Porter Family Memorial Fine Arts Building

Porte Fine Arts Building at night.

Magical and Memorable

by Jane Powers Weldon ’59 
Ran in WESmag Winter 2013

The April morning is balmy, not yet the humid, sweltering summer days to come. The campus, lush and green in the sun, is manicured for the annual influx of alumnae, new and old, who return to the Oldest and Best each spring.

Lee Holmes and I lead the line of classmates, numbers diminished but enthusiasm intact, as we march past the Mount Vernon Porch, enter Porter Family Memorial Auditorium, and take our places near the front of the raked seats. We are here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation, in 1959. Golden Hearts! Golden Belles! 

As other reunion classes enter, my mind wanders not to our graduation, but to our first glimpse of Porter Auditorium. During our freshman year, January 31, 1956, saw the opening of the beautiful new performing arts center on Wesleyan’s Rivoli Campus. The first group to perform, the Ballet Theatre Company, on its way to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, danced the second act of Swan Lake, followed by Billy the Kid and Graduation Ball. To this girl from Calhoun, Georgia, who had known ballet only as a line of pudgy little girls on the splintery stage of the Gem Theatre, the sight was magical and memorable.

The Wesleyan Glee Club performed Schubert’s Song of Miriam for the formal dedication of the hall a few weeks later. We hoped we looked authentic draped in the brown robes stitched together by our own fingers, none more awkward than mine.

Over the next four years Porter Auditorium hosted musical performances by Gary Graffman, Isaac Stern, Eugene Istomin, Mantovani, Leonard Warren, Virgil Fox dedicating the organ, the Atlanta Symphony, the Harvard and Wesleyan glee clubs. We heard lectures or readings by Margaret Mead, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, C. Vann Woodward, Charles Coburn, Rudolph Bing, and Bishop Arthur J. Moore. Many more luminaries dazzled our eyes and filled our ears with beautiful music, wise words. Having heard him, who could forget Basil Rathbone’s rich voice ringing through the hall with A. E. Housman’s “Bredon Hill”: “Come all to church, good people . . . ”?

Come we students did, enriching our lives with chapel, vespers, Religious Emphasis Week, the Fine Arts Festival--more, it sometimes seemed, than we could count.

The Don Cossack Chorus performed in 1956, with the Wesleyan Glee Club joining them for “Hospody Pomilui.” Glee Club director Vladimir Zorin, himself a long-ago member of the Don Cossacks, coached us for weeks to pronounce that phrase and harmonize with the exotic Russians. Later the Wesleyan Alumnae magazine advertised 45 rpm recordings of the performance, with the Alma Mater on the flip side. “The unbreakable record will be sent post-paid (as long as the supply lasts) anywhere in the U.S. for one dollar.”

The fall of our freshman year, my classmates and I experienced a bit of what other classes had done for years. We took the Purple Turtle* into Macon for a performance in Pierce Chapel on the original Wesleyan campus. Porter Auditorium was quite a step up for listeners as well as performers. Music students especially benefited from the new facility. Lee Holmes remembers that “Our hardy band of music majors was overjoyed with the move from makeshift rooms in the gym to a real music department space in Porter’s downstairs. Bright lights, wide corridors, faculty studios, recital hall, administration office—all quite exciting. And it never got old.”

The very first STUNT Night in Porter Family Memorial Auditorium was March 10, 1956. We freshmen, with our Time and Tornadoes, took for granted the spacious stage and wings. Little good they did us. Dr. Gin**, in his inimitable way, finally announced that the Purple Knights had blown the rest of us away with Entomological Epic. That really bugged us!

Through the years, Porter has been with us, occupying a large part of our memories and our present. Besides the wonderful guest artists, our own talented faculty performed. Our drama students mounted productions to rival professional companies. The Wesleyannes sang. We cheered our classmates who gave senior recitals in the facility we’d helped inaugurate four years earlier.

We watched Green Knights, sister Tri-K Pirates, and Purple Knights graduate to join the ranks of alumnae. Finally, our turn came. We lived through Dead Week and our final finals. We wore white dresses and found candlelighters among the ranks of mothers, cousins, real big sisters, Wesleyan big sisters. We were “tired old seniors, weary, worn and blue.” But we lifted our chins, donned mortarboards and gowns, and strode confidently through the doors of Porter Family Memorial Auditorium--into the future. 

*A purple school bus that took Wesleyannes to and from Macon for church and other occasions. 

**Dr. George Warren Gignilliat, beloved professor of English
for many years. 

 

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