Two Primary Performance Spaces at SMU, 1916-1929

McCord Auditorium and McFarlin Auditorium are two well-known performance spaces at SMU.Both spaces offer unique qualities and complement SMU’s university and surrounding community. The Arden Club occupied both spaces, and the history of the two auditoria offers insight about SMU’s impact on the performing arts.

The individuals who made these spaces possible are ultimately the people who should be credited with SMU’s expansion and integration with the performing arts.

Mary McCord’s name is found on many of the Arden Club’s programs. She’s arguably one of the most if not the most influential person in the club’s humble beginnings. The club was formed in 1916 and received its formal name, The Arden Club, after performing its first play, As You Like It, in the part of campus known as the Arden Forest. This part of campus is now where the Perkins School of Theology is located. Inclement weather and rather frequent complaints of bugs soon drove the products inside the chapel of Dallas Hall, an iconic and historical location on SMU’s campus. Shortly after this relocation, the chapel was renamed Arden Playhouse, which is now known as the McCord Auditorium. It wasn’t uncommon for plays to take place on the steps of Dallas Hall. After all, those steps are quite large and offer a seemingly natural place for a production to take place. The Arden Club quickly became a local hit, and the plays were performed in surrounding Dallas suburbs, such as Plano and Grand Prairie. Even the Dallas Morning News routinely reported on the club’s events and plays (Southern Methodist University Arden Club collection).

Given the information presented above, it’s fair to say that the Arden Club gained respect and even some prestige. The club essentially need a space to call their own to solidify their identity and presence within the university. As a result, Mary McCord was invested in the club’s success and was an influential driver in ensuring the Arden Club had adequate performance spaces on campus. Mary McCord was the first  professor in the Speech Department at SMU and became the director and sponsor of the Arden Club. Shortly after, McCord’s colleagues, Edyth Renshaw and David Russell, began directing plays and eventually took over after McCord’s retirement in 1943. Although the club ended in 1969, it essentially became the Meadows School of the Arts. McCord’s expertise, enthusiasm, and commitment during the founding years of the Arden Club allowed the Meadows School of the Arts to become a reality in 1969. The McCord Auditorium was the official location for the Arden Club’s performances, and it still serves as an auditorium and lecture hall today (Southern Methodist University Arden Club collection). In fact, the SMU website has a list of upcoming events scheduled to take place at the McCord Auditorium. Many of these talks are informative and discuss critical events that take place in our modern world. I’d like to think that Mary McCord would be proud that not only is her space part of the Meadows School of the Arts, but it is also a place to hold progressive and ongoing conversations about pressing issues regarding local and global events. The multi-faceted functionality of the McCord Auditorium makes it a unique space to both current Meadows students and campus visitors interested in attending presentations and lecture series.

The second distinctive space the Arden Club occupied is McFarlin Auditorium. Just like the McCord Auditorium, the McFarlin Auditorium converts into a multi-dimensional space. McFarlin Auditorium is named after Robert McFarlin, a respected Methodist in the community. He donated the funds to construct the building and was actively involved during its creation. He chose R.H. Hunt of Chattanooga and Dallas as the architect. He employed Bremer Pond from Boston as the landscape architect. Hunt had constructed The First Methodist Church in Dallas, so SMU President Selecman was familiar with his work and thought he was the perfect match to construct the new space (Barker 67).

In the 1920’s, SMU faced financial problems as the institution tried to accommodate the expansive growth of the student body. In 1924, SMU’s President Selecman proposed a new auditorium that could seat more than 3,000 people and saw it as an opportunity to expand the university (Barker 66). In 1925, all of the university’s classrooms and offices were located in Dallas Hall, and SMU was bursting at its seams. During this year, there was nearly a 300% increase in the student population (Barker 62). Interestingly, instead of investing hard-earned endowment funds in a laboratory or dormitory, the university decided to invest funds in a performing arts space, which is what became McFarlin Auditorium. Understandably so, the Arden Club, which was still in its infancy, was elated that a new space dedicated to the arts was becoming a reality.  At first, the space was intended to be a sacred performance ground, but President Selecman also wanted it to be a place where the community could come together. The community at SMU quickly realized that the space would be used for more than just religious services. McFarlin Auditorium not only acted as a sacred space for chapel services, but also as an inspiring space for artists (Barker 65-66).

McFarlin Auditorium offers a variety of advantages that directors and actors may want to utilize. For example, the stage is much larger and offers dressing rooms, backstage space, and quality light and sound production equipment (Barker 41). As a result, this space was particularly appealing to the Arden Club and other organizations in the Dallas area. The Arden Club occupied McFarlin Auditorium when specific plays needed to adapt its scenery to a larger space. It’s rather a great advantage that the Arden Club had options when it came to performing plays. Perhaps certain plays were more suitable outside, so the steps of Dallas Hall offered a peaceful and naturalistic scenery for production. On the other hand, the club could choose between the McFarlin and the McCord Auditorium, depending on specific needs of the production. A quality production needs to take advantage of certain aspects of a physical space. Actors, directors, and even observers will elaborate on the importance of having a captivating physical space; it acts a medium between the artists and the audience. In 1926, Mary McCord directed “The Rivals”, a play by Richard Sheridan.  The program of this play explained that McFarlin Auditorium could suit the needs of the scenery. The scenery was comprised of seven different sets, so McFarlin’s space and quality surrounding production was a good fit. This play also passed President Selecman’s standards of a moral and religious production (Barker 101).

It’s incredible to see both spaces still in use today. Many local organizations utilize both auditoriums for the performing arts and discussion series. Mary McCord’s influence on the Arden Club, which essentially became the performing arts college at SMU, was critical to the growth of the university as it strived to improve its programs and academic experience. On the other hand, it may have been a difficult decision to build the performance hall given SMU’s then-recent financial problems, but it is an investment that has provided an invaluable return to SMU’s students and community.

Lexie Saldana

Works Cited

Barker, Mary Ann Tucker. “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. Web. 2 Apr. 2019.

“Southern Methodist University Arden Club collection.” University of Texas Libraries. 22 Apr.

2019 <https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/taro/smu/00200/smu-00200.html>.