The show must go on: Keller Auditorium turns 100
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Keller Auditorium was abuzz as employees darted around in bow ties and overcoats.
Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Rhapsody in Blue" with Pink Martini was on the bill, one of many upcoming shows at the Keller, including the returning Portland Singing Christmas Tree, a performance of "The Nutcracker," and the ever-popular "Book of Mormon."
The Keller is celebrating its centennial this weekend. One of the first performances at the auditorium was in October 1917 with a performance by La Scala Grand Opera. Then known as the Municipal Auditorium, it was built for $600,000, equivalent to about $12.4 million today.
Although groups including the Portland Opera and Oregon Ballet Theatre almost exclusively use the building these days, in 1918 it was used as a temporary hospital during the Spanish flu epidemic. According to contemporary news reports, 800 people laid on cots on the stage while 169 died and were laid out in a basement room that people called "the morgue."
On a more cheery note, the stage hosted artists such as Alma Gluck, a New York City opera singer, in the early 1900s; Chubby Checker, a rock and roll singer known for his 1960 hit "The Twist"; and Led Zeppelin in 1968.
The building is run by Portland'5 Centers for the Arts, operated under the Metropolitan Exposition and Recreation Commission division of Metro.
It started out as the Municipal or Public Auditorium, and later was renamed the Civic Auditorium. In 2000, following a $1.5 million renovation financed by Richard B. Keller, it was renamed the Keller Auditorium.
The building has acted as something of a catch-all for events throughout the last century, including political talks, graduations, trade shows and conventions. Once the Veterans Memorial Coliseum was constructed, that was better-suited for conventions and trade shows, so the Keller mainly served as a music hall, a continuing home to Portland's premiere opera and ballet companies.
The Oregon Symphony used to call it home before it moved to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in 1984.
"It's hard to do a comparison to other venues. For a long amount of time, the Schnitzer before it became the Schnitzer was really not very used," says Tom Sessa, director of booking, sales and marketing at Portland'5.
Portland'5 operates five venues — where its name comes from — including Keller Auditorium, Newmark Theatre, Brunish Theatre, Winningstad Theatre, and the Schnitzer.
While the Schnitzer has rehearsals inside four days a week, the Keller is open only when there's an event.
Portland Opera started performing at the Keller regularly around the time the auditorium underwent a major renovation between 1967 and 1968.
"It's really the only venue in the city that allows us to do grand opera, because it's a size that allows for a full orchestra in the pit and then a full chorus on stage," says Laura Hassell, director of production at Portland Opera.
That means they can put 75 people in the pit, with a 100-person chorus on stage. It's by far the biggest space of its kind in the city for performers, with nearly 3,000 seats.
It hasn't always been perceived as the best space for performers, though, and many would like either a larger, modern venue — or in some cases, a smaller, more intimate one.
A 1990 column in The Oregonian newspaper by Portland architect Howard Glazer was extraordinarily critical of the auditorium, laying blame on city officials for failing to "recognize a responsibility to the future."
He wrote that despite a $40 million investment in the 1980s, the concert hall had "physical and acoustical problems that no amount of remedial work can correct."
"This was state of the art at the time," said Oregon Ballet Theatre historian Linda Besant. "It's, I think, not state of the art anymore. That's 50 years, basically. I'm glad it's the 100-year anniversary, and it'd be great if Portland could have a newer, larger production venue."
Hassell said the acoustics pose problems not so much for the opera, but can be problematic for theater productions.
"We find it quite good, actually. It's a very singer-friendly auditorium. We don't amplify anything on the opera side, so it's all acoustic," Hassell said.
But for Broadway-style theater productions, problems arise with sound because the workers tending to acoustic needs are usually touring — meaning they're unfamiliar with Keller's system.
"They can't get their speakers aligned to the right places unless they've been there for a long time," Hassell said.
Additionally, the large seating capacity makes selling out opera performances a difficult feat. They generally sell a show at about the 70-percent range, and would prefer a facility that would hold about 1,800 seats.
"We've done a lot of design studies on that, and investigating spots, but it takes a tremendous amount of capital to build a theater, and we're not in a position to [do that] at the moment," Hassell said. "It's a dream, but nothing we're actively pursuing."
The dancers who wear out their ballet slippers, and the opera singers who fill the room with their exuberant voices on the stage, think of the building as a workhorse. Between July 2016 and September 2017 the arts facility hosted 185 performances and 384,162 attendees.
For Tracey Sartario — who danced with the ballet between 1988 and 1992, and is now executive assistant to the artistic director and an artistic coordinator — it's about the people and experiences behind the scenes.
For instance, a silly tradition of a traveling stuffed cat that stagehands would photograph at various points in the world.
Apparently, there's a whole photo book backstage of this cotton feline's world wanderings.
"There's a bond there with the stagehands and the ballet company," Sartario said. "I have no experience with the opera and anyone else in there, but in my experience, there's a really strong bond of support, at least for the dancers and it makes things so much nicer."
"It's a good, old workhorse, the Keller. It gets the job done."
If you go
What: Centennial Open House Celebration; free performances open to the public
When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21
Where: Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St.
Find out more: portland5.com