Investing in the future of performing arts in western Colorado starts with rebuilding Robinson Theater to create a regional cultural destination
Colorado Mesa University’s William S. Robinson Theater can be moody and eccentric—always warm and welcoming, sometimes creaky and cranky. It has its moans and groans, quirks and idiosyncrasies, and so many such to tell.
Since 1968 the Robinson Theatre, housed in the Moss Performing Arts Center, has hosted generations of students studying music, theater and dance, and sold out productions in its 600-seat auditorium. After more than half a century though, it’s time for an upgrade.
A rich history
The original structure, the Walter Walker Fine Arts Center, was built in 1968 and 1969 at a cost of $865,000. Thirty percent of the money was raised by the university and the rest came from state and federal funds.
The home of Mesa’s art, drama, music, fine art and speech majors was dedicated on Nov. 21, 1969, in a ceremony at which US Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White was the keynote speaker, and was christened with a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, featuring actress Eulalie Noble, an off-Broadway star. Mesa students paid 25 cents for their tickets and community members were charged $1.
The play was directed by the late William (Bill) Robinson — the beloved performing arts professor for whom the theater would be named during the 1992-93 school year.
In November 2002, the Walker Fine Arts Center was renovated, expanded and renamed Moss Performing Arts Center, honoring CMU benefactors John and Angie Moss. The university’s fine art students relocated that same year to a new building of their own, now known as the Jac Kephart Fine Arts Building. Additional upgrades to the Moss Performing Arts Center were made in 2009 and 2012 including the addition of the music wing, dance studio and costume shop.
“It’s a structure that has been well-used and well-loved. But the reality is that it’s time for us to upgrade,” said CMU President John Marshall.
Marshall believes a robust performing arts program at a university can play a crucial role in the welfare of its surrounding region, and stressed that Grand Junction and the Western Slope are in need of such benefits. He has also seen the arts help bridge cultural and urban-rural divides in addition to setting up students for future success.
He reiterated the power of the arts in a pitch last December to legislators serving on the state’s Capital Development Committee for $39 million to cover part of the cost of replacing the Robinson with a larger, state-of-the-art theater compatible with current standards for performing arts venues.
“We feel pretty bullish about our ability to bring this facility into the 21st century,” Marshall said.
Additional dollars will be needed to complete the project, Marshall said, but the university will cover any balance through various fundraising initiatives, most of which will be spearheaded by the CMU Foundation, which it has done in the past.
ready for retirement
A teardown of the current Robinson Theater and the construction of an all-new facility is long overdue for multiple reasons, according to those who use the space every day.
Department of Theater Head Maurice “Mo” LaMée was impressed when he first saw the theater as a young student at Evergreen High School, class of ’81.
“I’m sure it was one of the highlights of the campus 54 years ago when it was first built. But when I first came to CMU (as a faculty member), I think what horrified me the most were the acoustics,” LaMée said. “It’s a rough space, partly because the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system is quite old. It’s very noisy, at best, and always takes a lot of work to overcome.”
But the auditorium was probably designed more for theater than music, said 18-year faculty member Darin Kamstra, head of CMU’s Department of Music. Kamstra was principal timpanist of the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra, and has performed with professional orchestras, jazz groups, and music theater companies throughout Colorado, Illinois and the Pacific Northwest.
“The new building is likely to be a lyric theater with full theatrical lighting, technical support backstage and the ability to accommodate a broad range of musical performances — from a symphony to a rock band,” said Kamstra.
One expectation is that the new facility could become a permanent home for the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, Marshall told state legislators during their December meeting.
In its current state, the theater is unaccommodating for orchestras.
“Our [orchestra] pit is very uncomfortable, very limited in size and without good access,” Kamstra said.
And in recent years, the pit inexplicably fills up with water, a frustration that has forced a postponement or cancellation of numerous shows.
“That’s a shocking moment: You’re getting ready for a show and you hear somebody say, ‘Hey, your pit is full of water,’” said Lauren Knight, a junior with a double major in design and technology (which places her behind the scenes), and acting and directing. “And if something goes wrong, we’re often just out of luck. Flooding in the pit can ruin a production immediately.”
The new theater would feature a pit that can be raised, lowered or moved with hydraulics, enabling an orchestra for some performances and more stage area for others.
The Robinson also has other shortcomings, some visible, others hidden from the viewing audience, including the building’s antiquated electrical system which is famously quirky.
“If you’re a technician, you’ll probably point to the fact that all of the cabling in the building is 50 years old, but I think we’ve sometimes felt like the late Bill Robinson was playing tricks on us,” said Kamstra. CMU’s theater community often jokes about poltergeists whenever something in the archaic infrastructure goes haywire.
The backstage area is insufficient for dressing rooms, rehearsals, storage, technical personnel and large casts. Those issues not only challenge CMU’s performing arts community, but also render the venue inadequate for touring shows — comedians, rock bands, dance troupes, — a limitation that negatively impacts the entire western Colorado community.
“There’s really no space within a 150-mile radius of Grand Junction like the one that’s being envisioned here,” LaMée said.
That fact, according to the president, is a major reason he believes Colorado legislators should approve funding for the project.
“It’s one thing to build a university theater – it’s another thing to build an asset for an entire region,” Marshall said. “We’d be putting a flag in the ground that will help bridge the divide between rural and urban, left and right, black and white… we really see this theater as an important element of that.”
Seating capacity in the new theater has tentatively been envisioned as 800-900 seats, an ideal size, according to preliminary studies commissioned by the university.
“Our analysis tells us that, within the performing-arts sector, there’s a sweet spot in terms of our ability to bring in outside shows traveling between Denver and Salt Lake City,” Marshall said. “If you go much above 900 seats, your efficiency starts to plummet. If you drop below 900, it’s the same problem.”
A new theater also is likely to become a significant asset for the recruitment of students to CMU and the Grand Valley, not only because it would upgrade the quality of campus life with its entertainment value, but also as an attraction for students with an interest in the performing arts. The latter is a crucial consideration, since multiple universities along Colorado’s front range have recently built new theaters.
“I’ve done some recruiting down in Texas, where a lot of the high schools have better theatrical spaces than we do – so the Robinson Theater is not a great enticement,” LaMée said. “I think a new theater will make a huge difference.”
Performing arts are traditionally a magnet for diversity attracting people of every color and nationality, all income levels, all gender identities, cultural backgrounds and political leanings.
LaMée said she ran a theater in a remote, ultra-conservative area of southwestern Colorado where she firsthand witnessed the impact of performing arts.
“People there were isolated, almost fearful of folks who were different from them,” he recalled. “We did many kinds of events, but our improv group really seemed to be appreciated. People could come in for an hour, have a beer, laugh and enjoy themselves.
“That’s where I really saw the power of the arts — bringing together people who otherwise might not choose to be in the same room,” LaMée said. “They were able to have a shared experience that was connective and healing, and emotionally and spiritually beneficial.”
Kamstra says music has the same kind of unifying effect on a diverse population.
“Clearly music is something that can bring us all together,” he said. “Politics and ideologies don’t really have a place in that performance space.”
Diversity might be why LaMée was attracted to theater in the first place, he said, and it is a major reason that his passion for performing arts has increased as he has matured.
“I watched Darin play with the symphony the other night, and it was clearly a place where it didn’t really matter what your ideologies and beliefs are,” he said. “It’s a place where we can have a shared experience that transcends those things.”
A new performing arts theater will better prepare students for their careers, will help bridge cultural and urban-rural divides and be a regional asset establishing CMU as a premier cultural arts center in western Colorado.
A decision regarding funding is expected from the state legislature in March or April.