This month, the University of Cincinnati says goodbye to the 81-year-old Wilson Auditorium, the debut venue for CCM’s Musical Theatre program (with the 1969 production of Sweet Charity) and the onetime home of CCM’s Department of Drama.
Originally opened in December of 1931, the building was constructed in remembrance of Obed J. Wilson, a local self-made businessman and arts advocate. At the time of its opening, the building featured then cutting-edge amenities including a projection room for “motion-and-sound pictures” with the capability of relaying radio broadcasts.
Vacant for the past decade and a half, Wilson Auditorium’s demolition was approved in 2006 and is scheduled to be completed this fall.
To mark the end of an era, CCM Drama Chair Richard E. Hess looks back on the impressive legacy of Wilson Auditorium:
“Sometimes a building is not just a building. A building houses the hopes and dreams and aspirations of its occupants. Buildings become homes, a sum greater than the bricks and mortar of its walls. Wilson Auditorium was such a spirit, a vibrant container of dreams, sitting grandly on the northwest corner of the University of Cincinnati campus for over 80 years. As Wilson Auditorium meets the wrecking ball, I am flooded with the memories of my first home at UC when I arrived in 1990, the home of the CCM Drama Department from its inception in 1984 to 1999, when the building was finally vacated. Dedicated in 1930, Wilson Auditorium fostered a spirit of adventure through imaginative discovery, the spirit still rigorously practiced by the now 31 year old CCM Department of Drama.
While the rest of the Departments in the College-Conservatory of Music were housed in the Corbett Center for the Performing Arts and in Mary Emery Hall, CCM Drama was housed across campus in Wilson Auditorium. Acting, Movement and Voice Production classes were taught in the old Wilson Library, in the lobby, on the stage and in the two classrooms in the building… in short, wherever they would fit. Productions happened throughout the building, and because the old building seemed to welcome and invite risk and innovation, boundaries were explored by every student who acted in a show in Wilson Auditorium. I did everything at Wilson from mopping floors and moving chairs to hanging lights and hunting down scenic elements. Sometimes it used to rain on stage during shows, and you could hear the lights sizzle during dramatic pauses; we were never sure if Wilson was completely safe. But there was never doubt that our artistic hearts were safe.
I directed 18 productions in Wilson Auditorium in nine years, often with little more than my imagination and creativity to distract the audience from the fact that we had very little. But we had talent to spare, and resourcefulness, pushing ourselves to safely dangerous places in search of our artistic expression. With the help of my directing teacher Michael Burnham I learned to become an artist. We learned to make something from nothing. The scrappy heartbeat of CCM Drama was birthed from this playground of freedom.
My first office as a faculty member in 1993 was an old dressing room in Wilson. It was long and very thin, with one small window at the end of the room. The room was no more than ten feet wide, and had a sink in the back corner and make-up lights on the walls, the mirrors long gone. In the winter I mopped the building when the salt build-up became unbearable in the hallways, and I placed buckets on the stage when the roof leaks became too large. Once when I was in the men’s restroom on the third floor a ghost turned on the shower as I washed my hands at the sink. I will never forget the hair rising on the back of my neck as I heard the water start to hit the floor, knowing no one else was in the tiny rest room, fearful to turn the water off, which I did, before running from the building. It was a magical place.
Many former students shared memories of the power of Wilson Auditorium upon learning of the upcoming demolition. After sitting vacant for the past 14 years, the news still struck a deep chord with UC alumni who called the building home for their 4 years of study in Cincinnati.
CCM Drama alumnus John Michael Graham (BFA, 1999), now Assistant Professor of Theatre at Drake University, said simply, “What a shame. So many of us first learned what it meant to be an artist in that space.”
CCM Musical Theatre alumnus Mickey Fisher (BFA, 1995), screenwriter of the new CBS drama Extant starring Halle Berry, wondered about the old saying “If these walls could talk . . .” and commented, “I can’t imagine what the walls of Wilson Auditorium are holding onto in the cracks and crevices. Not just the hopes and dreams and fears and frustrations of so many passionate, gifted people that passed through those hallways, but also the magic that comes from the inception and creation of so many great works of art. Things like any one of the hundred scenes I watched where something clicked and what seemed like a mystery became illuminated and accessible, when the impossible became possible. Somebody save me a piece of the rubble, if you can.”
CCM Theatre Design and Production alumna Tricia Thelen (MFA, 2000), now Associate Professor of Theatre at Quinnipiac University, designed scenery and executed prop designs for many productions in Wilson Auditorium as a graduate student in Scenic Design. “Oh, what haunting memories. I painted the stage floor for seven shows and left one night in terror after being there alone and seeing ghosts. I painted all night, singing pieces of the show when no one could hear me. I climbed above the highest catwalk to hang drapes. I knew the space like I know my own house. It was a place to experiment recklessly, making friends by doing each other design favors, getting inside our own heads and spilling out what was in there all over Wilson, all over the performers and the audience, and each other.”
One of the most personal reflections came from Drama alumnus Damian Baldet (BFA, 1996), who will next appear in the Broadway production of Machinal in New York after spending five years with The Lion King, performing from Japan to London with the show. “I was a little boy in that theatre when my dad was in school there. I sat in the pit with my mom while she played some kind of harp for my dad’s production of The Bacchae. I slept in the aisles under my mom’s fleece-lined coat because I had school the next morning and rehearsals went late. I played for hours in the lobby by myself and borrowed money for soda from the actors, who I thought of as rock stars, until my dad found out and yelled at me and made me pay them all back. I was terrified of the basement and of the hallways behind the balcony, a fear I kept until I was a student there myself. Then I’d break in and rehearse my performance board monologues until the anxiety had calmed enough so I could sleep. I fell hopelessly in love in that building. I learned the pain of a shattered heart in that building. I found my life and my purpose in that building. There is no other place on Earth like it.”
I walked over for one last look today. I asked a demolition worker to pass me a piece of rubble through the fence for Mickey. Rest in peace dear old Wilson Auditorium.”
Richard E. Hess
A.B., Dolly, Ralph and Julia Cohen Chair in Drama
Nov. 5, 2013