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Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

Fighting History: The Civic Auditorium once hosted boxing matches and other bitterly-contested fights--like the Miss California Beauty Pageant vs. the Myth California anti-pageant.

Civic Virtues

Rare among town halls, the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium has held a central place in the area's cultural and political life for 60 years

By Bruce Bratton

IT MAY SOUND a bit familiar: The initial justification for spending $276,852 on the property and the building of the Civic Auditorium and the firehouse next door was that Santa Cruz was a convention city and needed an auditorium. Way back in 1938, the Auditorium Committee thought it was a good idea to build it right across the street from City Hall.

Skipping ahead, Ralph Nader also thought it was a good idea to have it there, and in his talk at the Civic a couple of weeks ago, he stated, "You Santa Cruzans probably don't realize how rare it is to have an auditorium close to the city hall." He went on to tell of the majority of cities where meeting spaces near city halls are rare, small and unobtainable.

Of the look of the building, H.R. Judah, manager of the Civic Auditorium in 1940, said, "The new building is of the mission style in architecture with a modern touch and an arrangement of open porches on the corners and sides."

The Civic was never really completed. The original plans show a floor of offices above the entrance. They also show a sort of turret similar to one on the new Cooper House on the northeast corner--where the Civic's sign with coming attractions is now. As you can imagine, this being Santa Cruz, there was "factional bickering" even back then about where to build the auditorium.

At least eight other sites, according the Sentinel, were "seriously considered by the Chamber of Commerce's auditorium committee." One Santa Cruz property owner quoted in the daily paper was "frightened by the unfounded threat of a big raise in taxes." But the citizens voted "yes" at the polls on a bond issue to raise $121,295 to pay what was left after a Public Works Administration federal grant paid half of the costs.

Mayor Hinkle opened the Civic on Oct. 28, 1940, and hoped the structure would "escape the tragedies of nature." Except for some leaks after the 1989 earthquake, it's done pretty well. The Civic also has unusually thick concrete walls, which have helped a lot. The Sentinel's editorial of March 28, 1940, which was placed in a time capsule at the Civic, worried about Adolf Hitler's future plans and wondered if the United States would "remain aloof from Europe's war." Looking back on that last half century, the Sentinel was right to worry. Besides that, for a while no one now knew where the time capsule was placed. Now the Civic has blueprints showing the exact location (behind the plaque on the front of the building).

THE FIRST FIVE YEARS. Andy Botsford, the new manager, is proud of the rich history of events and happenings held at the building, and she tells how the Civic Auditorium has always reflected the changing tastes of Santa Cruz. She shows me stacks of documents listing those changing tastes.

Famous Civic occupants range from classical performers like opera star Enzio Pinza and violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Joseph Szigetti to the Druid Convention held there in 1943. Western Union annually trained young women at the Civic from 11 western states how to be operators, and U.S. Army contingents of 130 or more stayed there night and day, cooking and sleeping and drilling.

Mary Pickford appeared there on behalf of presidential hopeful Wendell Wilkie in 1940. Some evangelists like Father Hubbard from Alaska could pack in as many as 23,000 believers in a couple of days. Ted Lewis' shadow and vaudeville show drew big crowds. And if you know what the Santa Cruz Kermess Exhibit was, please tell either Leslie Connor, assistant director of the Civic, who also helped me get all this material on paper, or me.


Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

Parade of the Past: The Miss California Pageant (here pictured in 1950) got the whole town involved. All kinds of folks got behind it as sponsors put on parties and a parade, and parents and family members of contestants descended on Santa Cruz for this gala event.

More Name Dropping

The names and events held at the Civic over the years mirror the times and even more of the tastes of Santa Cruzans. How about Howdy Doody, and boxing matches that the late Doug Rand helped to eliminate? Or H.H. the Dalai Lama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jesse Jackson and Megadeath? The Lippazaner Stallions from Austria, roller derby, ice skating, Gloria Steinem?

I saw Victor Borge, Michael Redgrave and some fine traveling acts there in the early '80s. The original Ink Spots played the Civic. Many folks believed they spotted spaceships landing on the roof in the '60's; the late '70's featured lots of surf film nights, not to mention Al Jarreau, the Tubes, Paul Winter, Eddie Money, Tom Petty, Kenny Loggins, Judas Priest, Bob Marley, the Oakland Symphony, Toots & the Maytals, Joan Armatrading, Bonnie Raitt, Sammy Hagar, the Air Force Band, Santana, Ozzy Osbourne, Pat Metheny, the Ramones, Frank Zappa--and, in 1981, an opera named Soviets on Parade 1915-1985!

Lacy J. Dalton played there at the end of 1981--so did Three Dog Night. G. Gordon Liddy debated Timothy Leary; Elvis Costello showed up, too; and the Civic housed the Mr. and Miss Santa Cruz Bodybuilding Competition. Ram Dass, Tom Petty and Devo packed them in. Abbie Hoffman, Steppenwolf, Leon Russell, Edgar Winter, Milli Vanilli, King Sunny Ade, George Winston, Jimmy Cliff, Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, magician David Copperfield, Gallagher, the 1990 Soviet Gymnastics Team, Bobby McFerrin and Jackson Brown--they all played the hall.

Jay Leno and Dr. Helen Caldicott spoke there, and author Stephen King absolutely packed the place doing a benefit for Bookshop Santa Cruz after he rode here on his motorcycle. The Gyoto Monks chanted up a storm. Not everyone will admit it, but the annual poetry festivals held in the Civic were absolutely monumental and are still recalled with varying degrees of delight by old timers. Those festivals featured everybody from Charles Bukowski and Lawrence Ferlingetti to Ali Akbar Khan.

The Troubles

Even back in 1940, the municipal alcohol policy was a source of controversy. The city didn't permit the sale of it on the premises, but if you rented the building and had a temporary license, you could serve beer and wine at your own function in certain rooms (and never on the public dance floor).

Something big and bad happened June 2, 1956, often referred to as "the rock & roll incident." I don't know what it was, although it received nationwide attention. According to one report, 200 teenagers were dispersed after several couples were observed engaging in "obscene and suggestive" dancing. A new formal behavior policy was still being developed three weeks later.

The decision to move the Miss California Beauty Pageant (which was annually televised from the Civic from 1962 to 1985) because of the Myth California counterpageant created by hundreds of area feminists and their supporters still causes arguments. I went once in the early '80s and met Herb Caen backstage. I knew him from lots of events and parties in the Bay Area, and I still miss him.

Long-Time Civic Traditions

The Gem and Mineral Show goes back a long way; so does Omega Nu and its fund-raising rummage sale. I've personally emceed the annual Grey Bears Christmas Dinner for 26 years, and the Santa Cruz County Symphony has been an integral part of the attractions for decades. The symphony calls the Civic its home and is working with the Cabrillo Music Festival on massive improvements to the acoustics, sound and lighting system.

Locally, Tandy Beal and the Kuumbwa Jazz Center held many years of Carnaval celebrations in the Civic after the parade down Cedar Street. The San Francisco Mime Troupe appeared here a bunch of years, and A Gay Evening in May was here a lot of Mays--but not this year. Seniorama has taken the stage ever since the cement dried. The Civic has been the scene of almost more than enough Christmas Nutcrackers, too.


Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

Political Punch: A lot of the speakers who have come to the Civic, like Ralph Nader a few weeks ago and Gloria Steinem (above) a few years ago, show off Santa Cruz's unique political leanings.

The Future Civic

It was just a few months ago that the Civic spent $55,000 and redid the box office and snack shop to bring them up to running speed in this new millennium, and the improvements are much appreciated. But that isn't all that's happened. In 1962, Knute Maddock got Army surplus telephones and installed them so people backstage could talk to the folks in the sound booth up and in the back of the auditorium.

But the biggest news since then is that the Cabrillo Music Festival has received a David and Lucille Packard Foundation grant of $276,000 to improve the acoustics, the sound system and the lighting. Sound technician Stuart Ponder, who's designing the new system, says the goal is to provide local nonprofits, presenters and performers a state-of-the-art system when they rent the facilities. Big out-of-town productions like Bill Graham Presents bringing the likes of Bob Dylan or Weird Al Yankovic will continue to truck in their own systems.

Civic manager Andy Botsford gets very enthusiastic when she talks about the Civic family, the happy staff that works hard to keep the place in the great shape it is. Some of the staff have been there 10 or 15 years and still take great pride in their Civic. There's a new second women's restroom; the dressing rooms have been renovated; and, as Andy says, "There's just a whole new energy around the place, and we're very excited about the April first 60th birthday party."

Happy Birthday Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

On Saturday (April 1), Mayor Keith Sugar will read a special proclamation and pay tribute to the enormous contribution the auditorium has made to the cultural and civic life of Santa Cruz for 60 years.

There'll be a special cake served to the first 300 celebrants, and if it all works out, the carillon bells will play "Happy Birthday." There'll be free concerts from noon, right after the birthday ceremony, to 3pm. Starting at 7:30pm, there'll be dance lessons, hors d'oeuvres and a preview of Charles Prentiss' new historical exhibit featuring the many facets of the Civics' colorful history. At 8:30pm, Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums will cut loose. Tickets are $13-$27. Call the Civic at 420.5260 for more information.

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From the March 29-April 5, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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