy Kaye. Enthusiastic crowds of 2,500 at each of two performances applauded both the performers and efforts of those visionary people who, with the support of the community, saw their dream become reality.
As the first production closed, design architect Chulindra summed up the feeling of all those persons involved in the project as he said,"Personally, I have many fond memories of this special project. Every corner of this Center has a place in my heart. I still remember every moment of how designs were evolved, from dream to reality."

Who's Who
These artists, and many more, have appeared at TPAC since the opening show:


Top row: B. B. King in his TPAC dressing room, cast of the Bear in the Big Blue House, Alison Krauss. Bottom row: LeAnn Rimes, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Jerry Seinfeld.

Going backstage
The word backstage refers to any part of the theater behind the proscenium wall, the apron and the orchestra pit. The proscenium (pro se ne am) wall is the wall that separates the audience from the stage. There is a large hole in this wall called the proscenium arch through which the audience looks to see the stage. The word proscenium comes form the Greek work proskenion which means stage or apron. In front of the proscenium is the apron, the area of the stage floor in front of the front curtain, and in front of the apron is the orchestra pit.

The TPAC orchestra pit has an orchestra lift, a large elevator floor that can be raised or lowered to create different levels within the orchestra pit. The lift can be lowered to the basement to load scenery, instruments, or costumes and then raised to the stage level. The lift is original to the Auditorium and was used to raise the circus elephants from their holding area in the basement.

The pit level is used when there is an orchestra in the pit for an opera or musical. Halfway up is the house level. When the lift is at its highest point, it has reached stage level. The lift has become part of the stage apron. The orchestra lift is operated electrically from backstage. In addition to the permanent stage, there is a thrust stage which can be attached to the front of the permanent stage. It is stored in sections in the basement and raised to house level with the orchestra lift. The seats at the front of the performance hall can be removed and stored when the thrust is being used.

The first curtain you see is the grand curtain. Behind the grand curtain is the act curtain. It is used to close up the proscenium arch so that the audience cannot see what is happening on the stage. There is also a curtain called a cycorama which is used to give sky or cloud effects. Behind the act curtain are black curtains that hang to the stage floor called legs. These are used to hide the offstage areas called wings, where actors wait to make an entrance to the stage. There are also black curtains that hang above the stage called borders. They hide the area above the stage called the flies. Other curtains that go all the way across the stage and up into the flies are called drops. Drops are sometimes curtains of different colors and sometimes have scenery painted on them. A special drop curtain called a scrim is a porous curtain that is used to reflect projections. When used in front of a lighted scene, it permits the audience to see through it.

One important feature that separates the stage from the house, the area where the audience is seated, is the old fire curtain. The curtain was re-done with an Art Deco design so that when an orchestra performs at TPAC on the thrust stage, the curtain will serve as the back shell to the stage and reflect the sound out into the hall.

Another curtain unique to TPAC is the midhouse divider curtain. This curtain is usually stored behind the second lighting cut in the acoustical ceiling. When dropped, it transforms the spacious performance hall into an intimate theater, enclosing about 600 seats for small chamber performances or other special uses. It adds to the versatility of the hall.

Above the stage in the flies are pipes with lighting instruments hung on them. These pipes are called battens. The drops, legs, borders and curtains are also hung form battens. Battens are raised and lowered by stagehands, the backstage workers who make all the scenery move, set up the stage for different shows and control lights.

Everything that happens on the stage has been planned during rehearsals. The director of the show tells the stagehands how he wants the scenery to move, how he wants the lights to turn off and on and how the costumes and scenery should look. During the show, the stagehands are helped by the stage manager who is the person who will be hooked up to a communication system through a headset and in verbal contact with technicians back in the light and sound booths. He tells the stage hands when to handle the fly lines, and they tell the grips when to handle the scenery and props, which are stage properties. TPAC is equipped with an intracommuniction system so that the stage manager can make stage calls to various areas in the facility.

Students at the annual Sheffel Theater Clinic learn about lighting a show, Jan. 2006.

Backstage are storage areas as well as dressing rooms for the performers to change into their costumes and put on their makeup. TPAC has eight dressing rooms. In addition, TPAC provides a green room for performers to wait in until they go on-stage.

In addition to the Georgia Neese Gray Performance Hall, three rooms contribute to make TPAC a state-of-the-art performance hall. The Nunemaker Dance Studio on the lower level of the facility is a dance rehearsal hall with a sprung floor, covered with battleship linoleum, that conforms to the size of the stage in the main hall. It allows for dance companies to hold a full rehearsal, in order to obtain the feel of the stage, before the main performance upstairs.

The Hussey Playhouse, a black box theater, is a versatile space on the lower level that is used for intimate plays, poetry readings and experimental theater. The seating capacity is 120. The theater has a grid for lighting instruments and a portable sound system.

Hill's Festival Hall is the banquet facility on the lower level used for conventions, wedding receptions and galas. The elegance of the mirrored columns makes it difficult to imagine that the once stark concrete columns were used to tether the circus elephants in days gone by.

Georgia Neese Gray: TPAC's leading lady
Georgia Neese Gray, the first woman United States Treasurer, is the Topeka Performing Arts Center's leading lady. The generosity of this woman, who didn't let anyone steal the show from her during her days as an actress in the 1920's, is one of the reasons the show goes on today at TPAC.

Georgia pursured an acting career from 1921 to 1931, living in New York City, getting to know Helen Hayes and Charlie Chaplin, touring the country and earning $500 a week. When the Depression and the onset of "talkies," motion pictures with sound, cut short her stage career, she returned home to her native Richland, Kansas. At the death of her father, Albert Neese, she inherited control and the presidency of Richland State Bank, as well as the family's general store, grain elevator, lumber yard, insurance agency, many farms and other real estate.

Georgia was astonished by the 1949 telephone call informing her she was soon to be appointed Treasurer of the United States by President Harry S Truman. "I've never worked so hard in my life than when I was United States Treasurer," Georgia said. "I knew I had to make good on behalf of American women."

Three lessons learned during her actress days have helped Georgia throughout her life. Never be late. Never be too sick to perform because someone else might be better than you. Take care of yourself.