Arizona ArtBeat: Gammage Auditorium 50th Anniversary

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It’s hosted some of the biggest plays, presidential debates and so much more. Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium turned 50 years old this year. Find out more about the history of the iconic Tempe building.

Ted Simons: Tonight's Arizona Art Beat features ASU Gammage, celebrating its 50th anniversary. Shana Fischer and Scot Olson show how an ambitious idea became an Arizona icon.

Shana Fisher: As the story goes, Grady Gammage, then president of ASU, had a dream. His good friend and architect frank Lloyd Wright had a plan. Together, they built Gammage auditorium. Grady Gammage, Jr., turned the first shovel of dirt on the site and says his dad had a very lofty reason for wanting it.

Grady Gammage: I think he felt that it was critical to have both a place where students could come together and kind of celebrate the life of the university and a place where the community from outside ASU could come and interact with the university. I think he saw this building as a lynch-pin in those relationships.

Shauna Fisher: The circular building that some say resembles a birthday cake was an ambitious design by Wright but a recycled one.

Grady Gammage: Back in his office he had this design he had done for an opera house in Baghdad which was to go on an Island in a river. I don't know if it was the Tigris or the Euphrates, but one of them, with arms going to each bank. Wright is a smart guy. I have a plan I think I can adapt and use that spot in Tempe.

Shana Fisher: Sadly both passed away before construction began in the early '60s. Gammage's widow Katherine worked tirelessly to keep his dream going. Wright's Prodigy John Rattenbury took over. He says while it's stunning to look at its greatest feat is the pitch perfect acoustics inside.

John Rattenbury: That's kind of a miracle in a way. When we build an auditorium today we have all sorts of equipment. They make models and they have tiny microphones and they go through all of this adjusting. None of that happened for the Gammage auditorium.

Shana Fisher: He recalls opening night. Conductor Eugene or Mandy and the Philadelphia orchestra had just finished and he addressed the audience.

John Rattenbury: Ladies and gentlemen, we like to thank you, and I would like to say that this is the second best hall we have ever performed in. It was kind of a silence. And then he smiled and he said, if I told the truth they would throw me out of my own hall!

Shana Fisher: Part of what makes the acoustics so terrific is the balconies are not anchored to the back wall, so sound travels under and then over the audience. It's an engineering marvel, and as a result, performers love Gammage. Colleen Jennings Roggensack under her leadership they have hosted countless musical acts, presidential debates and the funeral for Senator Barry Goldwater.

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack: I will tell you one of the things that is so amazing about determining and cure rating a season is a lot of it is alchemy. I don't have this formula in my head. It's alchemy. Gammage is a force. It's living and breathing. As you say, Gammage, people's eyes light up and they remember their first date or they remember coming here with their grandmother.

Shana Fisher: The theater is held up by 50 pillars and designed as a giant circle with two pedestrian bridges that branch off to the parking lot. The circle motif continues from the architectural details to the carpet design which was taken from a tie in Wright's closet. Gammage stands eight stories tall and took 25 months to build at a cost of nearly 2.5 million. It seats 3,000. Grady Gammage, Jr., says he loves to sit in the grand tier but the place closest to his heart --

Grady Gammage: The VIP gallery is named of a my mom. That's my favorite spot.

Shana Fisher: 50 years later he says his dad would be thrilled at the auditorium that bears his name has stood the test of time.

Grady Gammage: I think he would be enormously pleased that this long after it was built this building remains such a vital piece of the university and the community and such a representation of the relationship between the university and the community. He couldn't have a better monument I don't think that would make him feel any better.

Ted Simons: ASU Gammage's upcoming Broadway season includes Chicago, Phantom of the Opera and book of Mormon. Tickets are available at ASUGammage.com.

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