“The past makes the present,” late Austin Mayor Tom Miller liked to say, “and the present makes the future.”
The heavyset, Shakespeare-spouting mayor, first elected in 1933, is perhaps the person most responsible for the presence of an Austin auditorium that doubles as a spectacular community commons on the south banks of the Colorado River.
As very few Austinites remember, the seeds for Miller’s civic project were planted in the 1930s. After many false starts and dead ends, it finally opened in 1959.
Yet the theater’s convoluted story did not end there. And a good portion of that story has not been told before.
After a long, stop-and-start campaign — and a radical renovation as the Long Center for the Performing Arts 10 years ago — the theater on a high spot above Vic Mathias Shores looks and performs in a starkly different manner than it did in the 1950s.
Its leadership, programming and audiences have grown far more diversified — and are growing more so. In contrast to the club of Anglo businessmen who pushed the original auditorium, a trio of leaders — Chairwoman Monica Peraza, President and CEO Cory Baker and Vice President Raquel Garcia — are the main public faces of the Long Center today.
Just as in the 1950s, however, the place remains a magnet for civic activity, indoors and out.
The center’s H-E-B Terrace, a structural remnant of the domed Municipal Auditorium, later called Palmer Auditorium, has become a particular public oasis, attracting yoga classes, concerts, movie showings, food festivals, kid-friendly events and, of course, crowds during every inside performance intermission who wander out to gawk at the ever-changing skyline across Lady Bird Lake.
“Our greatest asset is this place,” Peraza says. “Austin’s DNA is imprinted on everything we do here.”
Which anniversary to toast?
This year, in a series of heartfelt events, fans and backers of the Long Center have toasted its 10th anniversary. They did so on a far more modest scale than the over-the-top parties that greeted its opening over March 28-30, 2008.
Yet Austin could celebrate more than this one jubilee.
One could choose, for instance, to toast the 20th anniversary of the municipal election that allowed private forces to completely rebuild the old auditorium, reusing almost all of its materials, in 1998. That redo of the much-mocked, domed “Green Turtle” cost almost $80 million in private donations, if one doesn’t count money spent on unused designs.
But wait, next year will be the 60th anniversary of the Municipal Auditorium’s opening in 1959, after a bond election was approved by a 2-to-1 margin in 1956. Doing double duty as the city’s convention center, political gathering place and trade show floor for almost five decades, in 1981 it was renamed after late Mayor Lester Palmer, who followed Miller at City Hall.
If one was being even more generous with the tributes, Austin could also salute next year the 70th anniversary of a proposal to build a city auditorium in 1949 for $400,000. At that time, it was slated for the vacated Austin Country Club property that eventually became the Hancock Center. Amusingly, that location would have put it across the street from Mayor Miller’s still-standing Tudor revival house at Park Boulevard and Red River Street.
Miller, by the way, served as mayor without pay between 1933 and 1949, and again from 1955 to 1961. Tom Miller Dam on the Colorado River, an even bigger deal for flood-ravaged Austin than the auditorium, is named for him. And had it not been for that dam and others farther upstream, the auditorium could not have been built on the frequently flooded south shore of the Colorado River.
Get ready for it, though: The civic auditorium project — what became the Long Center — first came before voters under Miller in 1938.
According to newspaper reports, it was projected to cost $500,000 — or $9 million in today’s dollars — and was to be built on city property bounded by Fourth, Fifth, San Antonio and Guadalupe streets. In other words, at Republic Square Park, recently and gloriously improved with leadership from the Austin Parks Foundation.
So perhaps this is not the 10th, but rather the 80th anniversary of the shining idea that the city needed a large theater that could double as a gathering place for other social events and civic functions.
And one that — crucially — didn’t belong, as during some past eras, to the University of Texas, which could always intercede to impose its priority bookings.
Then as now, the primary motivation, however, was to house the performing arts.
“To me, the beauty of live arts is that people are coming together in real time to experience something that will never happen in exactly the same way again,” Baker says. “Whether it be a performance, an event or even just hanging out, the audience is as much a part of the beauty of that moment as the artist. The true power of the Long Center, this place, is its ability to bring people in our community together.”
How it became a center
Mayor Tom Miller certainly deserves the lion’s share of credit for pushing the idea of the Municipal/Palmer Auditorium, which opened on Jan. 5, 1959, with space-age designs by Jessen, Jessen, Millhouse & Greeven. The exterior look was informed by modern artist and UT instructor Seymour Fogel.
Yet Miller was not alone.
He operated in a political fishbowl that included the powerful Austin Anglo business establishment, along with the early leaders of the city’s progressive and activist coalitions. Lyndon Baines Johnson and other politicos immediately took advantage of the auditorium. When LBJ was vice president, he and Lady Bird broke color lines by attending a large concert there for African-American opera star Marian Anderson in early 1963. Later that year, he contributed to planning efforts to honor President John F. Kennedy at a gala dinner scheduled for Nov. 22, 1963, the day that Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.
Along with the city’s symphony and ballet troupes, major musical stars, including Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, played the acoustically challenged auditorium. The hall was given a deliberately flat floor so that trade shows and conferences could be held there; risers were added for some performances.
For more than 20 years, it was the biggest theater in town.
As modern and futuristic as it might have seemed in 1959, the auditorium was far outclassed in 1981 by Bass Concert Hall on the UT campus, which, along with touring Broadway and global acts, lured away the symphony and ballet concerts; a local opera company followed in 1986.
By 1992, however, UT leaders realized that Bass could not be sustainable if they gave the Austin companies their choices of dates, leaving the profitable Broadway shows to squeeze into less desirable slots. So they pressured the local groups to leave.
The “Three J’s” — Jo Anne Christian of Austin Opera, Jane Sibley of Austin Symphony and Jare Smith of Ballet Austin — led the effort to find a new home. They eventually realized that other arts companies were needed on the team to push for a multi-venue project, and, in 1997, they and other civic leaders founded the Greater Austin Performing Arts Center, later renamed Arts Center Stage.
Although some leaders pointed to alternative locations for a new center — a spot near the convention center in the eastern sector of downtown was in the running — Palmer Auditorium was the leading contender. Poorly maintained, spottily employed and surrounded by acres of sunbaked surface parking lots, Palmer was considered an eyesore by some and an impossible object to improve by others.
The coalition, however, worked against great odds to make it happen. In November 1998, by a 2-to-1 margin, voters approved a deal: Private backers would raise the money and renovate Palmer to the tune of an estimated $50 million, while the city agreed to build a parking garage and a community events center that would adopt the Palmer name, paid for by a rise in the rental car tax.
Who, however, could pay for the new performing arts center? Historically, Austin had not produced the kind of wealth that could build projects of this size. That year, Susan and Michael Dell had made the first $1 million donation to an Austin cultural nonprofit, the Austin Children’s Museum, which became the Thinkery. A nice show of new philanthropy, but not in the $50 million range needed for the big project on the south shore.
Proving the naysayers — including this reporter — wrong, educator Teresa Lozano Long and lawyer and banker Joe Long, who grew up in small Texas towns, unexpectedly donated $20 million — and more later.
Hence the name Long Center for the Performing Arts.
Others from the fresh-faced crowd of Dellionaires would follow with big chunks of unprecedented giving. Encouraged, backers chose famed Chicago-based architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design the Long Center. Estimated costs soared to $89 million. By 2001, with more amenities, such as a rehearsal hall and catering kitchen, added, costs rose to $110 million, then $125 million.
All this, however, came right about the time of the dot-com bust. Gifts dried up. The $60 million raised to date was not going to cut it for a big design.
By October 2003, backers realized the maximal version designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was untenable. Austin firm TeamHaas, which had been among the design partners all along, was put in charge. Architect Stan Haas found a way to save money and achieve sustainability goals by using the old foundation and stage house as well as other materials in the construction, which is why the columns and ring around the terrace are there — they help hold up the Long Center.
New faces of 2018
Last year, the Long Center team went through a long discussion to decide its future identity. They came out the other side with leadership that was determined to broaden the impact of the fortuitously placed theater complex.
An immigrant from Mexico, energetic and ferociously focused Peraza founded the digitally based import business, Alegreea, as well as the nonprofit Hispanic Alliance, which promotes entrepreneurship, arts and education, with a particular emphasis on encouraging women leaders. She is one of the first Latinas to head the board of a major Austin arts group.
“It became clear that if we were to serve Austin, we needed to reflect Austin,” says Peraza, who joined the board in 2011. “We had to acknowledge the changing demographics of Austin, including the young people, the tech people.”
Recruiting those people has become one of her top priorities.
Peraza also has watched the bookings at the center stretch far from its base in the traditional performing arts to include more comedy, music, talks, variety acts and festival offerings. Rather than become a niche venue, the Long Center, as Peraza sees it, offers something for just about everyone, presented without the frame of a traditional arts season.
Previous to joining the Long Center as vice president of programming and production, charismatic and imposing Baker directed the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts in Arizona. Trained in sociology and religious studies at Arizona State University, she has more than 18 years of experience in arts management.
Although she is a relative newcomer to Austin, she is careful to respect the city’s past.
“One thing I love about the Long Center’s iconic location is that people always tell me their personal memories of the Palmer Auditorium,” Baker says, “whether it’s a concert they saw, or their high school graduation happened here, or this is where their parents got married. And as the city grows at a staggering rate, our hope is to retain and reinvigorate this location as a hub of community life and, even more importantly, a space tied to so many personal experiences and memories.”
For her part, polished and adroit Garcia, a Houston native and UT graduate, has pursued corporate marketing and advertising in Dallas, New York City and Austin for 20 years. Her résumé includes pushes for legacy products such as Jack Daniels, Snickers and Pepsi, as well as high-profile Super Bowl campaigns.
Last year, she led the Long Center’s recent rebranding efforts. Garcia found that the complex was already a kind of public plaza where people gathered instinctively, but there were ways to amplify that experience.
“In our research, we found that our patrons don’t just come for a performance, but to socialize with family and friends,” she says. “We have made a conscious effort to be more flexible to our patrons, something as small as allowing dogs on our terrace for a free community event or providing a lounge for parents to enjoy a beverage while their kids are watching a Pokémon show goes a long way. It’s about the small touches that let our patrons know we understand them and want to make the experience as enjoyable as possible.”
The recent research led her to think about Austin audiences for the 1959 center and how they differ from those today.
“Back then, TV and film were just gaining in popularity,” Garcia says. "But live experiences were still seen as the lifeblood of theatrical arts in communities across the country. If anything’s changed, I might say it’s been the loss of that singular communal experience because television and film have come to be seen as higher art forms themselves. Now people have all these options, and the internet has magnified this exponentially.”
The challenge, then, is to create a social sanctuary at the Long Center fine-tuned to the changing habits of its neighbors.
“As I sit and reflect on this, no one will be able to accurately predict how Austin is going to be in 10 years,” Peraza says, “as no one did 10 years ago about today. The Long Center is aware of this, and we will keep evolving to serve this amazing city that we all love.”