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Art&Seek on Think TV: 50 Years Inside a Frank Lloyd Wright Theater

by Jerome Weeks 12 May 2009 12:01 AM

The Kalita Humphreys Theater is one of only three theaters designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (photos of the other two: here and here). The Kalita, the longtime home of the Dallas Theater Center, is clearly the great architect’s “little Guggenheim” — it was completed in 1959, nine months after Wright’s death and two months after the New York art museum opened.


Click on the image to watch the Think segment about the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Scroll down to the bottom of the story for more video interviews.

With its current show, Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Dallas Theater Center concludes its 50th — and last — full season at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. So while it’s entering the Rem Koolhas-designed Wyly Theatre this fall, the DTC is also leaving a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed theater this spring.

Coincidentally, the DTC is leaving the Kalita, while the great architect’s other public art building from 1959, the Guggenheim Museum, is marking the half-century anniversary with a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition opening May 15th. The Kalita is one of only three theaters designed by Wright (photos of the other two: here and here).

Completed nine months after Wright’s death and two months after the New York art museum opened, the Kalita, frankly, is not the masterpiece the Guggenheim is. It lacks the open, airy gracefulness of that building’s internal spiral and its radical counter-response to the squared-off city blocks around it.

But as Wright’s last completed building, the Kalita is something of a “little Gugenheim.” It applies a number of similar ideas about form and function, this time to a theater rather than a museum, and it received national attention when it opened as an innovative design (reflecting not just Wright’s thinking but also that of founding artistic director Paul Baker). You can view our TV report on the Kalita above and watch extended “out takes” from our interviews with actors, designers and administrators below.

Named for a young Dallas actress who died in 1954, the Kalita is essentially built around a large, central drum. This holds the auditorium with a smaller drum inside it enclosing the stage (it’s this “stage drum” that extends up through the roof, forming the little pillbox on top). But instead of that cylinder shape being repeated and expanding as with the Guggenheim (left), the Kalita’s drum stands inside a series of blocky, off-center hexagons (they’re more or less hexagonal). The Kalita continues Wright’s war with the square box and the right angle, which he thought were not “natural.” It’s this cylinder-inside-different-shaped-boxes, plus the stairstep hillside location that partly accounts for the odd maze of tiny rooms and backstage hallways that actress Liz Mikel talks about in the TV report.

48761gifAs is evident from its coloring, shape and site, the Kalita is Wright’s last expression of his Organic Theory that a building should be a harmonious continuation of its landscape. The exterior’s stacked and cantilevered balcony shapes repeat the limestone layers of the bluff and creekside. More than that, the concrete structure is physically embedded in the bluff, with the hillside below it gently sliding down and then sharply dropping into Turtle Creek (when you’re in the basement scene shop, you’re pretty much in the hillside). It is a rare Wright public building in that there’s very little competing construction around it, just the park and Turtle Creek. In that respect at least, it’s more like Fallingwater and less like the Guggenheim, and it certainly is more harmonious, less exotic than his two other free-standing theaters.

There’s little construction around it, that is, except for the Heldt Administration Building, a more recent functional block, which is set off to the side on the northeast. It was originally intended by Dallas architect Art Rogers to be disguised entirely by trees, so as not to interfere with Wright’s design. But according to reports I’ve heard, the city parks department didn’t provide any real landscaping when the Heldt was built in 1990. It hardly matters now: The vegetation has filled in around both buildings until they’re often entirely obscured from view along Turtle Creek Drive. And there are any number of vantages to see the Kalita with the Heldt completely or mostly hidden.

The Heldt was actually only the latest of several ‘upgrades’ done to the Kalita, so when people bad mouth the Heldt while extolling the Kalita, they often don’t realize they’re praising changes that weren’t in Wright’s original plan. In the early ’80s, then-artistic director Adrian Hall had the auditorium’s “rake” (the downward angle of the seats facing the stage) altered, considerably improving the theater’s sightlines. In 1969, the Wyly Wing added much-needed office and rehearsal space across from the lobby. That’s where the Lay Studio is located, otherwise known as “Frank’s Place” — which is the rehearsal and teaching space discussed in the video interview (below) with Synthia Rogers, former head of the Theater Center’s education program. The lobby connecting the theater with the Wyly Wing was filled in and extended, so its glass windows now enclose a row of the distinctive, Wrightian columns that once graced the no-longer extant drive-through entranceway (see photo on the left).

The drive-through entrance was itself not original. Apparently, the first, somewhat improbable plan was for patrons to park their cars on the far side of the Katy Trail hillside and enter by walking through a tunnel burrowed through that bluff. This accounts for why the Kalita awkwardly seems to face us butt-end outward (see top photo — that little, golden-brown door on the very bottom of the Kalita opens into the basement. The actual lobby entrance is up and around the hill. See final color photo below.) So patrons approach the Kalita from the ‘wrong’ side — just as they have, for years, entered Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth through what is actually the employee entrance.

The Kalita is the final expression of Wright’s ideas on theater as an open, democratic, community ritual, which were worked out partly in consultation with the Theater Center’s artistic director Paul Baker, who himself was an innovator in theater and education. The theater has a truly intimate, compact interior space with a handsome color scheme (“sand,” deep green and deep red with touches of gold. The dark green walls were originally sand). When the Kalita opened, it was covered in a Life magazine feature as Wright’s last building — and as an advanced new design. For one thing, it featured the world’s first computerized lighting board, courtesy of Texas Instruments. Actor Sean Hennigan recalls the later, unreliable days of that aging board in the TV segment.

Wright also pulled off what was then something of a marvel of cantilevered, concrete engineering. There are no pillars holding up the front or “proscenium” side of that interior drum over the stage, which also holds the lighting grid and catwalk, As Robyn Baker Flatt recalls in her interview — she is Baker’s daughter and the executive director of the Dallas Children’s Theater — there were fears that the drum wouldn’t hold up when the braces were removed.

Coincidentally, rather similar fears attended the engineering of the Theater Center’s future home,the Wyly Theatre, designed by Rem Koolhas and Joshua Prince-Ramusas you can read here. The Theater Center is moving into the Wyly in October. As for what may happen to Wright’s building, its future is being considered by Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs in a series of public meetings.

Amid the idealism and innovations, the Kalita has more than its share of typically Wrightian difficulties. Wright is probably the only modern theater designer to include highly unnecessary windows in an auditorium. (Why would a theater need daylight inside?) In response, according to lighting designer Linda Blase, the Theater Center’s scene shop cleverly crafted hinged wooden covers to hang over the windows. They actually look like a simple solution Wright himself might have developed. At least according to the DTC website, that is the case: Wright had them built but only after Paul Baker insisted.

In her interview in the TV segment, Linda Blase explains how Wright seemed hell-bent on frustrating future set designers with the unusual and constricting layout of the scene shop, and how the equally strong-willed Paul Baker got lucky in circumnavigating Wright’s plans. Then there is the traditional theater ‘ghost’ haunting the theater — a ghost who may be either Wright or Kalita Humphreys, depending on the person relating the story.

For more about what I believe are the building’s limitations, you can go to this discussion (including several reader’s responses). But the designers, actors and administrators interviewed for Think have more memories about working at the Kalita over the years in these additional “out-take” videos.

Robyn Baker Flatt, executive artistic director of the Dallas Children’s Theater, on working with the late playwright-actor Preston Jones on Journey to Jefferson:

Synthia Rogers, former acting company member and head of the theater program at Greenhill School, on rehearsing and teaching in Lay Studio from morning to night:

Linda Blase, lighting and set designer, on the wisdom of not using automobile paint on a set with the A/C on:

Sean Hennigan, company actor, on the Frank Lloyd Wright poltergeist:

Chamblee Ferguson, company actor, on the Kalita Humphreys’ stage turntable:

Liz Mikel, company actor, on her big entrance in her first show at the Kalita Humphreys:


Think airs Friday at 7:30 p.m. on KERA (Channel 13) and repeats Wednesday at 1:30 a.m.

Theater images from Thoughts on Architecture, the Dallas Theater Center, the Dallas Public Library and LIFE magazine.

  • Mark

    A very nice synopsis of the history of the theater
    and one might also wish to note that prior to the
    site being obtained by the Theater it was considered
    for a new building for Temple Emanu-El; now at Hillcrest
    and NW Highway. Several elegant studies and a model
    exist from 1951 by the internationally-renowned architect
    Eric Mendelsohn. The concept included a vertical, conical
    form which is an interesting precedent to the Wright form
    for the same site.
    Thank you Jerome.

  • John

    Mr Wright also designed a music building for Florida Southern
    College. I had a large auditorium for concerts. I haven’t
    visited the campus in many years, and so I am not sure it was
    ever built. ( 1938)

  • Interesting post. Have to say, Wright’s theater is miles above the nightmarish dreck that is the Wyly, or pretty much any of Koolhaas’s other output.

  • Karol

    Thanks for a wonderful showcase of the Dallas Theater Center. I could listem to and read Dallas Theater Center stories forever. And I love reading your stories too, Jerome.