Setting the stage: With Mondavi Center’s opening, a decades-long dream comes true

If truth be told, opening the doors of the $57 million center has been a long time coming. In fact, it's been a campus aspiration for decades. Now, finally, thanks to a regional community of supporters, the world-class facility opened last week at UC Davis.

Credit is also due Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, who in 1994 saw that the campus was finally ready to step forward and make a commitment to building a top-flight facility specifically for the performing arts.

"For decades, UC Davis has had a fine reputation in the sciences," he points out. "Although the arts have always been important to us, we've never had the high-quality performing arts center that defines the best public universities. Now, after eight years of preparation, this jewel of a facility is ready to be showcased as a powerful symbol of how seriously we are committed to the arts."

First and foremost, Mondavi Center serves as an academic facility that will help fulfill UC Davis' teaching mission. Faculty members say the center will be an extraordinary classroom for students in music, dance and theatre.

In addition, the center will become the heart of UC Davis' school outreach programs for the performing arts. UC Davis has been enhancing K--12 arts education through outreach programs for more than 30 years. In the past year alone, UC Davis' performing arts program brought dance, theatre and music to 30,000 children in the Sacramento region.

As heir to UC Davis Presents, Mondavi Center's presenting program will bring to the region some of the world's most celebrated speakers and artists. Highlights of the center's debut season include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, physicist Stephen Hawking, composer Philip Glass, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and Tango Buenos Aires.

All told, Mondavi Center's presenting program will offer more than 70 artists and speakers in more than 100 performances in its first year, making it one of the finest and most comprehensive programs of its kind in the nation. Inaugural season attendance is projected to be well over 100,000.

The earliest days

People have been dancing and making music on this land since the Patwin Indians first settled here at least 500 years ago. Native Americans moved down from Oregon, attracted by the seasonal bounty of salmon in Putah Creek and other plentiful sources of food - acorns and wild cereals among them. At the site where the Mondavi Center now stands, relics from the Patwin settlement have been discovered.

Recognizing the important role that music and dance play in society, the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians in 2000 gave one of the first large gifts, $625,000, to the performing arts center. The Rumsey Band, Yolo County's only federally recognized Native American tribe, hopes its gift will not only strengthen ties between Northern California tribes and the community but encourage others to play an active role in Mondavi Center.

"We feel strongly that music and dance are integral components in the fabric of society. They express the spiritual side of existence," explains tribal chair Paula Lorenzo. "In music and in dance, we all speak the same language."

  • tradition of wine, food and the arts

When the University Farm opened its doors in 1908 as a branch of the University of California, Berkeley, the focus was on the practical matter of teaching high-school students and recent graduates the rudiments of scientific farming.

The first "practical short course" in horticulture and viticulture (similar to a Cooperative Extension course these days) was offered during the farm's first year, along with courses on poultry husbandry, animal science, crop growing and dairy manufacturing.

Renamed the Northern Branch of the College of Agriculture in 1921, the Davis campus was transformed between the two World Wars, as its various agricultural divisions gained greater scientific sophistication and thus greater academic reputation. "The great strengths of the campus lay in the animal and plant sciences and in agricultural engineering, where ample space, good soils and favorable climate contributed to the productivity of research and the cogency of instruction," writes Ann Scheuring in her 2001 campus history, Abundant Harvest.

As for the arts, even though students were living on a quiet campus in the even-sleepier village of Davis, they soon figured out how to entertain themselves. Drawing on the talent of students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community, the Aggies formed the University Farm Orchestra in the fall of 1915 with about a dozen members, and a glee club started in 1917. Early theatre came through the "X" Club, which offered student members opportunities to do dramatic readings or make presentations.

Theatre became a popular activity in the 1920s, with the 1924 El Rodeo yearbook reporting that Two Crooks and a Lady was the first offering that fall by the year-old Aggie Community Players. There is evidence that the campus and Davis community enjoyed professional theatre as well: The next year the Players invited the Wheeler Hall Players of Berkeley, known as a real "professional acting group," to motor out to the Farm and present Three Live Ghosts "before a large, well-pleased audience composed of faculty, students and townspeople."

By the time 22-year-old Celeste Turner Wright arrived in 1928 as the campus's first female ladder-rank professor (and the first with a Ph.D. in the humanities), she discovered a group of thespians ready to mount even more challenging theatre productions. During her 51-year tenure as an English, Latin and drama teacher, Wright directed some 20 plays and taught more than her share of drama classes. She learned early that necessity was the mother of creative casting. With only eight women among the 350-member student body in her first year at Davis, Wright called upon stenographers, librarians and other women on staff to help on stage and behind the curtain.

For the next 20 years, cultural entertainment continued to be of the home-grown variety. Then, in 1948, a volunteer campus group formed the Committee for Arts and Lectures to begin systematically booking professional music and dance performances on the campus. The first season was modest, featuring the Berkeley Singers, the Griller Quartet and several other theatrical, poetry and film events.

Boom time of the 1950s and '60s

The 1950s and '60s were a time of growth for the campus, as millions of dollars in federal and state money poured in for research. During the same era, the campus transformed itself from a college to a university, officially becoming a general UC campus in 1959. With its focus on solving complex problems troubling California producers, UC Davis contributed to the revitalization of California's agricultural economy, points out Scheuring in Abundant Harvest. "As a result," she writes, "California agriculture blossomed in the 1950s, becoming more productive, more varied and less subject to the vagaries of weather, diseases and pests."

The '60s were a time of phenomenal growth in facilities as the campus strove to meet the baby-boomer challenge. Thanks to sufficient funding from the state and donors, it was also an era when the quest for adequate performing spaces resulted in several new venues, including an animal-judging pavilion redesigned for theatre-in-the round, a brand new proscenium-stage theatre built for the drama department, and a music building with practice facilities designed specifically for transforming student musicians into professional teachers and performers.

Freeborn Hall, an auditorium and assembly hall that has been the campus's main venue for large groups and performances, was built in 1961.

During the decade following World War II, the Committee for Arts and Lectures sustained a modest but steady program of small-ensemble music performances, poetry readings, lectures, debates and film screenings in the original Recreation Hall, where the Memorial Union stands today. The conditions were not ideal: The old wood-shingled structure was not designed for performances and accommodated not many more than 100 attendees. The committee was run by six or seven volunteers and a single employee who coordinated the performances and paid the artist fees. By 1963, under director Alison Cramer, the committee was charging $2 for general admission and $1 for student admission to its performances. The idea of school outreach was popular during the '60s, according to longtime committee staff member Teresa Kaneko, who served as a liaison between the schools and the artists. She recalls arranging for classical pianist Lorin Hollander to give master classes in the Davis schools, despite a lack of decent pianos.

Professor Emeritus Jerome Rosen remembers the power of a community committed to the arts when he arrived as the first and only music faculty member in 1952 with a mandate to develop the music department for the proposed College of Letters and Science. The department was officially established in 1958. A band, chorus and music-appreciation course already existed, but Rosen wanted to bring even more music experiences to the campus. So he became a musician of many genres: He directed the ROTC band for the Tuesday afternoon military parades. He and his clarinet contributed to a Dixieland jazz band on campus.

By plucking a flutist from the Davis Senior High School faculty and cajoling others like Professor Herman Phaff of food technology to pick up their instruments, Rosen was able to offer weekly chamber music concerts that attracted many from the community. That series, known as the Five O'Clock Concerts, continued for a dozen years, eventually becoming the free Thursday Noon Concert series held during the academic year.

Campus growth meant the city of Davis was growing, too, Rosen notes, creating larger audiences for the arts. The expansion of arts on campus came about, he says, "as a natural course of things." From the beginning of his tenure on campus, Rosen says, the idea of a performing arts center with excellent acoustics was always on the music department's wish list but was destined to stay there because the administration had higher campus facility priorities across the disciplines, from the veterinary school to engineering to medicine.

Even without a dedicated arts facility, the campus maintained its commitment to good arts instruction, believing it was key to a comprehensive campus. Richard Swift was hired in 1956 as the second music instructor to build the collection of music scores and scholarly books for the Main Library. Together, Swift and Rosen worked on the curriculum to create a major in music at UC Davis.

In 1963, just six years after the department and major were established, a master's degree in music was added, as was a research fund in composition and performance to support contemporary music.

The Department of Dramatic Art, renamed Department of Theatre and Dance in 1995, was established in 1961. By then, performances were being held in a converted cafeteria in East Hall, itself demolished a decade later. In 1963 an old cattle-judging pavilion, which seated 500, was transported to its current site on Old Davis Road, revamped into a theatre-in-the-round and named Wyatt Pavilion Theatre. The conversion was paid for by retired Gerber's executive Fred S. Wyatt, son of Marcus O. Wyatt of Winters who had helped choose the site for the University Farm.

Four years later, Main Theatre was built with the most advanced technology of its time - to this day, the theatre remains a favorite among proscenium-style venues in the region because of its large stage, good sight lines and generously sized wings, says arts critic Jeff Hudson.

Reputation-building in the '70s, 80s

The Committee for Arts and Lectures expanded its outreach programs in the '70s, setting up artist residencies on campus, arranging performances at nearby retirement communities and connecting regional ethnic communities with visiting artists, bringing, for instance, a Japanese violinist to an Asian retirement home. Poetry readings also proved to be popular at UC Davis, drawing audiences of up to 100 people.

Jere Curry, who had danced with a national ballet company and on Broadway, arrived at UC Davis in 1969 to teach dance in the physical education department. A popular and inspired teacher, Curry carried on the Davis tradition of involving both the community and campus in the arts by directing and choreographing on- and off-campus dance and theatrical events for 22 years. Curry is credited with single-handedly transforming a few P.E. classes into a full-fledged dance program that has produced Broadway pros.

In its quest to build a nationally recognized academic theatre program, the Department of Dramatic Art established a relationship in 1982 with Sir Denis Forman and the Granada Group of Great Britain to create the Granada Artists-in-Residence Program. Each quarter for the past 20 years, the program has brought a British artist - playwright, director or choreographer - to Davis to live, teach and create productions. These artists have guided UC Davis students through the world's theatrical repertoire in 55 projects that range from Shakespeare's work to the contemporary realism of Arthur Miller and non-realism of Shogo Ohta.

D. Kern Holoman also brought a reputation for national excellence to UC Davis when he joined the music department in 1973. A noted expert on 19th-century French composer Hector Berlioz, Holoman began conducting the symphony orchestra in the late '70s. Within two years, he had also helped persuade then-Chancellor James Meyer and Executive Vice Chancellor Elmer Learn to impanel a task force to revisit the idea of a performance hall with good acoustics.

"It was clear we needed a proper venue in which faculty and students could perform and enjoy one another," Learn says. "Certainly Freeborn was not adequate for that purpose or in many ways didn't represent what should be available at a great university."

"The atmosphere was rich with anticipation: We knew we were turning the biggest corner of all," Holoman remembers. "There seemed no limit to what the members were willing to invest by way of time, effort and even personal funds to launch a center for the arts."

The task force, led by the late Robert Fahrner, then chair of the drama department, began work in June 1975, charged with making an evaluation of facility needs for music, theatre and the visual arts. One of the task force's more visible successes is the campus public art program, which commissioned the popular Egghead series from art department professor Robert Arneson along with other outdoor art pieces.

In 1985, the campus took a major step forward when it hired Jim Wockenfuss from the University of Iowa to strengthen the offerings of the Committee for Arts and Lectures and to unify the campus's cultural arts planning. Wockenfuss' first challenge was to build an audience to complement the burgeoning academic programs in the performing arts. Wockenfuss also was charged with developing an initial plan for a $30 million cultural center with an 1,800-seat main performance hall, 500-seat concert hall and large art gallery.

Wockenfuss set UC Davis on a new course, boosting the quantity and quality of visiting artists and intellectuals. Parallel to his efforts, the campus established a new fund-raising office. Until the early 1980s, private fund-raising played a modest role in most public university financing. But across the nation, decreasing state allocations and expanding university needs made private gifts ever more important.

As an interim measure, while UC Davis prepared to launch the center campaign, the campus spent $1 million to remodel Freeborn Hall, styled after state fair pavilions.

The center advances in the '90s

Several dilemmas put the performing arts facility on the back burner for a short time in the early '90s: A feasibility study indicated the fund-raising office needed more time to develop its capabilities, the facility's estimated cost rose from $30 million to more than $50 million - and the state entered a major recession, squeezing the campus budget as enrollment continued to grow.

In 1994, when Chancellor Vanderhoef was inaugurated, the worst of the state recession was over. Vanderhoef, who had helped plan for the center as part of a broader commitment to the arts since arriving as executive vice chancellor in 1984, said it was time to revive that dream. He pointed out that since the mid-'80s the campus had created a performing arts program "of sufficient substance," developed considerable fund-raising experience and completed a number of high-priority classroom and research buildings.

"At major universities around the world," Vanderhoef said in his inaugural speech, "the performing arts center is the point of convergence where the achievements of the university are celebrated, new ideas debated, scripts and musical compositions tested, and the treasurers of the world's literary and performing traditions given life. It is a laboratory for the fine arts and humanities. And it is a facility we must have."

In June 1996, plans were drawn up to finance the center through a $30 million, six-year capital campaign, to be matched by $31 million in university funds. The money would pay for both the construction of the facility and an endowment to fund its ongoing operation.

One element of the campaign was essential: To succeed, the campaign needed to reach constituencies throughout Northern Calif-ornia - alumni, faculty, staff, arts organizations, corporations and regional arts patrons.

Beginning in 1997, the campaign brought in $2 million in seed money in just six months; in the following two years, significant support came from campus "insiders" like UC Davis Foundation trustees and the Friends of UC Davis Presents. Nearly $9 million had been raised by the January 1999 kickoff of the public phase of the campaign.

Progress made visible

  • major milestone was reached on May 19, 2000, when ground was broken for the new center. The festivities featured music by the Cal Aggie Marching Band, remarks by supporters and turning of the ground using shovels whose handles were fashioned like the necks of cellos. The ceremony was also the occasion of the announcement of the Rumsey tribe's $625,000 gift to the center, intended, said tribal council chair Paula Lorenzo, to help "ensure that the cultural and performing arts remain an integral part of the fabric of the region."

The facility's "topping out" in March 2001 was another significant occasion. During that ceremony, Barbara K. Jackson announced she was committing $5 million to the project. Then, in September 2001, Robert and Margrit Mondavi gave $35 million to the campus: $25 million to establish the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and $10 million to name the center.

Robert Mondavi said: "We want to raise the art of living well. We are so happy to be part of the team at the University of California, Davis, because they are really creating a great thing, enhancing the quality of life."

Margrit Mondavi, herself an artist, added, "I also find it very exciting that university students will have access to such a great performing arts center. We are really giving a new dimension to the university."

Broadening the vision

UC Davis' vision for improving the arts, set long ago by a 1975 task force, included a list of other goals the campus continues to pursue.

  • 400-seat recital hall is planned to open near the existing Music Building in 2008. The hall is part of a new $10.5 million facility for the music department, to be funded by state bond money. Also on the horizon is a Center for the Visual Arts that will provide teaching space and room for collections from the Design Museum, the Carl Gorman Museum of Native American Art, and the Richard L. Nelson Gallery and Fine Arts Collection. It will be located near Mondavi Cen-ter and is envisioned as a major public venue, featuring artwork from around the country.

Plans are also proceeding to build the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science just west of Mondavi Center. Potential continuing education and outreach activities include a lecture series; a dinner symposium series on wine, food and the arts; and educational programs linking wine and food science to art and culinary, cultural and historical practices. The $55 million facility will be built with funds from the state, the campus, the Mondavis and additional private contributions, including a recent $5 million gift from Anheuser-Busch.

Elizabeth Langland, dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, says the facilities mark a significant step in the campus's commitment to the arts. "In order to develop a world-class university, what's needed are the kinds of facilities - comparable to the quality we offer our scientists - that provide the world's great artists a venue that highlights their excellence," she says. "Those venues will be a standing, ongoing testimony to the importance of the arts in our lives."

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