John Murray, the manager of MU’s Jesse Auditorium, points to an empty elevator shaft in the auditorium’s basement.
“The elevator was never installed because of budget cuts,” Murray said. The space is used to store curtains and big bottles of water.
In the heart of campus on Francis Quadrangle, Jesse Hall is more than 100 years old. It underwent a major renovation, which included the addition of the auditorium, in the mid-1950s. With the exception of minor cosmetic changes including some alterations to tapestry and carpeting, the auditorium is not that different from its earlier days.
“Dear old Jesse is a grand and wonderful place,” Bill Bondeson, assistant to the chancellor and former director of university concert series, said at a Friday news conference, where plans for a new performing arts center on campus were unveiled. “But the age of Jesse is showing.”
Murray, the hall’s manager for three years, agrees. He said the auditorium is old and hardly suited for modern artistic productions. In the ’50s, no one thought the stage would see Broadway plays and rock concerts — it was not designed for them.
Bondeson said the current auditorium is inadequate technically, spatially and acoustically.
“I have seen the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra try to back the huge semi-trailer truck down the driveway behind the chancellor’s residence without tipping it over and have all the violins lying down in the parking lot,” Bondeson said.
Jesse has 1,780 seats, which, Murray said, doesn’t help to attract big acts. Tickets need to generate revenue that would help pay the artists, he added.
MU had to turn down performers such as Aretha Franklin or comedian Jerry Seinfeld in 2003 because the low number of seats would have sent ticket prices through the roof. The auditorium holds about 120 shows a year.
The Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis has two theaters. One can seat more than 1,600 people, the other 300. The project cost $52 million: $40 million from the state and the rest from private money. St. Louis has other larger, artistic venues; Columbia does not.
Space seems to be Jesse’s biggest problem. Murray said there are not enough seats, the stage is small and so are the dressing rooms. “Some shows ask for 10 dressing rooms,” he said. “We only have two.”
The auditorium’s backstage does not provide access for people with disabilities and is not equipped with ramps of any kind. Everything that needs to go to the basement, where the dressing rooms are located, has to be lowered through a stage trapdoor using chain motors.
That is one of the reasons preparations for a show take so long, Murray said. Jesse employs 50 part-time workers, mostly students, but due to the amount of work involved, it sometimes needs to contract outside help.
Missourian reporter Andrea Latta contributed to this report.