History of the
Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium
Golden Era of Rail
Sweetwater’s historic Municipal Auditorium is a 750-seat performing arts center that was built in 1926-1927 – at the time the railroads were the primary means of travel. Sweetwater has been a major railroad center since 1881, and its location midway between the Atlantic Seaboard and the Pacific coast meant that the Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium was a frequent performance venue used extensively by the glittering names during the golden era of traveling entertainment troupes. Audiences here have experienced the brilliance of Fred and Adele Astaire, the Ziegfeld Follies, John Philip Sousa, tent showman Harley Sadler, Sir Harry Lauder, and Broadway touring companies from such early productions as Seventh Heaven, The Bohemian Girl, Rita Rita, The Rain Maker, and Carmen.
A little bit country – A lotta rock-n-roll
In the 1950s, emerging country legends such as Eddie Arnold and Roy Acuff drove the region’s highways to play at the Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium. Then something else emerged as all rock-n-roll broke lose with the “Great Balls o’ Fire” of Jerry Lee Lewis and – in the tender year of 1955 – a young man from Tupelo put his blue suede shoes on the hard wood that once touched Fred Astaire. Elvis Presley rocked the Auditorium stage twice in 1955 – in June and again in December. His spirit has never left the building.
With the continuing growth and improvement of highway travel – and the shift in entertainment from traveling troupes to motion pictures, radio, and television – the use of the Auditorium for performing arts continued to decline until it became essentially a huge storage building for municipal records, and the stage saw action only to hold the ring for summer boxing programs. By the 1970s, demolition was a real possibility. Fortunately for Sweetwater and for the West Texas region, the building was so well built that destruction proved to be financially impossible!
Seeing a distant Horizon
In 1975, Sweetwater High School’s drama coach, Clay Freeman – who had led Jim Wortham’s high school class to the Texas high school finals in one-act play competition in 1973 – spurred the revival of this classic performing arts venue. Freeman inspired talented high school students, recent graduates such as Wortham, and other interested locals to stage a series of creative musical reviews and to re-invigorate community interest in and debate about the history and fate of the Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium. These “Horizon Theatre” productions featured dance, theatre, and live music presenting the character and feel of entertainment of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s – and echoing the heyday of the Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium.
Inspired by Freeman’s Horizon Theatre troupe, five late-night dreamers – Freeman, Carolee Patterson, Robert Musgrove, Terry Blankenship, and Tom Henderson – spearheaded an initiative that blossomed into the Auditorium Renovation Committee, an effort of roughly 150 interested citizen leaders. In their first active year, 1982, $100,000 was raised to tackle critical infrastructure stability issues such as roof replacement, interior repairs, and interior painting to historic colors. In the past 20 years, more than $500,000 has been raised and reinvested to stabilize, renovate, and enhance all phases of the Auditorium – from infrastructure to stagecraft and technical systems to dressing rooms to substantial upgrades for the audience experience.
Texas Historic Landmark & National Register of Historic Places
In 1982 the Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium was designated a Texas Historic Landmark, and a Texas Historical Marker has been placed on the west façade of the building. In 1984 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure in the Sweetwater Commercial National Historic District. In 1988, the auditorium restoration project was a primary component in the decision by the National Civic League to designate Sweetwater as an All-America City. Jim Wortham represented the Sweetwater-Nolan County Auditorium Board at the final sessions of the All-America City selection process in Houston in 1988.
The Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium is governed by the Sweetwater-Nolan County Auditorium Board, created and authorized by act of the Texas Legislature in 1983. As specified by the State legislation, Auditorium Board members are appointed by the City Commission of the City of Sweetwater and the Commissioners Court of Nolan County.
We have work left to be done
Much work remains to be done, and you can help. All contributions to the funds of the Auditorium project are tax-deductible under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Interested in the Auditorium? Please contact the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce at chamber@SweetwaterTexas.org (telephone: 325-235-5488) (P.O. Box 1148, Sweetwater, TX 79556), located in the historic Simmons home at 810 East Broadway www.SweetwaterTexas.org.