On this day in 1930, the dedication ceremony for the Municipal Auditorium was held.
The program began with a prayer by Rev. Florence Sullivan, followed by a gun salute and speeches made by the Mayor Walmsley, Judge Rufus E. Foster, Edward Alexander Parsons, and Roland B. Howell. A prayer was also was also offered by Rabbi Louis Binstock. While the new building was being celebrated, much of the event was focused on remembering Memorial Day.
In keeping with this holiday, men representing servicemen from all previous wars marched across the stage as different music selections were played by the American Legion Band. “Yankee Doodle”, “Stars and Stripes Forever”, “Dixie”, and the National Anthem were played during this section.
(Did you know that the National Anthem at this time was “Hail Columbia”, not the “Star Spangled Banner”? Our current National Anthem was used by the Navy and was a favorite of Woodrow Wilson, who was not in the Navy himself, but is known for the Naval Act of 1916, an act that spent $500 million on building up the Navy. He must have really liked that song.)
After the various wars were represented, a 1000 student chorus with members from every school in the city sang “America the Beautiful” accompanied by the Warren Easton High School band.
Organizations including the American Legion, Red Cross, Children of the Confederacy, New Orleans Federation of Clubs, Disabled Veterans of the World War, Colonial Dames were represented by individuals who walked on stage to place a flower into a basket to honor those who died in battle. A gun salute sounded again and “Taps” was played.
While the building had been open for months and already was home to the Rex and Comus Mardi Gras Balls that happened in the 1930 Season, this was the official dedication ceremony.
The Municipal Auditorium was designed by Favrot and Livaudais, and built by George Caldwell, a man made famous for his work on the LSU campus and infamous for a prison term served for misusing Works Progress Funds, tax evasion and bribery. The Feds were tipped off when Caldwell, with an annual salary of $6,000 built himself a mansion for $45,000, complete with gold fixtures and air conditioning. He spent 4 years in prison for these crimes. As these things happen, he was not the only person involved in this moneymaking scheme – this whole scandalous period in Louisiana Politics would later become known as the Louisiana Hayride.
Critics of the day praised the building. According to Spearman Lewis, manager of the American Exposition Palace in Chicago, “It is not only a very beautiful building. But it is simple in design and practical in construction. I went from engine room to the roof and I don’t see a thing that hasn’t been done. It is very adaptable. It has a magnificent electrical installation. It has comfortable seats. It has a good floor. And it is easy to get into and easy to get out of.” (Times Picayune, Feb 22, 1930) The building had all of the modern necessities. An advertisement in the Times Picayune boasted “complete telephone and telegraph system” with 4 telephone booths open to the public.
The building was massive and seated almost 8,000 people. It has 607 doors, made of birch, pine, fir and cypress, all created at National Door and Sash Company, Inc. located on Toulouse Street. One of the most important features is its adaptability for different events. According to A Guide to New Orleans Architecture, it “can be divided to house a small performance at one end, and a large one at the other simultaneously, making it quite a versatile hall, though its acoustics were never designed to keep rock music from penetrating its baffles,” but this did not stop rock musicians from playing here! Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and the E street Band, and Led Zeppelin had concerts in this venue.
While it has had many uses throughout the years – as temporary casino while Harrah’s was being built on Canal Street, as the home of the city’s minor league hockey team known as the New Orleans Brass, as the main stage where plays, operas, and wrestling matches were performed – one of the most iconic uses of this space was for the Mardi Gras Balls. Since its first year being opened, this venue was home to the Mardi Gras evening Rex and Comus balls. The double auditorium would host both balls at the same time, which would include a meeting of both courts, a ceremony that has been repeated annually since 1892.
This building was badly damaged in Katrina in 2005, and has been shuttered for the past decade. Hurricane Betsy had also caused major damage, but repairs started right away after this storm.
In 2014, newspapers were abuzz that work was finally being done to bring this building back to life. According to John Pope in his nola.com article, “35 vintage Municipal Auditorium photos for #tbt … wait, is that BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN?” claimed that the repairs that were needed included, “A generator and new sump pump to get water out of the basement have been installed, and the entire building is scheduled to undergo asbestos abatement and removal of lead-base paint and acquire a new roof, a new sprinkler system and a new heating and air-conditioning system.” He added that the amount of $20 million was coming from FEMA and all the work should be finished by November 2015. New Orleans Projects typically run late, and this one is no exception. The building is still not open, 6 months later.
I have never been in the Municipal Auditorium. I moved to New Orleans one year before the storm, and as a 23 year old transplant from the North, I wasn’t invited to Rex or Comus. Hopefully work will be completed soon so I can take a peek inside!
- Times Picayune (Feb 22, 1930)
- Ledner, Albert C. A Guide to New Orleans Architecture: The New Orleans Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. New Orleans: American Institute of Architects Pr., 1974.
- Wall, Bennett H., and Light Townsend. Cummins. Louisiana: A History. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2002.
- Wikipedia: By Spatms – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33637021
- Elvis performing on stage at the Municipal Auditorium – Aug 12, 1956. Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff’s “Elvis Close Up” accessed from website scottymoore.net