The Grand Entrance of Centre’s Improbable, Impossible Dream
It was early June 1973, and Centre College watched on as construction crews gradually left behind campus until only one thing remained: a brand-new, jaw-dropping Regional Arts Center, waiting for the day when its doors would open to the public at last.
But the RAC – now known as the Norton Center for the Arts – was anything but quiet and empty over the next few months. Between lighting installation, final facility touch-ups and preparations for the first production, it was all hands on deck until September 22: the Opening Night Gala.
Working in the new scene shop, oftentimes from nine in the morning until the middle of the night, was internationally-acclaimed German designer and head of the Costume Department for Germany’s famed Bayreuth Festival, Reinhard Heinrich.
So, why would a designer with many impressive credits to his name come all the way to small-town Kentucky to work in a Center that had not yet seen a staged production before?
It was a love for the opera Otello and genuine curiosity that brought Heinrich to Danville, after receiving a telegram from recently-appointed RAC Director Floyd Herzog in May. He had met Herzog about a year prior when visiting California, and the two hit it off over discussions of theatre and the arts.
Heinrich said the telegram “was quite persuasive, and I have never regretted accepting it.” It helped that he truly loved Otello, and this would be the Kentucky Opera Association’s premiere of the opera. Heinrich made it to Danville for the first time in May of 1973 to look at the Center and its stage, then returned to his apartment in Munich to build a half-inch scale model of the set and create the costume designs.
As is the case with most artistic endeavors, there was much more to Heinrich’s costume and set design than simple appearances.
“[The set] is surrounded by metal scaffolding to give the audience an impression of a huge cage which hopelessly traps the characters and offers them no chance of escape,” said Heinrich in the 1973 RAC Season Brochure. “The costumes, like the setting, suggest the universality of the characters and their inner essence, reiterating that basic human emotions remain the same no matter what their surroundings.”
Returning to Kentucky in early September, it was time for Heinrich to make his designs a reality. When RAC Technical Director Michael Calitri presented him with a team of workers, Heinrich was at first shocked. All amateurs, his team was made up of five Centre College students, a recent 1973 Centre graduate, and a Swarthmore College student. How could this inexperienced group produce the set he had designed?
Heinrich’s initial worry dissolved quickly into pleasant surprise. As Centre students have proven time and time again in both the past and coming years, their work was invaluable. They created the set with remarkable professionalism and speed, finishing everything in the given timeline.
“People would probably have called me stupid if I had stated some time ago that liberal arts college students could build an elaborate set like this,” said Calitri. “But I am a firm believer that within every human being is an artistic and creative spirit of some kind that needs to find an outlet.”
This belief of Calitri’s manifested into five decades of students gaining hands-on experience in the Norton Center. To this day, large-scale productions would be impossible to put on without the help of students, and they are in turn able to gain perspective and experience that few other colleges could offer.
With the set and costumes taken care of, there was still one component of the Opening Night Gala left to facilitate: the Grand Foyer art exhibition.
In an unprecedented move by the famous New York museum, the Guggenheim loaned a collection of 26 works to the Regional Arts Center to usher in this new era of arts in small-town Danville. The exhibit, titled “Postwar Painting from the Guggenheim Museum,” featured works from the museum’s permanent collection, which had never been loaned to a college arts center before. Security was hired to keep an eye on the collection, barriers were constructed to keep eager hands from straying too close to the pieces, and at last, it was time for the gala.
As one may expect for the opening performance of a brand-new, state-of-the-art performing arts center, Otello sold out. A few last-minute tickets were sold at the Box Office in the hours before the show, including one ticket to a very eager Kentucky School for the Deaf student, who came alone to experience the grandness of opening night.
Around 12 or 13 years old and still short enough to barely see over the counter, the boy approached the Box Office a few minutes ahead of curtain time. With only $4 in a small envelope, he requested a $2 ticket but found out all of those seats had been sold.
With tears in his eyes, he wrote a note to John Frazer, Centre assistant to the president, who was in the Box Office that night: “I have been looking forward to coming to this for three months, but can’t get a two-dollar ticket.”
Frazer charged him $2 for a $6 ticket, gently refusing the boy’s offers to mail in the extra $4 a few days later, and sent him into the theatre.
“If our production means that much to one person…it makes all of our efforts worthwhile,” Heinrich responded when Frazer told him the story the following day.
One person…and over 1,400 others. Newlin Hall was at full capacity when the curtain finally rose and Otello sailed onto the stage.
As the tragic tale of love, jealousy and betrayal unfolded, the audience was captivated. The powerful voice of tenor Joseph Grado filled the auditorium as he portrayed the tormented Moor Otello with passion and intensity. Ana Riera’s ethereal voice brought Desdemona to life, her innocence and vulnerability breaking the hearts of all in attendance. Harlan Foss as the conniving villain Iago left everyone in suspense as his wicked plot unraveled.
The end of the performance was greeted by thunderous applause, the first of many standing ovations to take place in Newlin Hall. Patrons flooding from the theatre raved about the show: The costumes! The singing! The acoustics! Some stuck around to take another look at the Guggenheim exhibit, and nearly 300 invitees stayed for a formal dinner-dance in Weisiger Theatre to celebrate the accomplishment that was the Regional Arts Center.
“The Kentucky Opera Association’s presentation of Verdi’s Otello was hailed by the critics as ‘magnificent,’ the concert hall as ‘perfect,’ and the future of the musical and performing arts in this area was declared promising indeed,” boasted the Advocate-Messenger just a few days after the performance.
Promising, indeed! This evening of firsts set a precedent that would be followed for the next five decades; one of inviting artistic excellence to a college campus and small town; one of hands-on learning, where students work alongside professionals in real-life scenarios; and one of student, community and artistic collaboration.
The performers, the set and costume design, the Regional Arts Center staff, Centre College and the entire community had come together to create something truly magical. It was a night of celebration not only for the arts and its power to move and inspire, but also for the indomitable spirit of a college and town that dared to dream big.
“A Night At The OPERA In Danville.” The Advocate-Messenger [Danville], September 24, 1973, p. 8
“Capacity Crowd at Centre Gala.” The Advocate-Messenger [Danville], September 23, 1973, p. 1
“Casts Announced for Opera Season.” The Advocate-Messenger [Danville], August 29, 1973, p. 2
Centre College’s Regional Arts Center. “The Coming of Age of An Idea.” 1973.
“Dances, Music, Comedy To Headline First Fine Arts Center Season.” The Advocate-Messenger [Danville], July 22, 1973, p. 28
“Desire of KSD Student To Attend Opera Is Gratifying.” The Advocate-Messenger [Danville], September 25, 1973, p. 2
Frisbie, Peggy. “Curiosity, Love for ‘Otello’ Bring German Designer Here.” The Advocate-Messenger [Danville], September 16, 1973, p. 23
“Tickets For Arts Center Events To Be Mailed Sept. 1.” The Advocate-Messenger [Danville], August 19, 1973, p. 3