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National Historical Landmark

by Clint Skinner

8. Music Hall

Behind the Sydney Smith Memorial Fountain, Music Hall stands on the previous site of Cycle Park. Charles McAdams built the park in 1896 as a place where people could enjoy the leisure activity of biking. He soon added a steep, wooden racetrack for bicycle races and some bleachers. Calling it the the Cycle Park Theater, Charles became the manager. The attraction later became a place to host outdoor festivals, plays, and concerts. A large fire burned it to the ground in 1903 and a new structure was built.

During the theater's tenure, the surrounding park had its name changed to Gaston Park, honoring the local banker responsible for providing the fairground acreage. Although William Gaston managed to get the thirteen-and-a-half acres of land for 96,000 dollars, the city government couldn't do anything with the park because the Dallas Baseball Club had leased the area earlier. The leaders got together and convinced the organization to sell its contracts for 12,000 dollars in 1914. The land was used for state fair expansion the following year.

TX - Dallas Fair Park Auditorium
Fair Park Auditorium
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

Fair Park Auditorium, as it was originally called, took 500,000 dollars to build. The architectural firm Lang and Witchell completed the project in 1925. Erected on the site of the Cycle Park Theater, Music Hall introduced the citizens of Dallas to Broadway musicals. The first production performed at the venue, however, was not the one originally planned. Management wanted to show Sky High, an adaptation of the British-based musical farce called Whirled into Happiness. It tells the story of a mistaken identity that results in the main character falling in love with a woman with the two of them having a happy ending, despite a series of complicated events and circumstances. Unfortunately for those hoping to see the Sky High production, conflicts with musician unions arose, resulting in the show being canceled.

Management looked around and ultimately chose a Broadway musical called The Student Prince. Written by Dorothy Donnelley and composed by Sigmund Romberg, the story is based upon Wilhelm Meyer-Forster's theatrical play Old Heidelberg. The musical version covers a prince who is weary of his life as a member of royalty and sets off to a faraway land. He falls in love with a young woman, but circumstances arise that forces him to go back. He eventually returns only to find out they can never be together. Despite the unhappy ending, the production became an instant success when it debuted on Broadway in 1924. In fact, it surpassed Show Boat in terms of longevity at the New York City venue with 608 performances. The popular musical then went on a musical tour throughout the nation, which involved a stop in Dallas at Fair Park's Music Hall.

1936 Texas  Centennial  Exposition  in Dallas aerial photo right enlarged
No. 28 - General Motors Building
(1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas - Aereal photo right)
Click on image for full view

Courtesy Sarah Reveley

During the centennial celebration, the building became an exhibit hall for General Motors. The following year saw its transformation into a casino for the Pan Am Expo. From 1957 to 2009, it served as the home of the Dallas Opera in addition to performances by visiting musical productions, theatrical companies, ballet tours, and the Dallas Symphonic Orchestra. Out of all the performing arts venues that have appeared at Music Hall, the most famous one is the Summer Dallas Musicals program.

The program began in 1941 with a completely different name and location. Taking place at the Fair Park Bandshell, it was called Opera Under the Stars. Funds to produce the first season came from a group of local businesses and a New York City company called the Schubert Organization. Blossom Time, a British musical about composer Franz Schubert, served as the first production on the outdoor stage. The only reason why the the event took place at the band shell instead of Music Hall was the fact that the building had no air-conditioning. Despite the high temperatures and plentiful rain, the first run made a profit large enough to warrant another season. Unfortunately, the bombing of Pearl harbor and the proceeding war against the Japanese ended plans for a summer entertainment program for 1942.

A non-profit organization was established the following year by a group of businessmen. Wanting to establish the tradition of providing outdoor entertainment during the summer, the members produced a series of ten shows under the name Starlight Operettas. The organization, however, was not completely independent because the program took place inside Fair Park, which meant that the State Fair Association had the power to make decisions. The SFA did so in 1944 when it appointed Charles R. Meeker, Jr. to be the first executive director of Starlight Operettas.

Originally from West Virginia, Charles moved to Texas so he could attend Southern Methodist University to study journalism. He graduated with the degree but ended up working for Interstate Theaters, a company that specialized in running vaudeville establishments. From there, he moved upward and gained the attention of the SFA when its members began their search for a leader. Meeker took over in 1945 and worked hard to make the summer program a large success. He made physical changed to the bandshell to make things easier for the visiting productions and focused on booking the popular musicals of the time. In addition, he began the practice of increasing attendance by the use of star power. Meeker managed to get famous singers like Mary Martin, Vivienne Segal, Jack Benny, Judy Garland, and Debbie Reynolds.

Dallas TX Fair Park - Music Hall
Music Hall
October, 2009 photo courtesy Andreas Praefcke*

Music Hall finally received its air-conditioning in 1951, prompting Starlight Operettas to move into the building and change its name to State Fair Musicals. Meeker left Dallas in 1961 for a musical director position at Six Flags Over Texas. Tom Hughes, the house manager, took his place the following year. Under his watch, the program became an organization independent form the state fair. It was also renamed Dallas Summer Musicals. The DSM continued to grow in popularity and reputation during Tom's tenure. When he passed away in 1994, Michael Jenkins took over the reigns.

Jenkins started his musical career as an usher at Music Hall and became one of Meeker's assistants. He went with Meeker to Six Flags and eventually became the park's vice-president. Jenkins was running his own theme park company when he received an offer to run Dallas Summer Musicals. He accepted the offer and still serves as the executive director. He is also the president of Music Hall.

Currently capable of seating 3,420 guests, the Music Hall is modeled to reflect the styles of Spanish colonialism with hints of Moorish design. There six stair towers, each with a dome on top. In addition, there are several porches that have arches positioned over them. The first major change came with the aforementioned addition of air-conditioning in 1951. The building then experienced a large remodeling project in in 1972. It increased the size of the backstage area, improved the auditorium acoustics, installed more comfortable seats, expanded the lobby, provided enough space for an indoor box office, and added the Crystal Terrace Restaurant. Music Hall remained the same for twenty-seven year until it underwent some changes in 1999. The job included better acoustics, new carpeting, new paint, refurbished chairs, along with the addition of a guest relations center and gift shop.

*Author's Note:
All the pictures that are not mine are either public domain or creative commons. I provided the photographer's name.

September 25, 2016
© Clint Skinner

FAIR PARK - Attractions:

1. Fair Park Station
2. Main Entrance
3. Founders Statue
4. Women's Museum
5. DAR House
6. The Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial
7. Sydney Smith Memorial Fountain
8. Music Hall
9. Fair Park Esplanade
10. Centennial Building
11. Automobile Building
12. Hall of State
13. Tower Building
14. Big Tex Circle
15. Grand Place
16. Old Mill Inn
17. Magnolia Lounge
18. Hall of Religion
19. African American Museum
20. Leonhardt Lagoon
21. Dallas Museum of Natural History
22. Science Place I
23. Children's Aquarium
24. Fair Park Bandshell
25. Texas Discovery Gardens
26. WRR Headquarters
27. Science Place II
28. The Texas Star
29. Cotton Bowl Stadium
30. The Texas Skyway
31. The Embarcadero
32. The Creative Arts Building
33. Food and Fiber Building
34. Pan American Arena
35. The Woofus
36. The Swine Building
37. Briscoe Carpenter Livestock Center
38. Livestock Pavilion and Arena
39. The Horse Barn
40. Fair Park Coliseum
41. Top of Texas Tower

3.Dallas Morning News Archives
5.Slate, John H. Historic Dallas Parks. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
8.Winters, Willis Cecil. Fair Park. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

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