When the university’s new auditorium formally opened on April 22, 1937, the university had a student body of just over 2,700. About 2,500 people attended the event. With a seating capacity of about 3,000, it was the largest auditorium in all of Arizona.
[photo moved to image asset]
Undated photo courtesy UA Special Collections
The construction of a new auditorium began in 1936, according to “A Photographic History of the University of Arizona” by Phyllis Ball. There were some who questioned the need for a such a large auditorium. It would never be filled to capacity, they said. But, most realized that it was badly needed, replacing the inadequate Aggie Hall which could only seat 500 students.
The location of a new auditorium was hotly contested. Originally, it was to be located at Cherry and Highland Avenues, near the Steward Observatory. Astronomers protested that the traffic and lights would be disastrous for their observations. It was eventually located near the Law Building, opposite the Library.
The auditorium was part of a Public Works Administration project which included funds for seven brick buildings. Local architect Roy Place was selected as the architect and M.M. Sundt was the contractor for the whole PWA project. The cost of the auditorium was $220,000.
The Star’s article covering the opening of the building described an event that tested all of the auditorium’s features, the lights, acoustics, stage and ventilation. There were original musical compositions and a massing of both the orchestra and band along with the glee club. Drama students performed a Thornton Wilder play and dance students presented a work on the building of San Xavier.
Sports fans were also given some entertainment as there was a film of the recent Arizona-Michigan State football game, complete with commentary by Coach Tex Oliver. As the evening grew longer, there was some discussion as to whether the second reel of footage should be shown. It was decided that maybe one reel was enough.
[photo moved to image asset]
2004 Star photo
Centennial Hall is a popular Tucson venue.
Over the years, the auditorium has served both the university and the community. It has seen every kind of entertainment from circus elephants to Frank Zappa and everything in between.
In 1962, Pres. Richard Harvill was criticized for saying that “the citizens of Tucson could expect little or no use of the UA auditorium after 1967.” The complaint was that he made the remarks right before a city bond election which involved a new civic auditorium.
The auditorium was the site of a “mob” in March 1971. An unruly group of about 250 people stormed the place during a rock concert. The UA spokesperson said there was some damage to the building as “street freaks and long-haired bums” tried to get in. The group they wanted to see was a Phoenix based country and folk band called Queen Creek Symphony.
At least as far back as the late 1950s, classes have used the auditorium. When the Humanities class size outgrew Aggie Hall it moved to the hall. Traditionally, when it was finals time, a sign would appear outside that read “Dante says: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
In 1985, the Board of Regents voted to rename the auditorium Centennial, in honor of the university’s 100th anniversary. It has been remodeled and refurbished several times in the past 70 years. The current seating capacity is about 2,500.