Let's start, as we are wont to do, with a 1963 quote from Architectural Digest: "From mysterious side lobbies to a many-leveled grand foyer, Indianapolis's Clowes Hall makes high drama out of theatergoing." The New York Times Magazine struck a similar, but more condescending note: "I don't know what those imported operas have brought to the Hoosiers, but whoever created this building has brought them more than enough."
Clowes Memorial Hall, designed by modernist architects Evans Woollen III and John Johansen, celebrates 50 years this fall with a series of big-ticket shows and commissioned pieces, including a new work by banjoist Bela Fleck and a giant "art mosaic" covering the entire south wall of the lobby.
It could've gone another way. Not all of Woollen's work — the Minton-Capehart Federal Building on Pennsylvania Street, IU's Musical Arts Center in Bloomington — has inspired enduring respect, and Butler just opened a new, state-of-the-art performance space adjacent to Clowes.
But a $2 million gift, awarded in 2012 by the Allen Whitehall Clowes Charitable Foundation, funded the replacement of 2,200 seats and carpeting, acoustical enhancements and roof and wall repairs. The Clowes were, of course, the prime movers behind the building of the hall.
And although The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel scrambled onto the scene as a 100-pound gorilla willing to book just about anyone in its first couple years of life, Clowes continues to actively compete on the programming front. In 2011, Clowes ranked 53rd on the list of the world's top 100 theaters, in terms of ticket sales, according to Pollstar magazine.
Which is all to say that Butler University and its benefactors are sticking behind the old boy, and innovating when possible. Recent improvements were "designed to position Clowes for the next 50 years," according to Joshua Lingenfelter, director of marketing at Clowes. "One of the things we looked at was making sure our hall was custom-built for all of the different types of art we have — for an orchestra, dance company, rock band, Broadway show, talking head. It was deigned to be multi-faceted and multi-purposed, and we're still making sure all those elements will work within the space."
Clowes has, of course, hosted a few big names over the years in all of the above categories. Lingenfelter runs off a few: Neil Diamond, who first appeared as an opening act. Barbra Streisand, who played to a not-so-full house before running off to film Funny Girl. Eric Clapton, doing Cream-era interviews in Clowes' dressing rooms, which look much the same today as they did then. And Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose performance at Clowes remains one of his most highly-traded bootlegs.
Clowes opened 50 years ago with a Saturday night performance by Bob Hope. In turn, Lingenfelter said the Clowes crew was looking for a comedian to headline the performance. And they were happy to find a performer just as multi-disciplinary as Clowes itself in Whoopi Goldberg.
Clowes 50th anniversary events
Mark O'Connor and Gustavo Ramirez Sansano with Butler music ensembles and Butler Ballet
Thursday, Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m.; free, ticket required
An all O'Connor night, featuring a live, improv concerto performed and scored by the violinist, plus a new work choreographed for the Butler Ballet by Sansaro and set to an O'Connor piece.
Colbie Caillat and Kenny Loggins
Friday, Oct. 25, 8 p.m.; tickets $50-70
No, they're not touring together. But "Bubbly" does go surprisingly well with "Danger Zone" (we talk of the songs, not the cocktails available at Bennigan's).
Saturday, Oct. 26, 8 p.m.; tickets $30-70
An entirely improvised monologue by the (D)EGOT (Daytime Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) winner.
Pixar in Concert
Sunday, Oct. 27, 2 p.m.; tickets $30-50 (family discount available)
All your favorite Pixar tunes, played by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra with film clips. Not featuring Randy Newman.
Tuesday, Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m.; free, but bring a bag of rice or box of pasta for donation to Second Helpings
It's not technically part of the Clowes' celebration, but we wanted to get John Green's name on the cover because that guy can move copies of anything. Green will join Butler-related writers Ben H. Winters, Susan Neville and Allyson Horton for the benefit/reading.
Bela Fleck and Brooklyn Rider
Friday, Nov. 15, 8 p.m.; tickets $35-60
Banjo master and Clowes fave Fleck returns with a piece commissioned for Clowes' 50th, "Night Flight over Water" for banjo and string quartet, with the new music-friendly Brooklyn Rider.
Clowes 50th Art Mosaic
Unveiled Oct. 20 and on display through the school year, Clowes' art mosaic is comprised of paintings and photos, textile and kinetic pieces, found objects, some new, some not, all created by Hoosier artists. It covers the south wall of Clowes' main lobby.