PITTSBURG, Kan. — On Sunday, the wait will be over. 

Pittsburg State University music, theater and art students and faculty, as well as the community, once again will have a performance venue second-to-none when the ribbon is cut on the Bicknell Center for the Arts.

It’s been 36 years.

I was born in 1970, so can barely remember the university’s last large performance venue, Carney Hall Auditorium.

But my mother sure can. As students, she and Dad saw Peter, Paul and Mary; Hal Holbrook; and The Limelights there, among others.

And as an adult, she sang there as one of the founding members of Pittsburg Centennial Choir, directed by PSU vocal music teacher Marshall Turley.

When Turley arrived on campus in 1974, one of the first things he did was work with the university choirs and the Centennial Choir to resurrect Christmastime oratorios.

Works like Handel’s “Messiah” and Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” had been a longtime annual tradition of department head Walter McCray, who conducted them for five decades. But they hadn’t been done since 1953.

With more than 100 voices and 50 orchestra members, in addition to nationally known soloists who flew in to join them, Carney Hall Auditorium was the obvious venue in which to bring back such performances.

The community was grateful for their resurrection. When “Messiah” was performed on Dec. 3-4, 1975, the 2,200-seat auditorium was filled to the rafters, Mom recalls, as were performances in 1976 and 1977.

After I covered the groundbreaking for the new center in February 2013, Mom pulled out a folder of carefully preserved concert programs and newspaper clippings to show me the program from Dec. 2-3, 1978.

Pittsburg State University and Pittsburg Centennial Choir were to present "Elijah." But Carney Hall was condemned just a few days before the performance.

Mind you, that was well before Facebook, texting and other means of disseminating information quickly to the masses. In those days, I helped Mom prior to the concert fold dozens of little cardstock tents that announced dates, times and locations and placed them on tables at area restaurants.

We hung fliers in store windows and alerted local columnist John Hay.

That was our social media.

As Mom recalls it, having just a few days to scramble to not just find another performance venue, but haul risers and robes and equipment there, conduct the planned rehearsals and alert the public was “a train wreck.”

A crew from PSU’s Physical Plant sprung into action to remove several rows of seating in McCray Hall to make room for the orchestra. They creatively found a way to place risers on stage to accommodate everyone and still make room for the soloists and for Turley.

It had a fraction of the seating of Carney, but the concert was a success despite the chaos, Mom said.

Soon, Carney was razed, making way for a more modern science building, Heckert-Wells. Memorial Auditorium was renovated, and the university's theater, instrumental and vocal music departments began having concerts downtown. It was a good performance venue for them, but it’s time for them to come home.

I am looking forward to the new center’s open house on Sunday, and to learning what the first season of performances will include. Perhaps one day, it will be an oratorio.

 

Andra Bryan Stefanoni is a staff writer for The Joplin Globe. She has been a reporter and editor at The Pittsburg Morning Sun and the former Girard Press, has written for state and national magazines, and has taught journalism.

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