Cultural activities have always been important to the residents of Charleston and organizations that were started in the 1920's were growing to meet the demand and interest in entertainment and education. These groups included the Charleston Community Music Association, the Kanawha Players and the Chamber Music Society.
As citizens began suggesting the need for a larger more adequate facility, Larry Silverstein, President of the Community Music Association, was disturbed to action. He led the crusade to get voters to pass a bond referendum on December 29, 1936 which provided the City’s portion of the funding for this $500,000 project. The selected site was referred to as “a hole in the ground” because it lay in a swale several feet below street level in a “debris littered, weed clogged catch basin for stagnate rain water.”
The Municipal Auditorium was the scene of a dedication ceremony on November 4, 1939. Five thousand persons visited during the four hour program in which the Public Works Administration regional administrator declared that the “PWA feels that the $212,000 it spent on the building was fully justified and that the building compared with some of the finest in the United States.
The Auditorium is a monolithic concrete and steel structure across from the Charleston Town Center in the central business district. The building is an excellent representation of the Art Deco architectural style in a public building. The Auditorium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 as a Public Works Administration project designed by Charleston architect Alphonso Wysong.
The first event was a Community Music Association concert featuring violinist Zino Francescatti before a capacity crowd on November 7, 1939. Harry Silverstein recognized the need to provide a variety of quality entertainment and organized chamber music concerts housed on the stage and organized the non-profit Community Enterprises, Inc. to promote a series of legitimate stage shows in Charleston. The first Broadway show, “What a Life”, starring Jackie Coogen, was held on November 25, 1940.
A venue for musical and theatrical shows, concerts and other performances by local, state, national and international artists, the Auditorium has made a substantial and lasting contribution to the area’s cultural heritage for seven decades. Given its tremendous seating capacity, the auditorium has made the arts accessible to many who could not afford the ticket prices of smaller venues. The classic styling of the “Art Deco Grande Dame,” is high level of architectural integrity, enduring functionality and affiliation with the New Deal-era Public Works Administration all add to the building’s historical significance, setting it apart from other playhouses.
Among her famous guests, President Harry Truman “Gave Them Hell” in a campaign speech that was a live national radio broadcast on October 1, 1948. During the 1941-42 seasons, Morris Harvey College’s basketball team called the Auditorium stage its home court. Other notables included Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy, Bob Hope, Ray Charles and Billy Joel. If walls could whisper, they would tell us of the hundreds of thousands of people who have come through these doors to watch and hear dance recitals, choral and band festivals, fashion shows, symphonies, gospel sings, cooking schools, political rallies, stage plays, operas, plus country and rock & roll shows.