Mummers Theater, known in later years as Oklahoma Theater Center and finally as Stage Center, was widely considered the most daring architecture in the history of Oklahoma City.
Mummers Theater was a component in the 1964 downtown redevelopment plan by architect I.M. Pei. The plan by Pei suggested a theater typical of such venues in the 1960s – a two-story box with a predominantly glass façade.
The venue was to be built for a thriving local performance group started in 1949 at NE 23 and Eastern in an old circus tent with $8 in assets. Launched and led by Mack Scism, Mummers thrived throughout the 1950s and 1960s and was unique in that it was a financially successful community theater without any subsidy or volunteer organization.
It was that success that attracted the attention of the Ford Foundation, which pledged an initial $1 million for the new theater. A design competition required as part of the Ford Foundation’s gift resulted in the hiring of John Johansen.
Johansen, along with Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes were known as the “Harvard Five.”
Johansen and his fellow “Harvard Five” were greatly influenced by Walter Gropius, a leader in the Bauhaus movement and head of the architecture program at Harvard. If one were to provide a simplistic term for the Bauhaus movement, it might be mid-20th century modernism. Locally, the best example of this broader architectural style might have been the 1952 downtown YMCA, which was razed in 1998 after it was extensively damaged by the bombing.
A spinoff of that modernism was brutalism, which put a heavy emphasis on the use of concrete and repeated use of modular elements in the design. The style flourished in the 1950s through the 1970s, and also was often identified with new buildings built in the Soviet Union during that same era.
Such association did not always make for long-lasting popularity.
When a model of Mummers was unveiled in March 1968, locals were taken aback. Johansen explained his design was inspired by the mixing of modernist and electrical circuitry design. In one interview he mused that it might have struck some as chaotic, but chaos was something that gave him even more pride in the work.
Johansen was challenging conventionality. He was breaking the rules and forcing the design world to rethink the possible. It is men like Johansen who inspire later visionaries like Steve Jobs. They force the world to evolve — even when it’s not ready to embrace such change.
Oklahoma City, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was not into chaos and residents quickly soured on the chaos they saw as beloved old buildings fell to make way for Pei’s vision of a 21st century downtown. Oklahoma City was quickly coming to hate everything associated with chaos and change.
Locals tried to challenge the design, only to be told by the Ford Foundation that their support was tied to being true to Johansen’s work.
In “The Mummers Theater: A Fragment, Not a Building,” Johansen compared the theater’s design to electronic circuitry.
“In the design of the Oklahoma Theater Center in Oklahoma City, the three theaters comprise the major components – lounges, offices, toilets – attached to the, The three components are plugged into a supporting base or ‘chassis.’
“The circuiting is intricate and made up of five sub-circuits: (1) a corridor layout within the base connecting all under-stage areas; (2) a confluence of paths by means of bridges connecting the sidewalks over the roof of the base to the public gardens; (3) the automobile circuit passing under these bridges, connecting entrances, parking, and service; (4) the theatergoer’s tube system which leads from ticket office and lobby to the three theaters and to ‘seating trays’; (5) the overhead distribution of chilled water from the cooling towers to the three air conditioning units above each theater.”
In later comments, Johansen spoke of how Mummers represented a time in his career when he was rebelling against conventional designs of the era.
Locals pushed back.
Longtime Chamber executive Stanley Draper ordered up extensive landscaping to shield the public’s view of the new theater. In 1971, soon after the theater was opened, Scism was struggling to win over a skeptical public while also trying to reverse a massive budget shortfall.
“Once we get the scoffers inside, their opinion changes,” Scism said in a January 1971 interview. “It certainly is better than looking like a post office or funeral parlor. We wanted a theater that didn’t have to fight its environment in order to get a play on, and we didn’t worry about the patina. Like, who worries about Barbara Streisand’s nose?”
The theater did, however, win international acclaim in the architecture community and was the only building in city history to win the highest award from American Institute of Architects in 1972.
At the same time, Mummer’s Theater collapsed. A move to a more expensive Equity union contract with performers contributed to the theater’s downfall. The Ford Foundation provided Mummers with $500,000 for operations in the new theater, but it was ultimately diverted to covering a construction funding shortfall.
The theater opened with no institutional support — a failure that would doom any community theatrical group. But locals were left believing it was Johansen’s design that ultimately killed the once thriving Mummers.
Mummers was redubbed Oklahoma Theater Center and rescued by local philanthropist John Kirkpatrick. The theater went dark again in the 1980s, was renovated and reopened yet again, but was again in trouble even before it was devastated by floods in June 2010.
The property was sold to developer G. Rainey Williams Jr. in 2013 and was torn down in 2014 to make way for a new corporate headquarters for OGE Energy Corp. Efforts to have the property placed on the National Register of Historic Places were rejected by the building’s owners, and the city’s Downtown Design Review Committee rejected appeals against demolition filed by architects and preservationists.
This collection includes construction photos taken by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, opening photos provided by Johansen archivist John Veltri, an early Mummers Theater brochure provided by OKCTalk.com, and demolition photos and video provided by RetroMetroOKC member and photographer Will Hider.
– By Steve Lackmeyer