Ottawa Municipal Auditorium © 2013
A LANDMARK OF CULTURE AND ENTERTAINMENT
THE OTTAWA MUNICIPAL AUDITORIUM
The chronicles of "entertainment structures" in Ottawa are as diverse and colorful as the city itself. The Ottawa Municipal Auditorium, located at the southeast corner of 3rd and Hickory Streets, is no exception and will be forever linked in history with the likes of Samuel B. Rohrbaugh and George Washburn, with skating rinks and fatal fires.
Col. Rohrbaugh came to Ottawa in 1869, investing in city real estate and zealously building many properties. Moreover, he was public-spirited and greatly concerned with the betterment of the town. The first Rohrbaugh building was built as a skating rink in 1886, then used as a carriage factory, and finally it was converted, at considerable expense, into an attractive auditorium. It was formally opened on March 23, 1890 and proclaimed "the best in the state." Five years later, the building caught fire and burned.
Using funds of his own and $6,000 raised by public subscription, Col. Rohrbaugh then constructed a splendid new theater just north of what is now Lamb-Roberts-Heiss Funeral Home. The Rohrbaugh, as it was named, had 1200 seats, including eight private boxes, a 62' X 40' stage, and both gas and electric lighting. It opened on January 31, 1896 and was hailed as "without equal in Kansas." Many dignitaries numbered among the 800 attending the opening. Railroads even offered special round-trip rates, and Grand Opening prices at the theater ran between $1.00 and $2.00.
The Rohrbaugh was Ottawa's pride and joy for years. Many attractions, such as road shows, concerts, plays, recitals, and artist series were booked. Besides the most noted performers of the day, host of famous speakers graced The Rohrbaugh stage, including presidential candidates, Senators and Congressmen. Parts of Ottawa's renowned Chautauqua were held there, along with various church, civic, club and Ottawa University activities. On October 2, 1915, The Rohrbaugh suffered the fate of many well-known Ottawa buildings when it too caught fire and was destroyed.
Swept up in a surge of patriotism in early 1919, the City of Ottawa decided to build an auditorium dedicated to the memory of those who had died in World War I. A massive campaign led to the passage of a $75,000 special bond issue. George Washburn, designer and architect of many of Ottawa's historic structures, began work creating a versatile building similar in appearance to The Rohrbaugh and built like Kansas City's Convention Hall. After several design modifications, builder J.L. Zollars of Independence began work at this current site. The Memorial Auditorium had a large stage and fly gallery, over 1400 seats, and a spacious meeting hall downstairs. It was dedicated in 1921.
Throughout the years, this building saw the great and near-great perform on stage. Concerts, operas, religious revivals, conventions, and high school graduations filled the yearly calendar. The community theatre was active, the American Legion met upstairs, OU students built their drama sets there, and cartoons were shown on Saturday afternoons. However, after the flood of 1951, the decay of years and high maintenance cost took their toll. With television occupying more leisure time, the Auditorium was used less and less until it was finally closed in 1974, having been declared unsafe.
No longer able to maintain the building, the city fathers began exploring the possibility of renovating or replacing the Auditorium. A citizens' advisory committee was formed, various studies ordered, and much lobbying done before taking the issue to the voters. Ottawa citizens decided by a nearly 3 - 1 margin to appropriate needed renovation and yearly maintenance funds to save the facility. The Ottawa Municipal Auditorium opened its doors on October 8, 1978 after an extensive $680,000 renovation.
Besides various structural and cosmetic improvements, the most striking changes involved comfortable seating to 840, an enlarged orchestra pit, heightened acoustics, a lower level overhaul, and handicap-accessibility to the basement and main level. The city commission appointed an auditorium authority and a director hired to oversee operations. Besides civic events, the Auditorium became the only facility in the state to offer three separate series in performing arts, country and western, and travel films.
Today's Ottawa Municipal Auditorium is a reflection of the times. Programming has expanded for greater community outreach. Local talent and children's events receive more exposure. Financial support from area businesses, grants, and in-house fund raising helps offset increased operating and business costs. The facility remains a vital part of the community's activities, always striving to provide opportunities to enrich, to educate, and to entertain.