The Washington State Pavilion Opera House opens with a concert featuring the Spokane Symphony, Roberta Peters, and Edward Villella, on May 1, 1974.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/12/2019
  • Essay 20925
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On May 1, 1974, the Washington State Pavilion Opera House opens with a concert featuring the Spokane Symphony, Roberta Peters (1930-2017), and Edward Villella (b. 1936). The red-carpet affair takes place three days before the official opening of Expo '74, Spokane's World's Fair, and serves as a gala preview. The Spokane Symphony, conducted by Donald Thulean (1929-2015), accompanies opera star Peters and dancer Villella in what the Spokane Daily Chronicle calls "the dawn of a new cultural era" for Spokane ("New Cultural Era ..."). The 2,700-seat hall will become the home of the Spokane Symphony for the next 32 years, and the city's prime venue for major Broadway touring shows, including Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. It will be renamed three times, becoming the Spokane Opera House at the close of Expo, the INB Performing Arts Center in 2007, and the First Interstate Center for the Arts in 2018.

The Design

When the Expo '74 site committee decreed that the Washington State Pavilion would be in the form of an "opera house," this did not mean they were planning on hosting a lot of operas. The term "opera house" was what cities in the West historically called their concert halls and legitimate theaters, to distinguish them from burlesque theaters and other low-brow music halls. It signaled that planners intent to build a first-class performance space.

The initial design accommodated approximately 1,500 seats, about right for a symphony hall. However, national entertainment experts told the committee that the hall needed to have at least 2,500 seats in order to be marketable for big national touring shows after Expo closed. In the end, designers would add 1200 seats to the original design, for a total of 2,700. The building was approved by the state legislature in April 1973, and construction began immediately in a headlong race toward its May 1974 opening.

Eyebrows were raised and feelings bruised in the Spokane music community when Expo announced that the Los Angeles Philharmonic would be playing Expo's opening-eve concert on May 3 (the gates would officially open May 4). Those feelings were assuaged when Expo also announced that on May 1 the Spokane Symphony would headline an even bigger concert, the "Gala Opening Concert of the Washington State Pavilion Opera House." It would be Spokane's first chance to see its grand new hall.

The Debut

That evening, concertgoers raced up the stairs of the new Opera House to marvel at its two-tiered lobby -- perfect for people-watching -- along with its spacious stage and broad rows of seating, unbroken by aisles. The Chronicle said the audience was full of "awe, great pride and irrepressible enthusiasm" ("New Cultural Era ...").

The crowd loved Peters and Villella, both at the peak of their art, but grew far more subdued during the finale, a specially commissioned modern piece called Image of Man, by composer Michael Colgrass (1932-2019. Perhaps the audience was put off by the sound effects, which included an anvil, a metal ratchet, a large cooking pot, and various chirps and squeals from a chorus. Or perhaps it was the poetry of Colgrass, which included the lines, "A bird came to me one day / With a strange complaint / bloodshot eyes / Flabby wings / Decreased sexual activity" (Youngs, 380). Nevertheless, the evening was deemed a triumph.

Long Service

The Spokane Symphony would go on to play hundreds of concerts in the venue, but eventually its large size created acoustical challenges that were difficult to overcome for unamplified musicians. In 2007 the Spokane Symphony moved to the smaller Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, which the organization had saved from the wrecking ball and completely renovated.

As of 2019, the First Interstate Center for the Arts remains the Spokane's prime venue for Broadway touring shows and continues to host big-name music acts. Over its long life, the hall has hosted artists including Bob Hope, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Neil Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Benny, Phish, Bonnie Raitt, Itzhak Perlman, Van Cliburn, and Jerry Seinfeld.


Frank Bartel, "New Cultural Era Launched," Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 2. 1974, p. 3; J. William T. Youngs, The Fair and the Falls, Spokane's Expo '74: Transforming an American Environment (Cheney, Wash: Eastern Washington University Press, 1996) p. 379-380; Jim Kershner, The Spokane Symphony: 75 Years of the Sound of Spokane (Seattle: Documentary Media, forthcoming 2020).

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