The Grand Opening Celebration

Posted on June 4, 2020

SKyPAC is proud to present a new series honoring our area arts heritage. Each week we will highlight different trailblazers and turning points that have ushered us to the modern day arts opportunities this region now enjoys. We hope you will join us in saying “Bravo!” for the countless lives touched through the arts as a result of the vision and dedication of those documented in the paragraphs that follow.
By September 1981, a five-plus year effort to form a community arts center was mere days away from fruition. D & J Construction had completed a 1 1/2 year transformation of the abandoned theatre building, where Mrs. Regina Newell noted, “we cleaned out 50 dead pigeons.” Likewise, Mrs. Mary Cohron shared the story of thinking she was holding on to a stair bannister only to discover she had grabbed on to a snake while touring the building for the first time. Still, after a $1.2 million renovation, the facility was ready for its next phase and the volunteers who had ushered the project from an idea discussed around a table at Royal Music Company to the modern, all-purpose art venue serving as the downtown centerpiece, was ready to celebrate!
Various committees were formed to plan for the Grand Opening event (full listing included below). Mrs. Barbara English, who at the time was serving as President of the Bowling Green-Warren County Arts Commission recalls cleaning the bathrooms and mopping the floors in preparation for the September 12, 1981 grand opening. She said 650 tickets were sold to the opening night event, which was a formal occasion with several women dressed in evening gowns and men in tuxedos. The Grand Opening Gala, featured “Broadway Tonight” starring Gordon MacRae, best known for his roles in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals “Oklahoma” and “Carousel” and Anna Maria Alberghetti, a singer famed for her roles in musicals such as “The Sound of Music” and “Carnival.”
Following the 8pm performance, the crowd made their way from the Capitol to the Citizens Bank building (present day US Bank) where the lower covered parking lot area had been converted into a gala space. Mrs. English was quick to praise the efforts of the group responsible for the conversion of the lot, emphasizing the beautiful scenery that truly transformed the space. The after-theatre party included food by Briarpatch Catering and music by Billy Vaughn. ** Many Gala’s were held under the bank Drive Thru converted Ballroom for the next ten years off and on.

Mrs. Elsie Hatcher, who was among the opening night chairmen, said that despite the unconventional choice of venue, the enclosed bank parking lot allowed for easy access for people to walk from the Capitol Arts Center. She recalled that initially they had planned to use big tents for the gala but the threat of possible bad weather led them to decide on the use of the lower level parking lot which provided concrete shelter protection both above and below. To help transform the space, Mrs. Hatcher remembered Mitchell Leichhardt, “practically emptied their nursery and brought all sorts of potted plants and trees.” She also remembers Russell Jefferson helping and that local electricians donated their time to help string-up lights in the space. Echoing Mrs. English’s sentiments, Mrs. Hatcher said, “it really turned out to be a pretty place.” Mrs. Hatcher said she and her fellow chairs, Mrs. Kay Cole and Mrs. Joy Beth Eastin (Dunn) divided up the duties, adding that, “It was fun and we enjoyed doing it.”

The gala event was followed by a week-long celebration (lasting September 12-19, 1981) commemorating the theatre’s renaissance and included performances and activities geared to special audiences such as a puppet show and a craft workshop for children, a teen variety show, a women’s performance, and a country-western show starring Porter Wagoner. Mrs. English also remembered the Vice President of Estee Lauder coming from New York to do a cosmetics presentation which she said was very well received by the women.

While the opening night event and the subsequent week-long activities was an opportunity to celebrate this major milestone of completing the building, the goal was also to raise funds to achieve other aims of the Capitol Arts Center. We explore some of these missions as well as the organizational structure in our next installment of Through the Years: Curtain Call.

Images courtesy of the Dept. of Library Special Collections, WKU

WE WELCOME YOUR INPUT: This series is a work in progress based on your feedback and remembrances. If you were involved in area arts efforts and have photos, programs, or other information related to the Capitol Arts Center or SKyPAC, please contact Rob Hankins at 270.904.5004 or email rhankins@theskypac.com.

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