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It's Not Easy Being Green | Alumni Interview | Memory Lane

MEMORY LANE — November/December 2006

Drama Under the Dome

Foellinger Auditorium looks back
on a sensational century

By John Franch

For many, the building is the very image of the University of Illinois. With its gleaming, 120-foot-diameter dome, its imposing Northern Italian Renaissance design and its eye-catching position overlooking the Quad, Foellinger Auditorium dominates the campus scene. Not just a beautiful building, the Auditorium has stood as mute witness to some of the most notable academic and cultural events in the University's history.

The Auditorium "is truly the heart of the campus," in the view of Monika Pandya '00 LAS, EDM '02, a former manager of the building.

The story of Foellinger Auditorium, which will mark its 100th year in 2007, begins in 1905. That year, Edmund Janes James, the University's new president, was busy shaking up things on the sleepy campus in a quest to make the school a world-class institution. James proved to be a dreamer of big dreams for the University, and one of his biggest was to build "a noble monument" dedicated to music.

The Board of Trustees tapped architect Clarence Blackall to make James' monumental dream come true. The president was not shy in letting Blackall know exactly what kind of auditorium he wanted. "I am interested in having this the greatest hall of the kind in the Mississippi Valley," James wrote.

Unfortunately, the stingy Illinois Legislature had already done its best to dampen these high hopes for the "noble monument" when it funded less than half of the $250,000 originally requested for the Auditorium. Blackall had no choice but to cut corners in his design. When construction ended late in 1907, the Auditorium remained unfinished. Blackall's original plans envisioned a building more than twice as large.

Blackall was soon given further reason to be disenchanted. On Oct. 17, 1907, just weeks before the Auditorium's dedication was scheduled, President James imparted a shocking bit of information to the architect. "There is a fearful echo in the hall," James wrote. The irony was indeed painful: An auditorium principally devoted to music suffered from bad acoustics!

In 1908, physics professor Floyd Rowe Watson was assigned the daunting job of solving the Auditorium's sound issues. Though he knew little about acoustics, Watson accepted the challenge with zeal. The professor spent six years treating the "patient," and by the time he had found the "final cure," he would be recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the new science of sound.

The sounds of music
Notwithstanding its acoustical problems, the Auditorium has remained faithful to President James' ambitions and played host to a glittering galaxy of musical stars in the course of its history.

Those luminaries include composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, pianist Artur Rubenstein, composer Igor Stravinsky and maestro and composer John Philip Sousa.

In 1908, Sousa and his band performed at the Auditorium before a packed house. "Half of the beauty of the concert was in watching 'The March King,'" a Daily Illini writer maintained. "He and his baton are everywhere at once, and the band men respond to his directions with perfect accord."

In 1941, the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson wowed a large Auditorium audience. Only two years before, Anderson had captured the nation's headlines with a stirring Easter Sunday performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., before an integrated crowd of 75,000. Her concert at the Auditorium seems to have been no less thrilling. "It was a superlative performance," a witness gushed. "It began in hushed unearthly beauty and ended with gaiety and laughter. It had everything - beauty almost unbearable, reverence, drama, tragedy and comedy ranging from the gently amusing to the very saucy."

Twenty-one years later, folk singer and activist Joan Baez had a similar effect on a different generation of students. According to The Daily Illini's Roger Ebert '64 COM, the 20-year-old Baez "created a bond between performer and audience that has rarely been created here ... a bond of common sympathy and humor and enjoyment."

By the 1970s and 1980s, rock 'n' roll was king, and the University's Star Course adapted to the changing times by booking more and more rock acts like the B-52s and Todd Rundgren. Many of these performers would play in the Auditorium, including an up-and-coming band of rockers from Athens, Ga., known as R.E.M. The ticket demand for R.E.M.'s Nov. 16, 1985, concert at the 1,600-seat Auditorium proved to be overwhelming. Daily Illini columnist Herb Helzer '87 COM, complaining about having to stand 18 hours in line for tickets, nonetheless expressed a hope that the wait may have been worth it. "Who knows - maybe in years to come, I'll be able to say, 'I saw R.E.M. when they were nobodies,' and it will mean as much as 'The King and I' or 'Citizen Kane,'" Helzer wrote. (R.E.M.'s albums went on to hit gold and platinum sales.)


Kalev Leetaru Photo

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