Ordway Center celebrates 25th yearby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — This week the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in downtown St. Paul celebrates its 25th Anniversary with an open house on Sunday.
Some of the people involved with the Ordway then and now, look back at the effort it took to build, and what it has meant to the community.
The date was January 8, 1985. The stage was the brand spanking New Ordway Theater and the performer was the world famous soprano Leontyne Price.
It was an amazing fulfillment of an idea which had floated just a few years before. A man called Jim Borlund, who ran the Chimera Theater in St. Paul told one of his patrons, Sally Irvine, that what the city needed was a bigger theater.
Dick Slade, who was President of the Northwestern National Bank and served on the United Arts Fund in St. Paul, takes up the story.
"Sally was a theater nut," he said. "In her younger years she had been engaged in summer stock and those sorts of things and she just loved it. So she bought the idea, and had the capacity to buy the idea, being part of the Ordway family."
The Ordways were one of the families behind 3M, and Sally Ordway Irvine was eager to help a theatrical project. She hired consultants to look at existing venues to see if they could be expanded, but Slade said this was quickly ruled out.
"And the next thing you know someone said, 'Why don't you build a theater?'" Slade said.
Irvine liked the idea, but Dick Slade says, she wasn't going to be satisfied with something simple.
"She was the kind of person who wouldn't accept anything that wasn't audacious," Slade said. "She wanted something that would be flashy and interesting to go to, but also designed by theatrical professionals so it would work."
Irvine formed a nucleus of people to work on the project, some who travelled to Europe to research some of the great halls. They also purchased the former Wilder Foundation buildings on the edge of Rice Park as the site for the new Ordway.
The building was originally budgeted at around $22 million, although that grew to $45 million by the time it was finished.
It was designed to have great acoustics, and a large, sweeping foyer where an audience could be comfortable before, during and after a show.
"I remember the hall being so golden," said Minnesota Opera Artistic Director Dale Johnson, recalling entering the Ordway for the first time. "There was just a feeling a sort of a glow in the whole place."
The building had three primary tenants: the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Schubert Club and the Minnesota Opera.
A full week of concerts was planned for the opening. Sharon Carlson of the Schubert Club said there was great excitement about opening the hall.
"The principal users, we all wanted our evening, but the Schubert Club was first," Carlson said.
The story goes that the late Bruce Carlson, who then ran the Schubert Club, did an end run around the other organizations by booking Leontyne Price the day before the originally planned official opening, and snagged the big event.
The Ordway provided an important psychological boost to the three primary tenants. All three had been presenting concerts and productions at various venues around the Twin Cities. Chuck Ullery, Principal bassoon with the SPCO remembers it was a hugely important to have the Ordway as a home base.
"When, your main venue is on a college campus, we were at St. Kate's then, it's hard to say 'look, we are a world class organization,'" Ullery said.
The Ordway changed that. With Pinchas Zuckerman as music director at the SPCO, the word went out to guest performers all over the world that the Ordway was a great hall to play.
"We've had Pinky, and Shlomo Mintz, Itzak Perlman and Isaac Stern, and Midori and all these wonderful people here, " Ullery said. "They've all loved coming to St. Paul, and loved coming back to St Paul because of the Ordway."
It's not all been easy over the years since. Another important ingredient in the mix was to cause some contention.
Broadway shows are potentially big money makers for a theater like the Ordway. But in the '80s and '90s, there was close to open warfare with agencies booking the shows in Minneapolis over who should get the choice picks. There was internal wrangling too between the Ordway management tenants as to who should have scheduling priority.
The SPCO also ran into financial troubles, and was rescued by a public fund-drive organized by Minnesota Public Radio.
After a lot of talking and compromising, those issues seem in the past now.
However, there are challenges in the future. This weekend the Ordway will celebrate its anniversary with an open house on Sunday.
Visitors will be able to see renderings of the next Ordway project, a new custom built concert hall for the SPCO on the current site of the McKnight Theater. The new facility will give the Ordway more programming flexibility. President and CEO Patricia Mitchell said there is no timeline at present because of the sour economy, but fundraising is going ahead.
"And yes, it's not the best time in the world to raise money, but here we are so that's what we are doing," she said.
Mitchell said every year, some 50,000 school children attend performances at the Ordway during the day in addition to the evening audiences. As the Ordway moves into its second quarter century, she hopes for more of the same.
"The picture is both halls, filled with people who are seeing things that amaze and delight them, seeing and hearing them," she said. "And children in both halls in the daytime, and incredible art on the stage from all corners of the globe. That's what I think the Ordway wants to be."
Back at that first concert the audience called Leontyne Price back for several encores. She joked that she understood why the audience didn't want to leave the wonderful new hall.
The SPCO's Chuck Ullery said the hall retains its charm, but it's the audiences who continue to lift the performers to greater heights.