From the Archives

Since its completion and dedication in 1937, Ida Waldran Auditorium on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas has served as a venue for untold numbers of UCA students, faculty, staff and Arkansans in general. The 1,198 seat auditorium has been the setting for many UCA and high school band concerts, choral concerts, musicals, plays, orchestra concerts, dance recitals, political gatherings, Miss UCA Pageants and numerous other events. It has also hosted many well known and even famous artists, speakers, writers, politicians and celebrities.

Ida Waldran Auditorium was built during the Great Depression and was a product of the Public Works Administration (PWA). It was part of the largest PWA project on campus that included the Prince Center, President’s Home, Meadors Hall, Ida Waldran Auditorium and the renovation of the E.E. Cordrey Science Building. The total cost for the four new buildings and the renovation of the Cordrey Science Building was $445,000. All five structures were dedicated soon after their completion on May 23, 1937, with State Commissioner of Education W.E. Phipps presenting the buildings to Governor Carl Bailey.

In a letter dated May 6, 1937, from President Heber McAlister to the architectural firm of Wittenberg and Delony, McAlister stated, “The committee from the Board of Trustees and the faculty of the Arkansas State Teachers College to arrange for the memorial plate for the auditorium has met and suggested that the auditorium be named “Ida Waldran Memorial Chapel.” They also suggest that on the plate be the following inscription, “Dedicated to the memory of Miss Ida Waldran, Dean of Women in the Arkansas State Teachers College from its beginning in 1908 until her death in 1937.”

When the auditorium was given its name, chapel exercises were held on campus once a week under the direction of a pastor from a local church; therefore, the word “chapel” reflected the primary purpose for the auditorium at that time. It is not known exactly when Ida Waldran Memorial Chapel became Ida Waldran Auditorium, or if it ever did, officially. Several years after the naming of the W.C. Ferguson Memorial Chapel on the UCA campus, Ida Waldran Auditorium continued to be known in official UCA publications by its original name. By that time, however, the public had been referring to it for decades as Ida Waldran Auditorium.

One of the first truly famous people to perform in Ida Waldran Auditorium was Margaret Truman. On March 6, 1952, Margaret Truman, the daughter of President Harry Truman, sang to a standing room only crowd. Miss Truman performed several songs and according to an article by Log Cabin Democrat reporter Joe McGee, “Margaret Truman is a singer and a showman. She appeared before 1,300 persons at Arkansas State Teachers College last night. I don’t know whether her singing was good or bad, but as a showman she’s tops.”

On February 23, 1968, Howard K. Smith, a television news commentator for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) spoke in Ida Waldran Auditorium and offered his opinions on a myriad of issues. Those who attended the event found that Smith was conservative on some issues and liberal on others and was hard to classify.

According to The Echo, “B.J. Davis, a junior of Malvern, is among the SCA (State College of Arkansas – now University of Central Arkansas) students who had difficulty classifying Smith politically after hearing him talk in Waldran Auditorium last Thursday night. After many affirmations of President Johnson’s Vietnam policy,” Davis said, “I thought to myself midway through his speech he’s a right-wing conservative. Then seconds later he described our form of government as ‘out-dated’ compared with Britain’s. You can’t put a pin on him. He’s a free thinker.”

In regard to the Vietnam War Smith proposed a hard line in dealing with the North Vietnamese and thought the United States should be less humane in its tactics. According to The Echo, “Then on stage he drew applause when he said he would like to see the U.S. be a little less humane in Vietnam. He said the North Vietnamese often torture Americans and that we would have to “get tough” in order to crack the hard-core resistance.”

In the fall of 1968, Melvin Belli, a well-known attorney often referred to as the “King of Torts” spoke in Ida Waldran Auditorium on November 4, 1968. According to some sources, Belli had won an estimated 500 million dollars for those he represented.

In regard to organized crime Belli was quoted in The Echo as saying, “It had been overlooked that 99 per cent of the major crime in the country is organized crime and not a thing has been done about it.” Belli also gained considerable attention when he represented Jack Ruby in the shooting death of Lee Harvey Oswald. According to The Echo, “He (Belli) said he believes the Warren Report has told the full story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas five years ago, and said that he is convinced that accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and did not know Jack Ruby.”

Three months after Belli spoke, Peter Jennings of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) spoke to a crowd of about 500 on February 5, 1969 in Ida Waldran Auditorium. Belli and Jennings were both brought to UCA by the UCA Student Senate, now known as the UCA Student Government Association.

Jennings was on a five-state tour and had spoken on 50 college campuses. The following was reported by The Echo in regard to Peter Jennings’ comments on the Central High Crisis, “Asked why northerners refused to forget the Little Rock crisis of 1957, he said that most rioting in the past few years had occurred in the north and the problem had “come home to roost” among the traditionally smug northerner who had always confined racism in his own mind to that land south of the Mason-Dixon line.”

Jennings commented on President Nixon’s choice of Spiro T. Agnew as his vice president and the following was reported by The Echo, “He told of his assignment to pick the vice presidential candidate for ABC before Nixon announced his choice. I compiled a list of 17 possibles and Mr. Agnew was number 18.”

Jennings took a few light-hearted jabs at Dr. Silas Snow, UCA’s president. According to The Echo, “Jennings, who dined with Dr. Snow and campus leaders following a tour of the college facilities conducted by Senate members, said that the meal was delicious. “I understand it was a first of its kind on campus,” he smiled. He also remarked that Dr. Snow had left him with the impression that student-administration relations were “just peachy-keen” at this ‘friendliest place in Arkansas’…that’s what it said on the place card!” UCA once promoted itself as “The Friendliest College in Arkansas.”

Arguably, the most famous person to speak in Ida Waldran Auditorium was former President Gerald Ford. While former President Jimmy Carter also spoke on this campus, his venue was the Farris Center, not Ida Waldran Auditorium. President Ford spoke in Ida Waldran Auditorium on March 29, 1984 to a capacity crowd.

Before he gave his speech, President Ford was the dinner guest of UCA President Jefferson D. Farris and his wife, Mrs. Patsy Farris. The late UCA president, Dr. Jefferson D. Farris, told this writer about the dinner conversation during a 2007 interview. Dr. Farris said that President Ford was very concerned about the types of questions the students might be asking him. Dr. Farris told President Ford that UCA students would conduct themselves as ladies and gentlemen and that he had nothing to fear from them.

Dr. Farris said that President Ford was so comfortable that he continued the question and answer session longer than was scheduled. After his presentation, President Ford went back to the UCA President’s Home and continued to mingle with guests in the backyard. According to Dr. Farris, “President Ford enjoyed himself immensely.”

A complete list of all the notables who have performed in Ida Waldran Auditorium is not currently available. However, we know that such a list would include U.S. Senator John L. McClellan; Consumer Advocate and Political Activist, Ralph Nader; Assistant to President Nixon for Domestic Affairs, John D. Ehrlichman; U .S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Jeanne Kirkpatrick; Secretary General of the United Nations, Dr. Kurt Waldheim; and White House Correspondent for ABC News, Sam Donaldson.

Ida Waldran Auditorium has served the public well since 1937, but is in current need of restoration. An effort was made to place Old Main and Ida Waldran on the National Register of Historic Places and this was achieved on January 24, 2011.

In the fall of 2009, efforts commenced to seek grants to restore Old Main and Ida Waldran to their original condition. According to Dr. Gayle Seymour, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, “We received two grants from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council. The first grant, which we completed, was to create a master plan for the building. That planning grant provided us with a kind of road map for future renovation efforts, outlining all the different components that need to be repaired or restored.”

“The second grant, on which we are currently working, is to renovate the interior of Ida Waldran Auditorium. We will be installing all new seats on the first floor of the auditorium. The new seating will have period Art Deco detailing and be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) standards. The original beech hardwood floors will be refinished and new Art Deco motif carpet aisle runners will be installed. In addition to new acoustical panels, we are designing new deco-style stairs that access the stage from the auditorium. As for the orchestra pit, it will be restored to its original configuration, complete with period brass railing detail. Backstage, we are adding a handicap lift on the stairs, which will allow all students and others needing assistance to access the stage.” Other faculty and staff members who have worked on this project include K.C. Poole, Heather McCarty and Shelley Mehl. – Jimmy Bryant, director of UCA Archives

Author’s Note: Sources for this article include The Echo, Dr. Gayle Seymour, Log Cabin Democrat, UCA Bulletins, The Centennial History of the University of Central Arkansas by Jimmy Bryant, The Depression Era Construction Records – M97-02 – UCA Archives and Official Records of the University of Central Arkansas – M99-01 – UCA Archives.