Tough choices still paying off for Oklahoma City 20 years later
Sitting in the audience at the Civic Center Music Hall on Friday, taking in a showing of “The Phantom of the Opera,” there was a moment where I had to pause and remember — this almost didn't happen.
A full house. A production complete with pyrotechnics, haze, fog and an incredible chandelier hanging over seating that makes the audience a part of the production. OKC Broadway has brought a level of theater to Oklahoma City that wouldn't have been possible without the original MAPS reconstruction of the Art Deco performance hall.
Walk outside, even on a rainy evening like Friday, and the feeling of being in the heart of a vibrant big city makes the experience complete.
And then I stop and consider: what if Oklahoma City leaders had caved to the pressures of some powerful voices when the MAPS vision for the Civic Center went millions over budget and an alternate plan was pitched to build an entirely new performance venue in northwest Oklahoma City.
It was 1998, the MAPS program was not going well with budget overruns and project delays. The arena that later would become home to the Thunder was on the verge of being “shelved,” a decision that if it had proceeded would have cost Oklahoma City its shot at the NBA.
The vision for the Civic Center was to gut the bland, 1967 auditorium, taking it down to dirt and the building shell, while preserving the historic lobby and exterior.
When the budget for the Civic Center climbed from an initial budget of $32 million to $44 million, influential arts patrons, including Oklahoma City Philharmonic board member Nancy Apgar, sought to change the plan altogether.
She questioned whether the city could successfully build a new auditorium within the original 1937 building shell and argued the building could instead be “cleaned up” and that a new, nicer performance hall could be built in northwest Oklahoma City.
City officials stood their ground, architect Richard Brown defended the project, and even Philharmonic conductor Joel Levine called Apgar's effort badly timed — even as the Philharmonic and other arts groups stood to suffer during the two-year shutdown of the performance hall.
Under the leadership of a new mayor, Kirk Humphreys, voters that year approved extending the MAPS sales tax for six months. The Civic Center was completed as planned. The Oklahoma City Ballet and the Philharmonic survived the two-year displacement and returned to bigger crowds and renewed enthusiasm.
The Civic Center Foundation, meanwhile, decided to end its long affiliation with Tulsa-based Celebrity Attractions and teamed up with New York City-based Nederlander Organization to create OKC Broadway.
Could that partnership with a higher-tier traveling Broadway producer have been possible without the improvements made at the Civic Center?
Twenty years later, it's certainly difficult to imagine a performance hall located in northwest Oklahoma City attracting the sort of crowds that would support the productions being brought in by OKC Broadway, or the revived performances of the Oklahoma City Ballet or the Philharmonic.
The easy way out did not prevail. Sacrifice and hard work went into proceeding with the vision of reviving the Civic Center and making it the big-city performing arts venue we enjoy today.