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Final farewell to Obed Wilson Memorial Auditorium

... with video, slideshow, historic images, faculty and alumni memories, ghost stories, plus a “coda
 

Wilson's ghosts are homeless, but the ball that wrecked Wilson’s walls did not douse dreams born there

by Deborah Rieselman

Since the mid 1980s, Wilson Auditorium sat on the front lawn of the University of Cincinnati campus to serve largely as a grand Art Deco storage facility — doomed for demolition by its enormous price tag for restoration. Nevertheless, the campus community seemed to relish the purposeless building.

Some cherished memories of it being the first home of musical-theater majors in the 1960s and ’70s. Others liked to convince themselves that its ghost stories were true. And even though most UC faculty, staff and students had never set foot in the building, it held a royal dignity through its inspirational bas-reliefs of Shakespeare, Moliere and the four muses of theatre, music, poetry and literature.

When construction fences were erected in the fall of 2013, everyone knew what it meant — that it was time to say goodbye. Here UC Magazine documents Wilson Auditorium’s ungraceful fall, through photos, a time-release video and memories from the CCM folks who loved her the most.

Below, we start with a time-lapse video and a heartwarming piece by Richard Hess, M (CCM) '93, theatre arts professor at the College-Conservatory of Music.

The name "Wilson" carved into a stone piece of the building.

Time-lapse video of Wilson's demolition

  • Shot by geology professor David Nash from his office in the Geology Physics Building, which faces Clifton Avenue.
  • Filmed from Nov. 22 to Dec. 10, 2013.
  • View is of the north side of Wilson, which faced DAAP.

Wilson was 'greater than the bricks and mortar of its walls'

by Richard Hess, M (CCM) '93,
CCM theater arts professor

Sometimes a building is more than just a building — especially when it houses the hopes and dreams and aspirations of its occupants. For example, Wilson Auditorium, which is being demolished the first week of November 2013, has become a sum greater than the bricks and mortar of its walls.

For the past 83 years, Wilson Auditorium was a vibrant container of dreams, sitting grandly on the northwest corner of the University of Cincinnati campus with its face toward Clifton Avenue. As Wilson meets the wrecking ball, I am flooded with the memories of my first home at UC when I arrived in 1990.

Wilson had been the home of the CCM Drama Department from its inception in 1984 to 1999, when the building was finally vacated. Dedicated in 1930, the art-deco-style Wilson Auditorium fostered a spirit of adventure through imaginative discovery, the spirit still rigorously practiced by the now 31-year-old CCM Department of Drama.

While the rest of the departments in the College-Conservatory of Music were housed in the Corbett Center and Mary Emery Hall, CCM Drama was housed across campus in the Wilson Auditorium. Classes in acting, movement and voice production were taught in the old Wilson Library, the lobby and two classrooms in the building, as well as on the stage. In short, wherever they would fit.

Because the old building seemed to welcome and invite risk and innovation, boundaries were explored by every student who acted in a show in Wilson Auditorium. I did everything at Wilson from mopping floors and moving chairs to hanging lights and hunting down scenic elements.

Sometimes it used to rain on stage during shows, and you could hear the lights sizzle during dramatic pauses; we were never sure if Wilson was completely safe. But there was never doubt that our artistic hearts were safe.

In nine years, I directed 18 productions in Wilson Auditorium, often with little more than my imagination and creativity to distract the audience from the fact that we had very little else. But what we did have was talent to spare and resourcefulness, pushing ourselves to safely dangerous places in search of our artistic expression.

With the help of my directing teacher Michael Burnham I learned to become an artist. We learned to make something from nothing. The scrappy heartbeat of CCM Drama was birthed from the playground of freedom possible in a building that the university sometimes claimed was not occupied.

My first office as a faculty member in 1993 was an old dressing room in Wilson. Long and no more than 10 feet wide, the room had one small window at the end, a sink in the back corner and make-up lights on the walls. The mirrors were long gone. In the winter, I mopped the building when the salt build-up became unbearable in the hallways, and I placed buckets on the stage when roof leaks became too large.

Once when I was in the men’s restroom on the third floor, a ghost turned on the shower as I washed my hands at the sink. I will never forget the hair rising on the back of my neck as I heard the water start to hit the floor, knowing no one else was in the tiny restroom. Though fearful to turn the water off, I did — before running from the building. It was a magical place.

Many former students shared memories of the power of Wilson Auditorium upon learning of the upcoming demolition. After sitting vacant for the past 14 years, the news still struck a deep chord with UC alumni who called the building home for their four years of study in Cincinnati.

____________________________

John Michael Graham (CCM Drama 1999), now assistant professor of theater at Drake University:

“What a shame. So many of us first learned what it meant to be an artist in that space.”

 

Mickey Fisher (CCM Musical Theatre 1995), screenwriter of the new CBS drama “Extant” starring Halle Berry:

“I can't imagine what the walls of Wilson Auditorium are holding onto in the cracks and crevices. Not just the hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations of so many passionate, gifted people that passed through those hallways, but also the magic that comes from the inception and creation of so many great works of art — things like any one of the hundred scenes I watched, where something clicked and what seemed like a mystery became illuminated and accessible, when the impossible became possible. Somebody save me a piece of the rubble, if you can.”

 

Tricia Thelen (CCM TDP 1999), now associate professor of theater at Quinnipiac University and who designed scenery and executed prop designs for many productions in Wilson Auditorium as a graduate student in Scenic Design:

“Oh, what haunting memories I have. I painted the stage floor for seven shows and left one night in terror after being there alone and seeing ghosts.

"I painted all night, singing pieces of the show when no one could hear me. I climbed above the highest catwalk to hang drapes. I knew the space like I know my own house. It was a place to experiment recklessly, making friends by doing design favors for each other, getting inside our own heads — and spilling out what was in there all over Wilson, all over the performers, the audience and each other.”

One of the most personal reflections came from Damian Baldet (CCM Drama 1995), who will next appear in the Broadway production of “Machinal” in New York after spending five years with “The Lion King,” performing from Japan to London with the show:

“I was a little boy in that theatre when my dad was in school there. I sat in the pit with my mom while she played some kind of harp for my dad's production of ‘The Bacchae.’

“I slept in the aisles under Mom's fleece-lined coat because I had school the next morning and rehearsals went late. I played for hours in the lobby by myself and borrowed money for soda from the actors, who I thought of as rock stars — until Dad found out and yelled at me and made me pay them all back.

“I was terrified of the basement and of the hallways behind the balcony, a fear I kept until I was a student there myself. Then I'd break in and rehearse my Performance Board monologues until the anxiety had calmed enough so I could sleep.

“I fell hopelessly in love in that building. I learned the pain of a shattered heart in that building. I found my life and my purpose in that building. There is no other place on earth like it.”

____________________________

I walked over for one last look today. I asked a demolition worker to pass me a piece of rubble through the fence for Mickey. Rest in peace, dear old Wilson Auditorium.

Richard Hess, M (CCM) '93
A.B., Dolly, Ralph and Julia Cohen Chair in Drama
UC College-Conservatory of Music

Historic images of Wilson

Interior shots of a vacant Wilson Auditorium

photos by Zach Fein, M (DAAP) ’11

Sideview of demolition with viewer facing McMicken Hall


Wilson Auditorium ghost stories

from UC Libraries Blog

In Wilson, there are typical accounts of old pipes clanking, doors slamming and even the building’s skylight mysteriously shattering on one occasion. Such occurrences are generally attributed to the building’s age and maintenance. Yet some accounts of faculty who had offices in the building give a more unsettling view of the place.

Faculty member Richard Hess recalled (above) using the restroom while in the building alone when a shower turned on without explanation. Another instance occurred in which static was said to be humming out of old unplugged speakers, and another in which a woman could be heard singing soprano in a dressing room, but was never found.


In the end ...

How quickly they seem to forget

I had been photographing the final remains of Wilson Auditorium one night when an older gentleman carrying a bookbag asked what the construction fences were for. "It's the construction site where Wilson Auditorium just came down," I replied.

"Hmmm," he muttered, shaking his head. "I don't remember a building being there."

— Deb Rieselman, editor
UC Magazine