The Origins of McFarlin Memorial Auditorium

The opening of McFarlin Memorial Auditorium in March of 1926 was the most important event of Southern Methodist University’s 1925-1926 school year [1]. In December of 1923, Dr. Charles C. Selecman, President of SMU, received a building grant of $325,000 from an oil-rich Methodist couple, Robert McFarlin and Ida Barnard McFarlin [2]. When the auditorium was completed in 1926, the total cost was roughly $700,000, and it was dedicated as a memorial to Robert’s parents, Benjamin and Caroline McFarlin [3]. The builders used the best materials and were always assured that Robert McFarlin would cover the cost. Because SMU originated as a Methodist university, the auditorium was originally built as a campus chapel that would hold the entire student body. As the university grew, the auditorium’s function expanded to include music, dance, drama, and lectures, augmenting its progress to serve the performance needs of the people of Dallas [4]. Not only was the erection of McFarlin Auditorium important for SMU, but the performance history of Dallas would have been different had this building not existed.

The 1920s set nation-wide records for building and construction that would not be equaled until the 1950s [5]. As Dallas increased in population rank from 86th in the nation in 1900 to 29th in 1925, buildings were being constructed for the sole purpose of entertaining citizens of the city [6]. After the founding of Southern Methodist University in 1916, the Methodist bishops in Dallas decided the new school needed a chapel where all students could attend religious services. All students were required to attend chapel services because character training was considered more important than academic training [7]. When constructing the auditorium, it was ritual performance that the builders of McFarlin had in mind; rituals are performances which have been repeated, refined and formalized until they become part of an established procedure. For many years, McFarlin Auditorium hosted religious services, convocations, commencements, dedications, and award presentations [8]. In the early years, McFarlin Auditorium was considered to be part of an educational institution, not a place of entertainment. Although the builders did not view the auditorium as a performance space, this is how it evolved.

The opening of McFarlin Auditorium was planned for February 10-14, 1926, but because of various delays, the opening did not occur until March 24-28, 1926 [9]. The seating capacity at the dedication was roughly 2,500, and the stage was reported to have larger dimensions than the Metropolitan Opera House in New York [10]. The auditorium was dedicated in front of administration officials, faculty members, and 150 members of the Southern Methodist University senior class [11]. The original plans included space for lounge rooms, chorus rooms, dressing rooms, and conference rooms, much more than was necessary for chapel services [12]. In addition to music, lectures, and inspirational sermons, the Arden Club, led by Miss Mary McCord, was asked to present a play. Miss McCord and the club members decided to perform Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy, The Rivals. This performance drew over-capacity crowds at both its regular performances and a near-capacity crowd at a third, special performance. In addition, the Times-Herald review characterized the production as a “smooth, finished performance”[13]. Because McFarlin Auditorium has hosted a variety of productions, it has become an important community performance space for the city of Dallas.

Performance has always been an important part of humanity, and dramas of the “legitimate state” flourished in the 1920s. Because performance is the communication of experience to others, the performances of each period reflect current beliefs about human beings and their place in the universe [14]. According to Dr. Joseph Yarborough, former chair of the Department of Psychology, “McFarlin Auditorium is a monument to the ideal of culture and an inspiration toward the attainment of culture, and culture does three things – it informs, it inspires and it socializes” [15]. The changes in types of performances are a result of changes in our culture. Furthermore, McFarlin Auditorium was reviewed in the press as being an important asset to the cultural life of Dallas. Performance spaces offer a place to see and hear popular productions of the time. For example, McFarlin Auditorium remained the home of the Dallas Symphony through the fall of 1972 [16]. The auditorium hosted many performers that would not have otherwise appeared in Dallas. The activities in McFarlin Auditorium became more diverse and paralleled events not only in Dallas and in the state, but also in the country. The auditorium hosted various performers who had appeared at Carnegie Hall, and in September of 1972, Pink Floyd made a special appearance [17]. All of these performances have contributed in some way to the evolution of the auditorium into a facility of much wider use than its original purpose as a campus chapel large enough for all the students to attend services together [18].

Because McFarlin Auditorium exists, the people of Dallas have witnessed many performances they probably would not have otherwise seen. The auditorium impacted not only the cultural education of many generations of Southern Methodist University students, but also the educational and cultural life of the people of Dallas [19]. McFarlin Auditorium has perpetuated SMU’s mission of education and its vision of community outreach. McFarlin Auditorium has remained an imposing structure on campus and retains its symbolic meaning for many students and alumni [21].  

Katherine Johnston

Notes

[1] Billy Mack Abbott, “A History of the Arden Club of Southern Methodist University from 1915 to 1942.” Thesis (M.A. in Speech and Theater), SMU, 1951, 79.

[2] Darwin Payne, “One Hundred Years on the Hilltop: The Centennial History of Southern Methodist University / Darwin Payne.” First edition. Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 2016, 92.

[3] Payne, 92.

[4] Mary Ann Tucker Barker, “McFarlin Auditorium, Dallas, Texas: An Analysis of Relationships between the Space and the Performances.” Order No. 9238099, The University of Texas at Dallas, 1993. Ann Arbor: ProQuest, 2.

 

[5] American Decades: 2000-2009. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 2011, 87.

[6] Barker, 45.

[7] Barker, 62.

[8] Barker, 93.

[9] Barker, 86.

[10] Barker, 84.

[11] Payne, 92.

[12] Barker, 69.

[13] Mack, 80.

[14] Barker, 13.

[15] “What Faculty Members Think of McFarlin Auditorium.” The Semi-Weekly Campus Dallas 24 Mar. 1926: 2. Print.

[16] Barker, 123.

[17] Barker, 126.

[18] Barker, vii.

[19] Barker, 64.

[20] Barker, 77.