Mary Emery’s Theatre
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In 1907, music loving Cincinnatians had a serious problem. Their symphony orchestra, only 12 years old, was on hiatus because of financial problems. The April 8, 1907 Cincinnati Times-Star opined that “… a need of a hall for concert purposes, seating about 2500, in no way impairs the usefulness of Music Hall, which is daily required for large gatherings and for the May festivals … and it is trusted that some public-spirited man may arise and offer a solution of the problem.” The solution came from a public-spirited woman, the 62-year-old recently widowed Mary Emery who loved art and culture. This is the story of how, 16 years prior to her founding Mariemont, she transformed a planned technical school auditorium by the force of will and money into a world-class concert hall in memory of her husband.
The stories of Emery Auditorium and Music Hall are intertwined. Music Hall was built in 1878 and wasn’t designed for symphonic orchestras. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO), founded by 15 enthusiastic women under the presidency of Helen (Mrs. William Howard) Taft, presented its first concert in January 1895. It was conducted by Frank Van der Stucken. Concerts that season and the next were presented at Pike’s Opera House on Fourth Street because of Music Hall’s acoustic deficiencies. Music Hall’s architect, Samuel Hannaford, was hired to adapt it to accommodate Cincinnati’s diverse musical needs. He shortened its length, brought the audience closer to the performers and used principles of acoustic design to give the sound a full, evenly dispersed presence without echoes. With the better acoustics, the CSO began playing in Music Hall in 1896 but it was never filled to capacity. Deficits were routine and covered at the end of the season by wealthy patrons. This was getting old. New CSO board president, Bettie (Mrs. Christian) Holmes began agitating for a smaller venue for the CSO in 1903. By 1907, the financial hiatus prompted the aforementioned editorial.
In July 1907, Mary Emery offered $100,000 towards the completion of the new Ohio Mechanics Institute (OMI) that had relocated to the northeast corner of Walnut and Canal (now Central Parkway). The building plans (by renowned Cincinnati architects Samuel Hannaford and Sons) originally called for an attached auditorium seating 800. Emery’s offer was contingent upon the OMI raising $400,000 whereupon she would contribute another $50,000. The OMI couldn’t raise the money and prevailed upon Mrs. Emery to contribute the entire amount. She agreed in October 1908 with the provision that the auditorium be “so constructed as to be serviceable for public and private lectures, entertainments, symphony and other concerts …” Although the Cincinnati Symphony was not specifically mentioned, within two days after the OMI accepted the bequest, she offered the “Emery Auditorium” to the CSO as a 1500 seat venue. They thought that was too small and “wouldn’t help them at all.” They wanted 2000 seats but compromised on 1800.
More than a new concert hall was needed to get the orchestra operational again: specifically, a $50,000 revenue guarantee fund and a new conductor. Emery offered to guarantee $5000 per year for five years if a matching amount was raised. It was and the guarantee fund was available. In Paris there was a talented 27-year-old English organist with a Polish name who was studying to be a conductor. The organist, Leopold Stokowski, had a flame who was born in Texas as Lucy Hickenlooper. Deciding that wasn’t the best name for an international concert pianist, she changed it to Olga Samaroff and was much more famous then than he was. In 1908, Samaroff met by chance CSO board president Bettie Holmes and learned they were looking for a conductor for the post hiatus 1909-10 season. Beginning July 1908, Stokowski importuned for the position with six letters over nine months. He was so determined that he traveled from Paris to
Cincinnati in April 1909 for a personal interview. He was not offered the position, probably because he had never conducted a professional orchestra. Once again Samaroff helped him. In May 1909, she was scheduled to be a soloist with the Colonne Orchestra in a Paris concert and when the conductor fell ill, Samaroff was instrumental in getting Stokowski as a replacement. A CSO board member from the Baldwin Piano Company was vacationing in France at the time and the board asked him to watch Stokowski’s conducting debut. Stokowski’s favorable reviews, charm, and persistence trumped the CSO board’s concern about inexperience and he won the position over other applicants.
Stokowski considered the CSO to be too Germanic and old fashioned sounding but he was able to work with them to get a sound he liked and a more modern repertoire of contemporary composers. He conducted his first CSO symphony on November 26, 1909 in Music Hall and was an immediate success. They played in Music Hall during the 1909-10 and 1910-11 seasons. The plan was to start in Emery Auditorium at the beginning of the 1911-12 season in November. There was great public interest in the new glamorous young conductor leading the resurrected CSO. This interest led to the record purchase of 2500 season tickets and caused the CSO board to regret they had agreed to only 1800 seats in their soon to be new home. By late 1909, Emery Auditorium construction was starting and the OMI board was informed through Mary Emery that the CSO desired the seating capacity be increased to 2200. The OMI board felt it was losing
There was more change and expense to come. Leopold Stokowski wasn’t happy. He asked for a bigger stage and acoustic modifications. The demands were considered impossible at first. The stage didn’t get enlarged but Harvey Hannaford was able to utilize his firm’s experience modifying the acoustics of Music Hall and made similar changes. Stokowski wasn’t entirely satisfied. It was June 1911, the November starting date was looming, and he still didn’t know how the auditorium would sound. He wanted a hard sound shell installed because it would have known properties and would prevent embarrassment in case the hall was not satisfactory. Hannaford may have felt defensive about his design and didn’t think a shell was necessary. He convinced Stokowski to go with a canvas shell-like backdrop. The canvas’s painted columns and arches would appear impressive behind the orchestra and soak up some reverberation with limited effect on the acoustic design. control. The seating capacity plans had gone from 800 to 1500 to 1800 and now they were asking for 2200! The OMI stated that 1800 auditorium seats were enough for them but they agreed to 2200 because their generous patron had asked for them and had agreed to pay for them. Harvey Hannaford (Samuel’s son) accommodated the request by adding a second balcony. The results were two pillarless balconies that appear to be strung effortlessly between the walls. The Emery was the first concert hall in the United States with no obstructed seats.
Mary Emery wound up paying $656,737.47 in construction costs for the school and auditorium. However, she got an auditorium that was the third in a group of four world-class theatre-style concert halls that were based on Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago and designed specifically for symphony orchestras. The four halls are Carnegie Hall in New York City (1892), Orchestra Hall in Chicago (1904), Emery Auditorium in Cincinnati (1911), and Orchestra Hall in Detroit (1919). In retrospect, some consider it a bargain.
Most of the money was spent locally to bolster the Cincinnati economy and expedite construction. However, Emery was getting nervous because she felt committed to having the auditorium open when the season started in November. Because of the changes and a refusal to compromise quality it didn’t seem that was going to happen. The CSO board scheduled the Emery inaugural concert for the sixth performance weekend of the season on Saturday, January 6, 1912 with a rehearsal date there on January 3. They also reserved Music Hall through February just in case.
The January 6 concert was a great success. Stokowski performed a program of 19th century French music that was well received. Critics pronounced the acoustics wonderful. Stokowski himself said the acoustics were superb and that the Emery Auditorium was one of the best in the country, only tonally equaled by Carnegie Hall in New York and the Boston Symphony Hall. He left Cincinnati three months later at the end of the season.
Stokowski had asked the board for a longer season and more touring. He complained about their indecision and then asked to get out of the remaining two years of his contract. At first the board refused, but after acrimonious public debates that spilled into the newspapers, they agreed. Thanks again to the influence of Olga Samaroff, now his wife, he became the conductor at the Philadelphia Orchestra, developed an Eastern European accent and went on to 65 more years of fame and fortune. He left Olga for Greta Garbo in 1923.
Stokowski’s successor, Dr. Ernst Kunwald, soon wanted to move back to Music Hall to take advantage of the orchestra’s new popularity. The theory was more tickets at cheaper prices trumped better acoustics. This was only seven years after all the clamor for a smaller venue with better acoustics. The CSO board told Kunwald that they would stay at the Emery at least one more year. In May 1917, Kunwald repeated his request and the board agreed contingent upon Mary Emery’s approval. She was against it and expressed disappointment but did not threaten to withdraw support if the move was made. The CSO board again decided to stay at the Emery.
From 1917 through 1927, the Emery was the stable home of the CSO. Opinion reversed again and the Emery was considered the gold standard against which all other local halls were measured. WSAI and WLW broadcasted many of the concerts but did not record them. In March 1927, the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra moved from Music Hall to the Emery.
Mary Emery died on October 11, 1927. Shortly after her death, the OMI honored her and acknowledged her gifts of $1,500,000 made to them during her lifetime. On December 3, the CSO board again considered moving back to Music Hall. The conductor, Fritz Reiner, was in favor of it and even stated that Music Hall’s acoustics were better. Plus, there was more parking. However, because it was calculated to be too expensive to move and Fritz Reiner was planning to leave, the question was tabled again. However for the next few years the question routinely came up but Music Hall restoration costs (not to mention the Depression) were now an issue so the CSO stayed at the Emery. In March 1936, Music Hall made the CSO a financial offer it couldn’t refuse. Their last concert at the Emery was April 25, 1936. No recordings of the CSO at the Emery were ever made.
Mary Emery’s theatre contributed even more to Cincinnati’s cultural life than symphonic music and musical soloists like Gershwin, Rubinstein, and Casals. Ever since the Emery opened in 1912, there were many and varied presentations there. Many plays and Broadway touring productions performed at the Emery. Nijinsky and Pavlova danced there.
In 1969, the OMI merged with the Ohio College of Applied Science (OCAS). OMI/OCAS then merged with the University of Cincinnati (UC). The theatre was little used by this time. The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra played there in the late 70’s. In 1977, the refurbished “Mighty Wurlitzer” 1359 pipe organ from the demolished Albee movie palace was installed and for 22 years there were classic films and organ concerts sponsored by the Ohio chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society who managed the theatre during this time. WVXU nationally broadcast the Radio Riders Theater “Riders in the Sky” (a somewhat campy musical cowboy show) in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In 1999, the pipe organ was removed and the theatre went dark except for sporadic events. (The organ was refurbished again and installed in the Music Hall ballroom in 2009.) The attached OMI/OCAS building (vacant since 1988) was turned into Emery Center Apartments in 2001 with 59 market-rate units. Once construction loans begin to be paid off, revenue from the apartments will be used for renovation and operation of the theatre.
There have been many attempts to preserve and renovate Emery Theatre over the years. In 1989, the non-profit Emery Center Corporation (ECC) was created for its restoration and maintains the lease for the auditorium. Stanley Aronoff, Ohio Senate president from Cincinnati, secured $4.5 million for the Emery but UC had other priorities for all but $400,000 that was then allocated for planning the Emery restoration. In 1997 UC partnered with the Cincinnati Preservation Association to plan for the renovation. In 2000, they tried to raise $17.5 million to restore the Emery by 2004. The plan failed because they couldn’t get the initial $5 million from the state. These are only some of the attempts. In 2011, Cincy magazine called the restoration of the Emery Theatre an evergreen story.
Things may be changing. Emery’s neighborhood is different due to the Art Academy moving nearby and the Emery Center Apartments. Vine Street is bustling with new development. In this promising energy field, the ECC gave a long-term lease to the Requiem Project to manage the theatre. It is a not-for-profit arts company whose mission is to restore the theatre and the floors above it into a multifunctional working art space. The Requiem Project was co-founded by Tara Lindsey Gordon and Tina Manchise and named in honor of Manchise’s mother who died unexpectedly. “We agreed to do everything,” says Gordon, “meaning maintain it, book it, promote it — everything.” They’ve made progress. They’ve recruited pro bono architects with experience in reopening abandoned arts venues and an advisory board of movers and shakers. They know accomplishing their goals will take a lot of money but are idealistic and determined, traits shared with Mary Emery.