Topics: College of Fine Arts, Administrative
October 16, 2013
From comedy acts and country western artists to famous symphonies and Broadway shows, Ball State University's Emens Auditorium has rolled out the red carpet for countless entertainers over the past five decades.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary season, Emens is kicking off a yearlong celebration, beginning with the Oct. 22 Artist Series production of the Broadway hit "Hello Dolly." A preshow reception is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in front of the auditorium for ticketholders of the event. Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora and others will deliver remarks before the show's 7:30 p.m. opening.
Charles Sursa, chair of the Emens 50th-anniversary steering committee, grew up with fond memories of attending shows at Emens, including annual performances by University Singers and the Muncie Symphony Orchestra.
"Emens adds so much to the quality of life here in our community," Sursa said. "I can't think of another venue in this city that pulls us together and benefits us the way it does."
Emens was built in the early 1960s for the sum of $3 million, half of which was raised by the community. Earl Williams was the auditorium's first director, serving in the position from 1964-1989. He recalled how the city of Muncie rallied to contribute funds for the performance venue, whose full name is the John R. Emens College-Community Auditorium. Its namesake was the university president who served from 1945-68 and oversaw Ball State’s growth from a teachers college to a university.
"Forty-four places in town had payroll deductions, and a lot of the factory and union workers donated $5 of every one of their paychecks in 1961 and 1962 to the cause," Williams said. "It was really something to see how the community made it happen. Ball State couldn't have done it on its own."
On March 14, 1964, the university previewed the auditorium to the community. Williams said the staff was nervous, the carpet still being laid down inside. "But the reaction from everybody who came through was priceless," he said. "They just loved it."
Hundreds of thousands of patrons have enjoyed events at this venue in the 50 years since its doors opened, said Bob Myers, Emens' current director.
"I tell my staff we're in the 'experience' business," Myers said. "We facilitate the creation of precious memories and shared experiences here." Some of Myers' favorite memorable acts to grace the Emens stage include BB King, Blue Man Group, "Les Miserables" and Marlee Matlin.
Williams' favorite Emens memories include multiple visits to its stage in the 1970s and early '80s by legendary radio and TV comedian Red Skelton. During Skelton's 1977 Homecoming stop, he stayed in Muncie for an entire week. He and Williams became close.
"We had a good relationship," Williams said. "We'd never had a performer like him, someone who wanted to get out among the people the way he did."
Important as it is to reflect on Emens' 50 years as a major venue for entertainment in east central Indiana, Myers said he and his staff are equally excited about its future. A university-sponsored fundraising effort is slated to begin during this 2013-14 season. Proposed renovations include improvements to the front face of the auditorium, with an expanded lobby and restrooms on the main floor. More convenient box office access with additional queue space as well as a covered, curbside canopy on the circle drive in front of Emens would further efforts to provide a more audience-friendly architectural environment.
While Emens continues to offer its performers the best in sound, stage and technical quality, it is time for ancillary improvements to be made to the venue, Myers said.
"As a presenter, my job is to bring the artist and audience together. This involves doing whatever is necessary to create an appealing place for both of these constituencies. We've always focused on providing the best possible performance space to our artists," he said. "Now we're focusing on our functional needs, all of which will help us provide the best service in both entertainment and overall patron experience for the Muncie community and east central Indiana."