Double Feature

Author: Jack Walton ’93

The spring was shaping up to be a season brimming with arts and entertainment options at Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and the Morris Performing Arts Center in downtown South Bend. Star jam-rockers Umphrey’s McGee were slated to make a return to their hometown with an April concert at the Morris, and a multiweek run of The Lion King musical was setting up on stage there as well. On campus, DPAC was ready to welcome the Boston Pops, classical violinist Jennifer Koh and jazz pianist Fred Hersch.

COVID-19 promptly brought all of this and more to a halt as the live-entertainment world temporarily ceased to exist. Although many acts have already rescheduled appearances at both venues for the 2020-21 season, everything is still predicated on a saner, safer environment for such things.

The good news is that both DPAC and the Morris were on a roll.

When DPAC opened in 2004, some worried that it might step on the Morris’ proverbial toes, but that scenario never played out. In fact, the two entities, each grounded in its own rich history, have coexisted and thrived.

The building at 211 North Michigan Street began its life in 1922 as a vaudeville theater called the Palace. It brought to town comedy acts such as Burns and Allen, the magician Harry Houdini and a wide variety of musical performers. As the film industry gradually spelled the end of the vaudeville era, the Palace adjusted. A particularly noteworthy event was the world-premiere screening of Knute Rockne, All American on October 4, 1940. Some 2,400 moviegoers packed the house for the sold-out show and were the first to hear George Gipp (Ronald Reagan) tell his coach (Pat O’Brien) to urge the Irish to “win just one for the Gipper.” Another 20,000 people or more gathered outside to catch a glimpse of the movie stars in person.

By 1959, television was keeping people entertained at home, and the Palace was on the verge of going under. Its own board of directors voted for its demolition. A local philanthropist named Ella M. Morris saved the day by purchasing the property, selling it back to the city for $1 and funding the efforts needed to give it a reboot under its new name, the Morris Civic Auditorium. For the next four decades, the Morris Civic hosted comedians, theatrical productions and musical performers from Marvin Gaye to Blue Öyster Cult. In 1998 it closed for extensive renovations, reopening in 2000 under its current name — and picking up where it left off.

On campus, venues such as Washington Hall, Stepan Center and the Joyce Center have served generations of students and local audiences. These facilities functioned well enough but weren’t built for optimal sound. Washington Hall in particular has its charms, but it was built in 1881 and, though renovated, is small and rickety. As the new millennium dawned, it was past time for a world-class university to build a world-class performance hall.

Work began on the construction of DPAC in 2001, and the first shows came in 2004. The 150,000-square-foot edifice boasts a THX-certified movie theater, the Browning Cinema, as well as four formal performance rooms: the 900-seat Leighton Concert Hall, the 350-seat Decio Theatre, the black-box Philbin Studio Theatre and the Reyes Organ and Choral Hall.

Two impressive venues: Notre Dame’s DPAC, above, and South Bend’s Morris, below. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94
Photo by Peter Ringenberg

The school allotted DPAC a healthy budget for its inaugural season, bringing in stars such as Wynton Marsalis, The Chieftains and the New York Philharmonic. As an olive branch to the Morris, leaders had collaborated to create a three-season initiative called NDPresents, in which Notre Dame booked and promoted Morris shows that were too large for even the biggest hall in DeBartolo. Opera Verdi Europa performed at the Morris, as did the acrobats and jugglers of the Quebec-based troupe Cirque Éloize, and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

Today DPAC and the Morris play to their respective and often complementary strengths. The South Bend Symphony Orchestra regularly performs concerts in both places. As the proper stage for large orchestral forces and big sounds, the Morris hosts SBSO’s Masterworks and Pops series. For its Chamber series, DPAC becomes the orchestra’s home base, usually in Sunday matinees.

Alastair Willis, SBSO’s conductor and music director since 2016, says the situation is ideal. “In DeBartolo, we can have a small-to-medium sized orchestra, and the intimacy is fantastic. The stage is smaller, so we can hear ourselves so well,” he says. The Leighton’s adjustable sound panels afford the maestro an uncommon degree of control over the acoustics he wants. “It gives us options that not every concert hall has.”

The cavernous space in the Morris is the right scenario for compositions that require choirs or extra percussionists. It also keeps the trumpeters and trombonists happy.

“Brass players love to play loudly. They can do that in the Morris but they cannot play so loudly in the DeBartolo,” Willis says. “We have to finesse our loud playing and come with a greater palette of colors in order to play effectively in DeBartolo. You can’t peel the paint off the walls with triple fortissimo.”

Ted Barron, DPAC’s executive director since 2016, says the Morris’ presentations of comedians, rock concerts and musicals give undergraduates a reason to venture into South Bend for something beyond bars and restaurants. Likewise, Barron is eager for locals to come onto campus.

“We have groups that we classify as our community arts partners, including the South Bend Youth Symphony and Southold Dance Theater. We try to include them as much as possible, whether we’re the presenters or whether they’re presenting programs on their own,” Barron says. “It’s one of our best ways of getting younger audiences to come out.”

College towns can be plagued with the snobbery that relegates local residents to the status of “townies,” and Barron is clear that this is not the mentality at DPAC.

“It troubles me when I meet people who have never been to DPAC and they think it might not be open to the community,” he says, noting that the University located the center on campus’ southern edge so it could serve as a bridge between the campus and the city. “We want to serve the needs of people on campus, but we want to keep the door open and welcome folks no matter where they’re coming from.” 

Jack Walton is a freelance arts writer and radio DJ. His program, Jazz Extrapolation, airs Tuesday nights on WSND-FM and via