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Where Greats Have Gathered

Editor's Page

John S. Fisher Auditorium started out at a disadvantage. Constructed at least in part by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration in the closing days of the Great Depression, it never received some of the finishing touches it was supposed to have.

Fisher and Waller halls

Audiences sat on park benches until surplus theater seats became available at the end of World War II. These were not replaced until the eighties, when more amenities were added.

The auditorium didn’t even have a proper name—it was just called “Auditorium” for several years after its construction. In the late forties, it officially received its new designation in company with three other campus buildings, all named, The Penn reported, “for prominent Pennsylvania citizens who have been closely associated with the local institution.” At a special ceremony that moved from building to building, John S. Fisher Auditorium, John A. H. Keith School, David J. Waller Gymnasium, and Jane R. McElhaney Hall were dedicated on the same day.

The auditorium was named in honor of an Indiana Normal School alumnus (Class of 1886) who was the only Indiana County native ever to serve as Pennsylvania’s governor (1927-1931). When it was built, in 1939, it could easily hold the entire school in its 1,600 seats; indeed, for years, the entire school gathered there for convocations.

At midcentury, the area south of Fisher Auditorium looked remarkably different from today. The trees and walk at left and the driveway at center were on the present site of Stapleton Library, while the turret-like structure in the foreground belonged to Thomas Sutton Hall, demolished in the seventies. The porches beyond the turret were part of a John Sutton Hall wing razed at the same time.

The school got bigger. Famous people came to speak: Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Laughton, Clement Atlee, William O. Douglas, Daniel Inouye, Mike Mansfield. Fisher saw some of the best entertainment Western Pennsylvania had to offer. Leonard Bernstein appeared with the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1948. Duke Ellington played there shortly before his death.

There was homegrown entertainment, too. For instance, the Mellowmen, under the direction of faculty member Charles Davis ’39, appeared with Pittsburgh musician Johnny Costa in 1963. The Mellowmen had been founded in 1947 by Davis. That same year, he and fellow faculty member Robert Ensley also started Swing Out, an annual program of Broadway-like productions staged by the college’s students.

Charles Davis and Robert Ensley

Charles Davis, left, and Robert Ensley put together some of the best entertainment Fisher Auditorium ever offered.

Swing Out productions drew audiences to Fisher from near and far, as did Ensley’s Summer Theater Guild, which eventually became Theater-by-the-Grove. Every summer, from 1952 to 1978, the Guild-turned-Grove presented six shows in six weeks.

Ensley himself retired in 1977, a year before the university established a Theater Department. In the early eighties, lack of air conditioning in Fisher drove summer productions to Pratt Hall. Later that decade, they settled in a renovated Waller Gymnasium.

Poolside photo

A poolside picture in the 1935 Oak shows some of the intricately detailed mosaic tile work around Waller’s ground-floor swimming pool. Some of the tile remains as the outline of a stage today.

Waller had been built in 1927. Until Memorial Field House was completed in 1965, it was the indoor athletics facility for the school. In the late eighties, an imaginative renovation transformed Waller Hall into what was then considered a state-of-the-art theater facility.

Within the next year, Fisher and Waller will be associated with each other in more than just their columned good looks. A 20,500-square-foot addition, constructed in the space between the two buildings, will provide an expansive area for audience entry, ticket station, reception space, and access corridors and elevators to the two venues.

Course registration

Course registration took the place of basketball games in Waller Hall after Memorial Field House was built. Huge boards positioned atop closed bleachers displayed open and closed sections while registrants scanned them hopefully.

For performers, the addition will feature dressing rooms with showers, make-up counters with mirrors and appropriate lighting, a locker area, and direct access to the rear of Fisher. There will also be warm-up rehearsal spaces and storage areas for musical instruments.

Best of all, there will be air conditioning. Both buildings—and the addition they share—will be connected to the university’s expanded chiller plant. Fisher will also have an upgraded heating system, a revised seating plan, a larger performance area, and better lighting.

The total cost of the project for both buildings and the addition is estimated at $12.6 million. Construction is expected to begin next summer.