The Ordway Turns 25
Here’s another story I did for the current issue of Twin Cities Statement:
The Ordway Turns 25
St. Paul’s “crown jewel” celebrates its success, while toasting to the next 25 years
By Anna Pratt
In the 1980s, St. Paul arts lover and philanthropist Sally Ordway Irvine got people thinking about a cultural center that would offer “everything from opera to the Russian circus” under one roof. Irvine is credited with the initiative, vision and commitment that inspired the center. In Irvine’s honor, the Ordway also gives awards to movers and shakers in visual and performing arts.
She donated a hefty sum to the cause, which attracted additional corporate and foundation support. In the end, she and others raised enough money – to the tune of $46 million – to pursue her dream. The Ordway Music Theatre, which was later renamed the Ordway Center for Performing Arts to reflect its broader scope, opened its doors on January 1, 1985. It was then the state’s most expensive privately funded arts facility.
George Latimer, who was the mayor of St. Paul when the Ordway originated, has high praise for architect Ben Thompson, a St. Paul native, for the modern design that blends in gracefully with its historic surroundings. The alcove, he says, is well known to urban planners and architects across the country for its elegance, warmth and openness. As a result, “If you go to the Ordway,” says Latimer, “you feel as if you’re there for a happening, not just a performance.”
The Ordway, which is home to the Minnesota Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and the Schubert Club, turns 25 this year. Described by some people as the “crown jewel of St. Paul,” Joe Spencer, the city’s arts and culture director, says the Ordway has successfully paved the way for a number of arts organizations that have sprung up since.
Even though he acknowledges that other factors are also involved, the cultural hub has certainly played a big role, generating foot traffic that benefits many other businesses, especially nearby restaurants. “It has done such an amazing job of strengthening the community. It’s made possible the success of others,” Spencer comments, adding, “Its impact on mid-sized and smaller companies is critically important.”
Through the years, the busy place has produced such notable shows as Always Patsy Cline and Plaid Tidings, plus Buddy Holly and South Pacific, which went on to tour nationally. It has been a destination for many Broadway musicals, including Les Miserables – which had a record 11 engagements – as well as Show Boat and Spamalot. Both Phantom of the Opera and Rent made their Twin Cities debut at the center.
Patricia Mitchell, the Ordway’s president and CEO, says the center has boosted the arts community and had a huge civic impact. It provides a first-class venue for its resident companies, making a high level of performance possible. That’s good for artists and audiences, she says. The complex has a 1900-seat Main Hall and 300-seat McKnight Theatre, along with two rehearsal rooms, a foyer and a two-story lobby. “There was nothing like it here before,” she notes. “It’s a true performing arts center.”
Every year, nearly 400,000 people, including thousands of public school students, arrive to the Ordway. As the Twin Cities demographics have changed, the center has broadened its offerings, bringing in performers from around the world. In general, Mitchell adds, “The community is engaged in a way that it wasn’t before.”
Mitchell hopes that the anniversary will inspire discussions about the Ordway’s next quarter of a century, which she says promises to be “even more exciting and dynamic.”
Plans are afoot to convert the tiny McKnight Theatre into a 1000-seat concert hall. As it is, the McKnight is too small for many shows and doesn’t have the proper acoustics for the orchestra. As a result, it’s underused, while the main stage is booked to the max, she explains. The $35 million project, which is still in preliminary stages, would allow the orchestra to grow without competing with the other companies. “It makes the next 25 years possible,” says Mitchell, adding, “The building enables us to bring more art to more people.”