by Nancy Ridgeway
Dreamers like Don Quixote from Man of La Mancha, philosophers like Linus Van Pelt from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, historical figures like William Shakespeare’s Richard III, drifters like Huck Finn from Big River, traditionalists like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, and free spirits like Maria from The Sound of Music.
These characters and many others have come alive on the stage of Bradley’s Meyer Jacobs Theatre in the Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts since opening night on September 6, 1979. The premiere of Man of La Mancha represented a new era for the building, originally constructed in 1908 as Hewitt Gymnasium.
James Ludwig, associate dean of the Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts, served as director of the Theatre Department when the Hartmann Center was renovated in the late 1970s. Dr. Phil Weinberg was the dean at the time. Ludwig remembers, “There was a stage in Neumiller Chapel that was shared by music and theatre classes and was the beginning of the television studio. It was over-used, compressed space.”
About this time, a new athletic facility, Haussler Hall, was built. The country was experiencing an energy crisis. “In order to heat the new gym, Bradley had to give up one of its other buildings. We gave up Hewitt Hall, and what had been the gym stood empty. When the energy crunch abated, the University said the building could be used again.”
He continues, “In 1978-79, probably the last major reorganization of the University occurred, and the College of Communications and Fine Arts was established. Before, we had art and music schools and a speech and theatre arts department. Speech and theatre were split. Concurrently, the administration established Hewitt Gymnasium as the Hartmann Center, which was a bold project at the time.”
Ludwig says, “Allen Cannon [professor of music emeritus] had been making the case that a performance facility was needed. This was always on the minds of the people, and with the reorganization of the University, it became more important. We had three things coming together at once: a new college, the heat permit, and this calling for a place to perform.”
He remembers, “I was the point person with the architects and the builders. It was very challenging. It was my job to squeeze a quarter from 15 cents. Meyer Jacobs Theatre was conceived as a working theatre stage with an audience added on.”
Ludwig adds with a glint in his eye, “It’s poignant to think that Mary Hartmann was connected to music, and Meyer Jacobs was an athlete. Between them, the athletics and the aesthetics came together with the major renovation of the gymnasium to a theatre with an art gallery. It took close to two years and $2 million to complete.”
Discussing plans for the theatre, Ludwig explains, “There are three kinds of theatres: a picture frame theatre, which is what Peoria Players has; theatre in the round, which is what Corn Stock has; and thrust theatre, where the stage thrusts itself into the audience. We thought that having a thrust theatre would complement the other theatres in the community.”
Meyer Jacobs Theatre stands in the heart of campus. Ludwig says, “It’s a surprise to go inside our theatre. It’s a jewel box. It’s so highly intimate and above utilitarian.”
Eric Petersen ‘03
Barbara Schertz Riley ‘83 Glasford, IL
John Scacchetti ‘02
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