Looking Back to the Beginning
By Deb Gallion
It’s exciting to celebrate 30 years of presenting an amazing variety of world-class entertainment on the stage of Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts. And it’s fascinating to look back another 20-plus years to trace the genesis of the dream that ultimately became Juanita K. Hammons Hall.
As early as the 1950s, Springfield’s leaders and forward-thinking citizens were considering the benefits that a beautiful performing arts facility could bring to our community, enhancing the city’s quality of life for generations to come. In 1968, after a decade-long study by the city council, the chamber of commerce, and outside consultants, Springfieldians were asked to support a civic center complex which would include a performing arts center. But it would take almost 20 more years – and a collaboration between Springfield developer John Q. Hammons, the Missouri General Assembly, and Missouri State University – before plans could move forward toward the construction of the state-of-the-art theatre that we celebrate today.
Named for Juanita K. Hammons in recognition of the $2 million gift of property and cash that she and her husband contributed toward the project, Hammons Hall was designed and engineered by two Springfield firms – Pellham-Phillips-Hagerman and Butler, Rosenbury & Partners – with Jerit/Boys, Inc. of Chicago as theatrical consultant and the San Francisco-based firm of Paoletti/Lewitz/Associates as acoustical consultant. Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway, AR, began construction in April of 1990.
By the summer of 1991, the public was able to tour the facility during a series of “Sundays at the Hall” concerts. Broadway star Carol Channing was the guest of honor at the first Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts Gala, held in September. In February of 1992 area news media gathered center stage for “Chili at the Hall”, a tour, and a Q&A with project architects and contractors. By spring, theatre seats were being installed and an inaugural committee of civic leaders and university officials were hard at work planning events for the gala opening.
The Springfield Symphony became the Hall’s first tenant, announcing that it would present its 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons on our stage, beginning a partnership that exists to this day. Other local arts organizations including the Springfield Ballet, Mid-America Singers and Children’s Choirs also planned performances during the inaugural season. And in May1992, Celebrity Attractions of Tulsa, in partnership with Juanita K. Hammons Hall, announced our first Broadway series – CATS, The Buddy Holly Story, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Grand Hotel – the first of more than 120 national touring Broadway productions that have delighted and thrilled audiences at Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the last 30 years!
The SMSU Board of Regents had selected Enoch Morris as the Hall’s executive director in September of 1989. He and his administrative assistant Una Painter worked from the Alumni Center as ground was broken and construction got underway. As work on the building progressed, the staff grew to include Ed Carson (director of operations), Tom Kile (technical director), Randy Russell (director of marketing and promotions) and Veronica Williams (box office/business manager), and they moved into their offices at the Hall in the summer of 1992.
In August, country music legend Merle Haggard donated his time and talents to present a special concert for the skilled craftspeople involved in the construction of the Hall; more than 2000 workers and their families attended the event. The theatre officially opened with an Inaugural Gala celebration on September 11, 1992. It was followed by a series of events in September and October showcasing talent from Springfield and around the Ozarks, as well as touring shows and a benefit concert headlined by Broadway legend Howard Keel. The backstage crew kept a tally of how busy things were during this Inaugural time frame: 1 workshop, 2 luncheons, 18 orchestra shell moves (in and out), 43 rehearsals, 23 performances (longest performance 3 hours 55 minutes, shortest performance 55 minutes), 15 tours, 2500 performers, and 25,000 people visited the Hall. And that was only the beginning!
In addition to the Broadway Series, the Springfield Symphony, and community and MSU concerts and events, the 1992-93 Opening Season at Juanita K. Hammons Hall included the National Theatre of the Deaf’s production of Ophelia, Songs from Sesame Street, the Prague Chamber Orchestra, pianist Rosario Andino, Ballet Gran Folklorico de Mexico, jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli, the Winter Solstice concert featuring Windham Hill recording artists, swing music by saxophonist Larry Elgart, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the North American touring production of Porgy and Bess, Dynamo Theatre of Canada, Summit Brass, Turtle Island String Quartet, BalletMet (in partnership with the Springfield Ballet), the New York City Opera National Company’s production of Carmen (in partnership with Springfield Regional Opera), the Famous People Players, and the Peking Acrobats.
From that first performance-packed season, and the dream of a magnificent home for the performing arts that began more than 50 years ago, Juanita K. Hammons Hall has become a mainstay of the arts scene in Springfield and the surrounding region. We invite you to follow us “backstage” as we celebrate 30 years of entertainment excellence and tell the story of Hammons Hall and the people who have played their parts in its rich history.