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ASU celebrates 50 years of cultural excellence, community involvement at Gammage Auditorium

When he sat down in 1957 to design an opera house to be built in Baghdad, Frank Lloyd Wright might never have imagined what was to come of this plan. The combination of an overthrown monarchy and the vision of a close personal friend would turn this Middle Eastern opera hall design into the center of ASU’s performing arts campus.

The Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014, is a fixture of ASU, Tempe and the Valley.

The friend who brought the idea for this advanced performing arts center to Wright in 1957 happened to be ASU President Grady Gammage, who envisioned a world-class auditorium for the University and the city of Tempe. This center would be able to build ASU’s performing arts program and bring fine arts to the Valley. Gammage called upon Wright, who just happened to have the tabled design for the Baghdad opera house and was able to alter the plans to reflect the culture and scenery of the new location.

Victor Sidy, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, described the aesthetic elements of Wright's design. The esteemed architect aimed to create a design to differentiate the building in Tempe from his planned Baghdad opera house.

"Frank Lloyd Wright was invested in ensuring that the architecture of his buildings were specific to a place and to a client," Sidy said. "If you notice the columns of Gammage, they reflect the shape of the palm trees that surround it. The gesture the building makes has big, open arms with which to embrace the community."

This welcoming effect of Wright's architecture extends beyond the outer arms of the building as it continues inside to the large spaces, balconies and arches that fill Gammage's interior.

"Gammage represents something important in American architecture, which is the democratization of the performance venue," Sidy said. "Gammage's wide open foyer represents the openness of the modern theater as opposed to more classic theaters. It's for all of Arizona, not just the elite."

This movement of openness and equality to all possible patrons of the theater resulted in Gammage becoming a central icon of the life of ASU and Tempe. This gives the building the potential to become a sort of gathering place for all types of the Valley's people; a potential that unfortunately, as of its 50th birthday, does not have sufficient space to be brought to life. Sidy pointed out this failing, identifying the traffic, roads and parking lot surrounding the auditorium as detractors from some of the building's power. Sidy stated that he hopes to see Gammage make an effort in coming years to search for ways to transform the area around the theater to allow for patrons and community members to gather and pass time on the grounds.

According to Gammage's website, Wright was quoted as saying, "I believe this is the site. The structure should be circular in design and yes, with outstretched arms, saying 'Welcome to ASU.'" His original desire to bring people in with outstretched arms definitely conflicts with the asphalt-covered grounds.

Unfortunately, neither Gammage nor Wright lived to see their plans come to fruition. Ground was broken on the project by Gammage’s son, Grady Gammage Jr., in 1962. Thus, on the former women’s athletic field, began the history of a Valley landmark.

The auditorium officially opened in September 1964 after 25 months of construction. The opening was heralded with a performance from conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Gammage's offerings have continued with a colorful mix of Broadway productions, musical performances and student productions, the first of which was “West Side Story” in 1964. This seamless melding of student and professional works has set a tone of professional collaboration for the Gammage Auditorium as well as for the performing arts school as a whole, something acknowledged by ASU Libraries archivist Robert Spindler. [slideshow_deploy id='155421'] "Gammage encourages a beautiful symbiotic relationship between the performing arts and the university that inspires performing arts students to do more,” Spindler said.

With this state-of-the-art facility, ASU transformed from a University with no large-scale performing arts center into a University with one of the premiere auditoriums in the nation, one which draws everything from world-renowned musicians and orchestras to Broadway tours.

“The opening of the Gammage Auditorium validated the status of ASU as an aspiring university to the world with a great building to celebrate the arts in a time where it was really seeking that boost," Spindler said. “Gammage was an important part of the University becoming what it is today.”

Gammage executive director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack has expanded Gammage's influence during her 22 years in office. She has instituted changes and improvements that have added to the facility's already impressive means of accommodation for different performances.

"Colleen really expanded the capabilities of the Gammage facilities," Spindler said. "She had it remodeled so that complicated, professional shows can be accommodated without damaging the world-class acoustics of the auditorium."

Gammage’s impact has spanned far past the boundaries of the University, however. Prior to its opening, the Valley — apart from downtown Phoenix — was devoid of a venue of relevance to attract high artistic culture. With Gammage, this dynamic was ultimately changed, Spindler explained.


Jennings-Roggensack elaborated on this point. As more and more professional shows and tours have come to Gammage in recent years, she noticed a trend among the descriptions of what led the companies to bring productions to the Valley.

“The producer from Kinky Boots opened the national tour here because of Gammage’s reputation. … And we have more and more producers letting us know that,” she said

Gammage’s draw has brought Broadway to Arizona, with such productions as “Chicago,” “Wicked” and, next season, “The Book of Mormon” gracing its stage.

Jennings-Roggensack became executive director in 1991 and has led the auditorium for nearly half of its 50 years. In this time, she has witnessed a growth in the breadth of community events that Gammage has played host to.

“You have everything from graduation exercises here, to the swearing in of lawyers, to the naturalization of citizens, which I don’t know if those are things that (Gammage and Wright) would have imagined,” Jennings-Roggensack said. Gammage not only seeks to bring culture to the Valley, but also to encourage a next generation of performing artists within the Valley communities through a series of arts education programs that it has launched.

One such program, called Kaleidoscope, works to bring professional arts performers and teachers to local elementary and high schools that would otherwise be unable to provide arts education. This form of outreach has become a sort of hallmark of Jennings-Roggensack’s leadership and has grown exponentially during her time as executive director.

Her vision for the furthering of the arts does not stop with children. She has also pushed a program, called Journey Home, dedicated to improving the lives of female prison inmates through the performing arts. The program, which takes place in the Estrella correctional facilities in Phoenix, aims to use the arts to bring these women back into the folds of their communities after their time served through productive artistic experiences.

“We have a program where we have been working in the Estrella correctional facilities and giving those women an opportunity to take off their mask of victimhood through the arts and culture, and come back into society as productive citizens,” Jennings-Roggensack said.


Jennings-Roggensack’s hopes for Gammage do not stop here, however. In the future, she sees Gammage bringing more international projects and conferences to the Valley — not only to enrich the community through the arts, but also through intellectual initiatives that will allow the area to expand as a political and diplomatic center as well as a cultural one.

“I would love for us to have ongoing projects like the Clinton Global Initiative take place here,” she said. “I also see us having a greater impact internationally. With the University looking at China, Mexico and England as targeted countries, we’re looking at how do we not only bring artists here, but how do we create exchange programs.”

While Gammage's original role at ASU may not have involved the level of philanthropy and community engagement projects that it currently does, it was clear from the start that the Gammage's construction meant much more than just the opening of a college theater space. Video edited by Sean Logan | Multimedia Director
With all of the opportunities Gammage has brought to ASU and the Valley community, it’s clear that its 50 years of life so far have seen it become an integral part of the University community as well as the communities of all of the surrounding areas. Through this, it has established ASU as the hub for artistic culture in the Valley, something that has no doubt brought the school closer to the cities it serves as well as the world at large.

Gammage’s 50th anniversary season, which boasts many Broadway productions as well as a visit from legendary rock songwriter Ryan Adams in December, encompasses the full scale of what the Gammage has become to its community: a hub of culture, a place of gathering for shared artistic experience and a center for a now well-established performing arts school for the largest public school in the U.S.

View its full schedule at

Uncaptioned Photos: Color: Photo by Alexis Mackln / Black and White Photos: Courtesy of Arizona State University Libraries


Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @emilymzentner

Social media editor Jessica Urgiles contributed to this story.

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