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Arena Theater, Carleton’s Mystery Building

Northeast of the Concert Hall sits a box-like structure unbeknownst to most current Carls. The windowless building is neither the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets nor Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but the defunct Arena Theater in the Music and Drama Center (MDC). Built in early 1970s, the theater hosted plays, musicals, and dance performances for forty years before being retired in 2011. Today, the MDC has a limited lifespan as the Weitz Center for Creativity continues to grow.

Until the Nourse Little Theater opened in 1932, Carls performed plays in a Willis Hall assembly room or at the Grand Theater downtown. In the mid-1960s, the college hired Chicago architect Harry Weese to design a modern music, drama, and dance building. On April 10, 1968, Carleton President John W. Nason led the groundbreaking for the long-awaited Music and Drama Center, built on the site of former women’s dormitory Gridley Hall. A Carleton press release called the event an “extraordinarily unacademic and informal gathering.” Construction workers said the shovel-wielding dignitaries resembled a “family of pocket gophers.”

A raised plaza separates the Arena Theater and the Concert Hall, creating “acoustical separation” between concurrent performances. Underneath the plaza are a music library, practice and rehearsal rooms, instrument storage, and a former art gallery now used for choir rehearsals. Red brick and limestone echoes surrounding buildings like Nourse, Olin, and Music Hall, but the MDC won no beauty contests. In a 1968 Carletonian letter to the editor, Brad Hokanson said, “Most mausoleums are better looking [than MDC.]”

The Arena Theater opened in January 1971 with a performance of Let’s Get a Divorce. The 500-seat theater was a vast improvement over Little Nourse and “ushered in a theatrical boom,” according to former History Professor Merrill E. Jarchow. Moving sections of seats could reconfigure the theater-in-the-round design, and an open space under the stage allowed for trap doors or other special effects. The basement also contained a green room/dance studio, scenery and costume shops, prop storage, and dressing rooms.

Former Theater Professor Ruther Weiner called the Arena “a spectacular theater” in some ways but flawed in others. Its asymmetric design, leaking plaza skylights (now filled in), poorly constructed masonry, and virtually nonexistent handicapped accessibility plagued the college for years. Steve Richardson, Director of the Arts at Carleton, says the underground art gallery was underutilized, and the theater-in-the-round arrangement was “not useful all the time for a theater department like Carleton’s.” In 2001, former Facilities Director Richard Strong said the theater would be demolished “within five years” and the former Northfield Middle School auditorium or the vacant Grand Theater were possible replacements.

Converting the old middle school into the Weitz Center for Creativity meant the end of the Arena Theater. It was decommissioned with a performance by the Semaphore Repertory Dance Company on May 22, 2011. The Theater, Dance, and CAMS Departments moved into the Weitz Center that fall, and the MDC art gallery morphed into the Perlman Teaching Museum. A former gymnasium houses a 250-seat theater and two dance studios designed with flexibility in mind. Arts Director Richardson says the Weitz Theater “is like a big Tinker Toy set” whose seating is much more functional than the Arena had been.

Today, the vacant Arena Theater is a repository for excess furniture, dust bunnies, and boxes of old telephones—you know, the ones we don’t have in our dorm rooms this year. The Concert Hall remains the primary venue for music rehearsals and performances—for now.

Carleton’s 2014 Facilities Master Plan recommends the whole Music Department consolidate into two locations: an addition to the Weitz Center and Parish House. The Master Plan also states “the vacated Music Hall will be a prime location for other academic needs,” while the troublesome Music and Drama Center is slated for demolition. No definite plans are in place, and the time frame is dependent on design and financial constraints, but the MDC is nearing the end of its lifespan. With the loss of this building will come modern, improved facilities where future Carls can foster a love for the arts.

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