Orlando Municipal Auditorium

Before Orlando became America's vacation destination, World War II pilots trained at its bases and danced at its night spots. Not long after, this central Florida town developed into a thriving city where Old South descendants welcomed Yankee tourists to come on down and smell the orange blossoms.1

The Orlando Municipal Auditorium - c. 1930
postcard courtesy web

Between 1910 and 1920 the population of Orlando doubled, and the city was transformed from a rural citrus growing area to a major city. During the 1920s a great building boom aided in Orlando's continuing prosperity, evidenced by the opening of the Orlando Public Library in 1923 and the Municipal Auditorium in 1926.2

The Municipal Auditorium, at 400 West Livingston St. in Orlando was constructed for approximately $175,000 on land that was originally owned by Orange County and reserved for the annual Orange County Fair as well as other events. The land, located a few blocks from the heart of downtown Orlando, became too valuable for that use as the city grew and was purchased by the city.3 On February 21, 1927, the brand new venue presented its first event, the opera Aida, performed by the La Scala Grand Opera Company of Philadelphia.4

The Bob Carr Performing Arts Center auditorium
Photo courtesy Orlando Venues

During the first years after its opening, the Municipal Auditorium also hosted stage productions, organ recitals, church meetings and much to the dismay of local competitors – it also served as a movie house! As Orlando grew during the 1950s and 1960s, the “Muni Aud”, as called by the residents, incorporated more diverse events, and in 1950, the Florida Symphony began playing their subscription series in the venue.4

The Municipal Auditorium (Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre) - Sep. 2008

Over the years, "Muni Aud" drew all kinds of complaints.  Air conditioning was not installed until 1962.  "Back before air-conditioning, we used to call it the West Livingston Turkish Baths," Jean Yothers, former Sentinel reporter and retired director of the Orange County Historical Museum, told the Sentinel's Elizabeth Maupin. "Once the Rainbow Girls had a convention there, and just about all of them fainted from the heat," Yothers recalled. The sound system was so bad, one theater promoter said of a performance, that one night star performer Liberace's body microphone was picking up police calls.5

Fans Doris Gurley and Janet Green with Elvis in Orlando - May 11, 1955
Photo © Brian Petersen courtesy eBay

On May 11, 1955, while on their first tour of Florida with Hank Snow's All Star Jamboree, Elvis, Scotty and Bill performed at the Auditorium in Orlando for the first of three times.  According to Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen in Elvis Day by Day, in Faron Young's recollection, the audience calls for Elvis when Hank Snow takes the stage. The announcer tries to restore order by telling the crowd that Elvis is out back signing autographs, and the auditorium empties.  Jean Yothers, reporter for the Orlando Sentinel reviewed the show in her "On The Town" column on the 16th the following week.

What hillbilly music does to the hillbilly music fan is absolutely phenomenal. It transports him into a wild, emotional and audible state of ecstasy. He never sits back sedately patting his palms politely and uttering bravos of music appreciation as his long-hair counterpart. He thunders his appreciation for the country-style music and nasal-twanged singing he loves by whistling shrilly through teeth, pounding the palms together with the whirling momentum of a souped-up paddle wheel, stomping the floor and ejecting yip-Yip noises like the barks of a hound dog when it finally runs down a particularly elusive coon.6

That's the way it was, friends, at the big Hank Snow show and all-star Grand Ole Opry Jamboree staged last week in municipal auditorium to jam-packed houses both performances. It was as hot as blue blazes within the tired sanctums of the barnish auditorium, but the hillbilly fans turned out in droves and seemed oblivious to the heat. The evening's entertainment so captivated the crowd that the whole shebang seemed like a cross between the enthusiasm displayed at a wrestling match and old-fashioned camp meeting.6

THIS WAS my first tangle with a hillbilly jamboree, a poignant contrast to opera in Atlanta I must say. I was awed and with all due respect to Metropolitan Opera in Atlanta, I got a tremendous boot out of this loud, uninhibited music that’s sending the country crazy.6

The many hit tunes of "singing ranger," Hank Snow were familiar to me, likewise Miss Martha Carson, but I pulled a blank on several other entertainers. When one cowboy-geared fellow loped on stage with fancy guitar the crowd was hollering so enthusiastically I didn't catch his announced name. Turning to a enraptured girl beside me I asked, "Who's that?" She gave me the sort of look I gave the supermarket women when they couldn't identify Sir Anthony Eden and replied with stupification, "That's Ferron Young."6

Ferron Young was real sharp singing that ditty about living fast, loving hard, dying young and leaving a beautiful memory, but what really stole the show was this 20-year-old sensation, Elvis Presley, a real sex-box as far as the teenage girls are concerned. They squealed themselves silly over this fellow in orange coat and sideburns who "sent" them with his unique arrangement of Shake, Rattle and Roll. And following the program, Elvis was surrounded by girlies asking for autographs. He would give each a long, slow look with drooped eyelids and comply. They ate it up. The crowd also ate up a peppy and perspiring Miss Martha Carson calling the parquet-sitting spectators "you folks a-sitten over there on the shelves" and the same Miss Carson breaking two guitar strings and a pick with her strong strumming of This Old House and Count Your Blessings. Fans were forever rushing up near the stage snapping flashbulb pictures during the program, and they all instinctively recognized a tune with recognizable roars before the second plunk of the guitar had been sounded.6

It was amazing! Hillbilly music is here to stay, yo'all!6

Doris Gurley lip locked with Elvis in Orlando - May 11, 1955
Photo © Brian Petersen courtesy eBay

andy1.jpg (80487 bytes)
Souvenir Photo Album

Jean also remembers attending one of their second appearances there the following July when she went to see Andy Griffith.  According to Ger Rijff in "Long Lonely Highway", bill board magazine reported that "Andy Wilson booked the Andy (Deacon) Griffith show into Orlando Julv 26-27. Big show included Marty Robbins, Ferlin Husky, Elvis Presley, Tommy Collins, and Glenn Reeves. That was a lot of show."  Marty Robbins would, in 1959, receive the very first Grammy awarded for a country song for his hit "El Paso".

Marty Robbins
Photo courtesy Bjorn Witlox and RCS

In what Joy Dickinson in "Remembering Orlando", would interpret and attribute as foresight, or even prediction of what was yet to come, she wrote that Yothers had worried about the price of pleasing those screaming, clothes-tearing crowds. "I think Elvis is pushing himself too fast," she had written in July 1955. “He’s wearing himself out giving the customers more than their money’s worth. I just wanted to say to him, ‘Slow down, boy. . .your fame won’t disappear,' but he still goes like a house afire."1

Ferlin Husky, Elvis, Faron Young, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Tom Perryman - Dec 1957
Photo courtesy web

By the time of their final appearance at the Auditorium, while on a ten day tour of Florida and New Orleans, they were no longer a supporting act.  "Now he was front-page news. 'Wiggling Elvis to Play Orlando Twice Today' reads a headline for August 8, 1956. Yothers and a news photographer elbowed their way backstage after one of two packed performances at a sweltering Municipal Auditorium to interview the country’s leading sensation."1 Yothers' review of the first performance was published as follows:7

. . . 6500 girls turned out
Orlando Sentinel Photo by Muncaster courtesy Gail Reaben

'Oh, Elvis'

Presley Makes 'Em Shriek, Yell, Jump


A big-shouldered youth with sideburns and a full-lipped face wandered slowly on stage and thousands of adoring teenage girls went wild.
They shrieked. They screamed. They jumped up in their seats. And they gazed at their idol as though transported into a state of ecstatic bliss.

SUBJECT OF this mass hysteria was Elvis Aaron Presley, 21 year-old singer and hero of the nation's teenagers who purely fractured two full houses at Municipal Auditorium last night with his unique actions and sensational style.
Wearing a bright green coat, black trousers and white shoes, the heavy-lidded, tousled-haired Elvis surveyed his audience with a half-smile on his lips and then cut loose with a three-piece band backing him up.


They're Really Crazy For Elvis
[Gail Reaben on far right]

When Elvis Presley hit the high notes in 'Heartbreak Hotel' last night at Municipal Auditorium he brought front row teenagers almost onto the stage with him. Group pictured is typical of the 6,500 who turned out to shriek and jump as the current singing idol banged his guitar and gyrated

Orlando Sentinel Photo by Muncaster courtesy Gail Reaben

When he moaned out Heartbreak Hotel, his first number, the auditorium was filled with piercing, ear-splitting screams. When he jumped around the stage to Long Tall Sally, fans rushed up to the rail to snap pictures, and as he twisted his hips suggestively to the rhythm, they yelled like dying cats, "Oh Elvis."

FOUR POLICEMEN were posted at both stage entrances to hold back the crowds , but still they milled about the auditorium taking photographs of the gyrating Elvis at all angles.
When he removed his green coat to throw himself into Hound Dog, his current record, a delighted squeal erupted from the house that could've blown the top from Vesuvius. He then wiggled and switched his hips passionately, dragging the microphone. He was gone, man, gone.
"What do you think of this guy?" a mother-spectator was asked "I just came cause the kids wanted to," she said "I was curious. Now I know. Look at him. He looks just like a hound dog in heat and sounds like a sick cat."
First-row sitter Pat Hix, a teenage girl, had a different slant. She adores Elvis. "I like his style of singing and his flashy clothes best about him," she said with reverence.
Backstage in the Pelvis' dressing room, he was a different person. Relaxed and friendly, he answered in his slow, southern drawl.

Q. How long do you think you'll stay on top in show business?"
A. Ah wish ah knew ma'am. People change a lot.
Q. Do you consider your gyrations vulgar?
A. No ma'am. Ah don't Ah don't feel sexy when Ah'm on stage.
Q. What kind of girl do you want to marry?
A. [with a sigh] Ah've never thought much about it."
Q. Do you sleep in pajamas?
A. No ma'am Ah sleep in my shorts.
Q. Do you kiss all those girls you read about in the papers?
A. Only upon special request.

Orlando Sentinel - August 9, 1956 courtesy Francesc Lopez7 and Gail Reaben

Elvis kissing reporter Jean Yothers - Aug 8, 1956
Photo courtesy Jean Yothers

"Her clearest memory? The sensual eyelids, yes, but more important, 'a real nice kid', still near the beginning of his transformation from a music-crazy Memphis boy into a social phenomenon. And what about that kiss? 'I egged him on,' Yothers remembers. News reports were full of stories that he always kissed women reporters who interviewed him, she says, and she asked him if that were true and got the desired result. Then she got the photographer to capture a repeat kiss and swooned appropriately for the camera."1

Micki Evans (Martha Evangelista) and Elvis backstage in Orlando - Aug. 8, 1956
Photo source FECC/ Piretos (added Jan. 20, 2103)

Micki Evans (Martha Evangelista) and Elvis backstage in Orlando - Aug. 8, 1956
Photo courtesy My Cousin Micki (added Jan. 20, 2103)

George Miller's review in the Orlando Evening Star was as follows:

'I Hear Ya Knockin . . .'

Elvis Adds Orlando Youngsters To Fold

Staff Writer

Most of Orlando’s younger generation viewed the nation’s best known spastic case last night like teenagers everywhere. 
"Goodbye, Elvie," forlornly called one throbbing heart who had waited at the wrong door at the Municipal Auditorium for an autograph on her 50 ct. program.
Elvie couldn't hear her as he tooled his white Mark II Continental away from the curb behind a police escort, but he knew she was there with many other ardent fans. He was, at least temporarily, on top of the world of show business.
There was much folding green in his swaying hip pocket and for good reason.
Elvis Presley packed them in last night. An estimated 6,500 were on hand for his two shows.

. . . teenagers go wild at such as this
Evening Star Photo courtesy Gail Reaben

His second performance was like the first — frenzied. After an hour and two minute build-up he appeared on stage for the second time. And for the second time he blinked down on a crowd that greeted him with one deafening scream.
Great Caesar raised one brawny arm, his other hand clutched at his shirt front, open to the waist, and there was silence. "Ladies and gentlemen," he shouted. "Ladies and gentlemen [pause] . . .Yeh [giggles]. I wanna tell ya . . . I'm gonna tell you . . . I HEAR YA KNOCKIN' . . ."
He was speaking the truth. During the half hour between shows he had heard them knocking at both stage doors shouting "We want Elvie. We want Elvie," and banging the doors with the beat.
He heard them as he bent dreamily over a battered piano on the bare stage, hesitantly picking out a blues tune, his large eyes almost closed underneath a shroud of tumbling hair.
Around the piano silently stood five young girls — a blonde, three brunettes and one half and half.

Star Photo courtesy Gail Reaben

One time Elvis slumped over the keyboard exhausted. Half-And-Half gently massaged his neck. Revived, Elvis rose from the piano and sat down behind some nearby drums. 
Soon the whole backstage reverberated with the Presley beat. Stagehands, policemen and members of the troupe stopped and stared at Elvis.
The fans outside seemed also to hear the beat and screamed and knocked louder.
Abruptly Elvis got up and walked to his dressing room — a smoke-filled, high ceilinged, bare room from which the wailing sounds of Elvis emanated through the opening acts.
"He’s really wound up tonight," Half-And-Half nodded knowingly toward the sounds. His opening number came up, but a burly, red-haired bodyguard emerged from the dressing room and called to Elvis’ trio on stage. "Play one," he shouted. Elvis was not ready.

Scotty, D.J. Elvis and Bill onstage (believed to be) in Orlando - Aug 8, 1956 
Photo courtesy (believed to be) Flaming Star magazine

Two minutes later, Elvis, in bright red sport coat, its collar turned up, and white shirt open to his belt buckle, paced out of the dressing room door and into the wings where he hitched his pants, spread his legs like a child walking astride a broomstick, and hobbled-swaggered on stage to a screaming ovation and a million exploding flash bulbs.
"He knows he won’t be on top forever,” said bass fiddle player Bill Black before the show. "He’s going into movies and maybe save some money to fall back on."
"He can spend and spend and not spend it all," Black added in wonder.

Orlando Evening Star - August 9, 1956 courtesy Gail Reaben, added November 13, 2012

The original Auditorium facade and entrance encased in the new lobby
Photo courtesy Kat Corbett

Jean Yothers retired after twenty-two years as a reporter and columnist and then worked ten more as curator of the Orange County Historical Museum.In 1974, the Orlando Central City Neighborhood Development Board decided to reexamine the Municipal Auditorium and investigate a possible renovation that would transform the facility into a top-notch theater and concert hall. Orlando’s City Council agreed with the Development Board’s decision to renovate and expand the space, and in the fall of 1975 construction began.4

The auditorium with the new lobby encasing the facade - Sep. 2008

The most major addition to the exterior of the auditorium was the construction of a glass shell around the original brick façade, which honored the facility’s rich past, while still elevating it to a more contemporary style. The renovation efforts in 1975 also brought a plethora of technical improvements that enhanced the internal functions and acoustics of the 2518 seat venue. Finally, in May of 1978, the Municipal Auditorium received its new name, Mayor Bob Carr Municipal Auditorium, in dedication to Mayor Robert Carr’s service to the City of Orlando.4

The auditorium with the new lobby encasing the facade - Sep. 2008

Today, the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre hosts some of the largest and most popular Broadway and theatrical touring productions in the country. It also serves as home to Orlando’s professional arts and cultural programs like the Orlando Ballet, Orlando Opera, Orlando Philharmonic and the Festival of Orchestras.4

The Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre - Sep. 2008

Photos © Microsoft Eathdata

page added October 9, 2008
Star article added November 13, 2012

1 excerpt from "Remembering Orlando: Tales from Elvis to Disney" by Joy Wallace Dickinson
2 excerpt from "Orlando History: City Attains Major Status"
3 according to "Orlando: A Visual History" by Thomas E. Cook
4 excerpt from "Orlando Venues: Bob Carr Performing Arts Center"
5 excerpt from "Remembering Orlando's Grand ole Opry houses" by Joy Wallace Dickinson, The Orlando Sentinel, Sept 7, 2008
6 "On The Town" by Jean Yothers, Orlando Sentinel, May 16, 1955 courtesy Ger Rijff
7 "Presley Makes 'Em Shriek, Yell, Jump" by Jean Yothers, Orlando Sentinel, Aug. 9, 1956 courtesy of Francesc Lopez and ElvisConcerts


Orlando Magazine / May 2013 / Classic Carr

Classic Carr



Q: Is the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre really almost a century old?

A: Relative newcomers to Orlando might assume from its glass front that the Carr has been around for only a few decades. But look closely: Behind the exterior is a brick structure that began life 86 years ago as the Orlando Municipal Auditorium. The story of how it was transformed into the Carr could be called “Miracle on West Livingston Street.’’
In the early 1970s, Mayor Carl Langford and others decided the city needed a state-of-the-art performing arts venue (sound familiar?). But with the economy tanking, finding the $7 million to $9 million needed was out of the question, so a committee started studying whether the auditorium could be renovated. Up to then, the “Muni Aud,’’ as it was called, had hosted everything from boxing matches and church meetings to organ recitals and Elvis (yep, in 1956).

 Local architect Tom Price was on that study panel—and eventually became the lead designer on the “adaptive reuse’’ project. “I caught fire on the thing when I realized we could take this old barn of a building and make a state-of-the-art performing arts center within or close to the budget we already had,’’ Price recalls. Amazingly, that budget was only $2.2 million.

So in 1975, Price and his team went to work. The interior was gutted, and renowned theatrical design and acoustics expert George Izenour was called in. Every-other-row seating was installed (you look between people in the next row, not over them). Seating leg room was 39 inches, 3 inches more than required, which gave more space for people to pass and allowed for a continental seating plan (no center aisle). An acoustical shell for orchestral performances was put in place (removed when the stage was enlarged for Broadway performances in the early 1990s).

But what to do with the entrance? It needed to look state-of-the-art too, but there wasn’t enough money to demolish and reconstruct the front of the auditorium. Price recalls his design group was having a heated discussion about the front one day when he finally blurted out, “Well, what do you want to do—build a glass box around it?!’’
Well, why not?

“The room fell silent,’’ Price says. “We were so fortunate that it fell in our laps that way.’’ Price designed the front you see today, consisting of a garden lobby and upper promenade, at a total cost of $90,000. That three-arched entrance to the lobby bar? It was the entrance to the original auditorium.

For the last 35 years the Carr has been the local place to go for Broadway touring theater, symphonies, ballet and intimate pop concerts. But with the touring shows moving to the new performing arts center next year—and the ballet and symphony following when their hall is built—what’s to become of the Carr, especially since it's on land intended for the massive Creative Village project?

Price says he would like to see the Carr “have a third life.’’ And it just might. While he makes no promises, Creative Village developer Craig Ustler says there’s a chance the venerable venue could find a place as part of the digital city of the future, possibly as a performance space for digital media or alternative arts. Adds Ustler, an Orlando native, “I see value in the history and story of this building.’’

This article appears in the May 2013 issue of Orlando Magazine
Copyright 2014 Orlando Magazine. All rights reserved.

added January 9, 2014


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