The old Houston City Auditorium, on the present site of Jones Hall

In only a few weeks, Houstonia’s October issue will hit the stands, featuring our comprehensive preview of the 2013–2014 arts season. Putting together the preview made us curious—what did the Houston arts scene look like in years past? Say, around 75 years ago?

Fortunately, we recently got our hands on a prospectus of the 1937–1938 season published by Edna Saunders, the impresario extraordinaire who single-handedly brought world-famous artists like dancer Anna Pavlova and tenor Enrico Caruso ("the Great Caruso") to Houston back when Houston was still an insalubrious, un-air-conditioned swamp. [The pocket-sized, accordion-folded brochure comes courtesy of associate editor John Nova Lomax’s grandmother.] 

Houston’s inconvenient location and unfortunate climate were no obstacles to the indomitable Saunders, who, on the evidence of the brochure, put together a dazzling 1937–1938 season, headlined by Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Salzburg Opera Guild, and lectures by Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and Yale professor of English William Lyon Phelps. In the way of novelties, there was Angna Enters (“America’s Greatest Dance Mime”) and Ruth Slenczynski (“Child Pianist—Phenomenon of the Age”). For families, Saunders brought in the Clare Tree Major Children’s Theatre of New York to perform three plays, including Pinocchio. For most performances, ticket prices ranged from $1.10 to $3.30 (for box seats).

Nearly all of the performances were held at the City Auditorium or the Music Hall. The City Auditorium, which opened in 1910, was located on the present-day site of Jones Hall. Although advertised as the largest auditorium in the South during planning stages, seating was finally reduced to 3,500. It featured no built-in orchestra seats—collapsible wooden chairs were brought in during performance, with tiered boxes available for the upper classes. As with many concert halls, the best acoustics were to be found in cheap seats in the balcony. In addition to fine arts performances, the auditorium hosted boxing matches, car shows, conventions, graduation ceremonies, dances, and receptions. 

The Houston Music Hall had opened just in time for the 1937–1938 season. Located at 801 Bagby St, the present-day site of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the Music Hall was the home of the Houston Symphony until the completion of Jones Hall. It also played host to innumerable bands, from AC/DC to Led Zeppelin. In 1998 the hall was demolished to make room for the Hobby Center.

For a membership fee of $10, Houstonians could attend a series of eight morning lectures. Highlights included talks by the Hon. Agnes MacPhail, the first woman elected to the Canadian House of Commons; deep-sea diver John D. Craig on “Thrill Photography”; globetrotting doctor Victor Heiser; and prolific American author and illustrator Rockwell Kent.

As the brochure shows, Edna Saunders combined functions that are now distributed among the Society for the Performing Arts, the Houston Friends of Chamber Music, Inprint, and Houston’s major performing arts organizations. It’s remarkable that one person could perform the duties now carried out by multiple organizations, each of which likely has a budget and staff many times the size of Saunders’s. And yet how many Houstonians have even heard of Saunders? No buildings are named after her; no performing arts series bears her name. Perhaps the sole reminder of her existence is a portrait hanging in the green room of Jones Hall, the site of the old City Auditorium, where, thanks to Saunders, the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso once entertained a capacity crowd. 

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