The people of Alberta have been primarily concerned with the taming of the wilderness, the cultivation of the land, the building of towns and cities, and the development of industries to meet the immediate material needs of the population. Although the thread of desire for participation in the arts…has always been woven into the pattern of the province’s progress, development of an expressive cultural life has lagged. Nowhere in the province have there been suitable facilities.
The projects excited both controversy and doubts. Some Albertans questioned their government’s judgment in building these massive facilities, and considered them an imposition from on high. Many predicted that the auditoria would prove to be overbuilt and underused white elephants.
Some suspected a political motive. Manning’s government faced a provincial election in 1955, and there was talk the government was trying to buy voters with their own money.
To others, the project’s potential
After considering alternative sites, the government built each auditorium adjacent to institutes of higher learning: in Edmonton, the University of Alberta; and in Calgary, the campus shared by the university’s Calgary branch (which became the University of Calgary) and the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (today’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Alberta College of Art & Design).
The two buildings follow an identical plan developed by the provincial Department of Public Works under the supervision of architects Ronald Clarke and Arnold B. Steinbrecher. The twin auditoria were built of reinforced concrete, steel, and brick, with an exterior finished in precast concrete, polished granite pebbles, red brick, and, at the entrance, polished Italian travertine. Each facility included a fan-shaped hall seating 2,700; a rehearsal stage in addition to the main stage; a lobby finished in French walnut panelling; two grand staircases leading to a “grand circle” upper lobby at the first balcony level with an outer wall of curved glass. The basement “Social Room Level,” complete with banquet facilities, was
The choice of International Style—with its geometric forms, expressive structure, and absence of historical reference—was consistent with 1950s preferences, but paradoxical for a monument to pioneers. Writing in 1979, Calgary Herald architectural columnist Stephanie White explained:
Auditoria, halls and theatres in the 1950s were the first luxury buildings since the ‘20s, but reflected strongly the emotional austerity of the period. No more gilt red velvet and chandeliers for them—this was the new age of functionalism. There was very little looking back, as well as a rather short view forward into the unknown. . . .
Construction of the Jubilee auditoria began in the summer of 1955, but a U.S.-wide steel strike delayed their completion until the spring of 1957. They opened officially on April 28, 1957. Tens of thousands of people visited each facility during the week-long opening festivities. The varied program showcased the auditoria’s versatility: Shakespeare, opera, and symphonic performances, vaudeville, musical comedy, small-town theatre companies, and local glee clubs. Artistic, museum, and
The festival week also showed up shortcomings in the acoustics (despite expert consultation and acoustical measurements taken in the National Research Council’s sound laboratory), as well as the lighting, seating, and an orchestra pit that couldn’t be raised or lowered. Later these deficiencies were remedied to a degree.
The scale and scope of the Jubilee auditoria were without precedent in Alberta. Initially, the white elephant label had a ring of truth, but in a short time the cultural communities of Calgary and Edmonton had embraced the new facilities. So much so that in 1967, Manitoba and Saskatchewan followed Alberta’s lead and built community auditoria as their Canadian centennial projects. “ Alberta was a visionary in this regard,” says Catherine Whalley, director of Historic Sites and Cultural Facilities, Alberta Community Development.
The Edmonton Symphony and Calgary Philharmonic orchestras took up residence immediately. Through the 1960s and early 1970s, as ballet, choral, operatic, and other cultural organizations emerged or became formalized, they found in the Jubilee auditoria a ready-made home.
Sky-high oil prices in the 1970s generated massive government revenues for Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government and funded a vigorous cultural renaissance in the province.
The auditoria put Alberta on the map for international performers (ranging from Duke Ellington to Procul Harum and Bill Cosby to
he was in junior high. The experience turned him on to opera and eventually led to him becoming artistic director of Edmonton Opera.
Besides the large companies and big-name performers, the auditoria became venues for smaller, community-based artistic
The auditoria truly became “community living rooms,” where opera, symphony, and drama occupied the same space as political and religious rallies and rock concerts, albeit at different times. Countless Albertans have memories of high school graduations, post-secondary convocations, and Kiwanis music festivals held at the Jubilee auditoria.
And with military veterans aging, key Remembrance Day ceremonies in Calgary have shifted from outdoor cenotaphs to the comfort of the Jubilee. Notable events have also included the night John Diefenbaker’s Tories won the 1957 federal election, when some 6,000
Countless Albertans have memories of high school graduations, post-secondary convocations, and Kiwanis music festivals held at the Jubilee Auditoria.