Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Eisenhower Auditorium is performing-arts gold

By Heather Longley

For fifty years, venue has presented space for students, artists, community

In the 50 years since its dedication, Eisenhower Auditorium has hosted a who’s who of notable 20th and 21st-century music, theatre, dance, and all manner of performance artists from around the world and the University Park campus.

Conceptualized as home base for the Penn State Artists Series of professional staged programs, its acoustic-friendly layout and ample seating have made it a popular rental venue for a variety of University clubs, community organizations and touring performers for decades. Since its opening in May of 1974, the venue has been designated a professional artist’s stage, a classroom, a religious worship hall, a volunteer’s destination, a graduation ceremony rite of passage, and a cultural and community connector.

Imagine the stories Eisenhower Auditorium’s curtains, stairwells and dressing rooms could tell.

A star is born

The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State has its roots in the Artists Series, which began in 1957 under the leadership of Albert Christ-Janer, first director of Penn State’s School of the Arts. Starting that year, Nina Brown guided the Artists Series through a couple of iterations and for almost three decades. At that time, most of the presentations were in Schwab Auditorium, and events that required more seats took place in Recreation Building (Rec Hall). However, both spaces featured fewer seats and lacked the acoustics desired for artistic performances.

University Auditorium met that need. The new auditorium had the space and equipment to present a greater variety of events and seating for about 2,500—almost three times as many patrons as could be accommodated at Schwab.

The new building helped to lend an “arts district” feel on campus, with its proximity to the schools of music, theatre and visual arts, as well as the then-new Palmer Museum of Art.

“The completion of this outstanding complex affords Penn State the unique opportunity to undertake fresh approaches to promoting student, alumni, and public interest in and understanding of a broad spectrum of the arts,” stated a 1974 pamphlet “The Arts at Penn State.”

It was the final event of the 1973—74 Artist Series, a three-nights concert featuring the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Penn State University Choirs, that christened the new auditorium in May 1974. Beginning in fall 1974, most Artists Series events took place in the new auditorium, while chamber music concerts stayed in Schwab.

The new space created opportunities for local organizations, and University Auditorium became the venue of choice for a host of college and community events, including University Concert Committee’s rock shows, Greek Sing and local performances of “The Nutcracker.” The College of Arts and Architecture hired a full-time staff, known as Auditorium Management, to handle administration and production in the new facility.

A decade later, in 1985, Penn State merged the facilities and program management into one group, and the Center for the Performing Arts was born.

Opening night(s)

One opening night wasn’t going to be enough to usher in a new era of the arts on campus, so the powers that were planned for three. Each night’s event—May 8, 9 and 10, 1974—sold out, and the opening-night audience called the artists back for three encores with a standing ovation. It was the height of sophistication featuring internationally renowned musicians in rural central Pennsylvania.

“Tuxedos and chiffon. Conversation concerning a Paris opera house. And in the background the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra tuning up for its performance,” wrote Daily Collegian staff writer Sheila McCauley.

Penn State President John W. Oswald opened the venue by thanking Walter H. Walters, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture. Then he introduced the orchestra with Ludwig van Beethoven’s words: “Music should strike fire in the heart of man.”

Each performance featured the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Steinberg and the University Choirs directed by Raymond Brown (husband of first Artists Series Director Nina Brown). Guest soloists soprano Phyllis Curtin, mezzo Betty Allen, tenor Seth McCoy and bass Ara Berberian accompanied the ensembles on all three nights. The program included Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Hector Berloiz’s overture to “Benvenuto Cellini.”

An advertisement in the Daily Collegian stated student radio station WDFM 91.1 would present a recording of the inaugural concert on a future date, but a recording has not been found.

That July, the Pennsylvania Ballet presented two world premieres on the Eisenhower stage during the company’s first of many residencies. The first season’s schedule included visits by Royal Shakespeare Company; Marcel Marceau; Martha Graham Dance Company; Bradford, Pennsylvania, native and soprano Marilyn Horne; and a return of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

University Auditorium was renamed Eisenhower Auditorium, dedicated after Penn State’s 11th president, Milton Stover Eisenhower.

Eisenhower’s first lady

Nina Brown was named the first director of the Artist Series (later the Center for the Performing Arts) in 1957. From the beginning, she was a believer that the arts enhanced and enriched a student’s education.

By 1981, federal budget cutbacks meant the series needed to find ways to fund its programs, resulting in ticket subscriptions and the end of free tickets for students, though Brown emphasized that students would always be able to secure a ticket.

“If kids are exposed to the arts at this age, it will be part of their lives forever,” she said of attracting Penn State students to the Artists Series events. “In a few years, they’ll forget Geography I or History II, but they’ll remember the arts in some way.”

Brown was interviewed for the 2006 Penn State release of “We Are a Strong Articulate Voice, A History of Women at Penn State” for a tribute chapter titled “Putting Penn State on the Cultural Map.” She led the Artists Series from its inception for nearly three decades until her retirement in 1985.

On May 4, 1999, the 25th anniversary season of the performing arts in Eisenhower Auditorium, Brown received the Center for the Performing Arts Distinguished Service Award. In 2006, Brown returned to Penn State again as the special honored guest to recognizing the 50th anniversary of presenting world-class performing arts at Penn State. Her 2010 obituary described her as the "major force" in the performing arts at Penn State.

Future forward

From its opening, Eisenhower Auditorium was an automatic destination for artists and students seeking a stage. Its physicality made it a no-brainer as a performance and presentation space as well as special programs—such as a Pennsylvania governor’s debate or a ceramics convention.

But even then, the building could be open to nontraditional ways of being and presenting. Once a mini museum of artworks and a stage open to the art of mimery, the midcentury-era sculptures and blank space paved the way for white walls open to student and community artists with diverse stories.

Most recently, the bold theatrical program by 600 Highwaymen, “An Assembly: A Thousand Ways,” held in nondescript spots throughout Eisenhower Auditorium, applied an unmoderated, patron-is-the-artist approach to group performance. And returning in the 2024—25 season will be a call for Penn State student artists to help make the walls of the building more vibrant.

Starting in May 2024, the Center for the Performing Arts will remember Eisenhower Auditorium and its beginnings and connections to the community with 50 Forward.

Heather Longley is a marketing communications associate at the Center for the Performing Arts. John Mark Rafacz contributed to this article.

Do you have a memory or story specific to Eisenhower Auditorium that you’d like to share? Email Heather Longley at HXL44@psu.edu. Watch cpa.psu.edu or become an Arts Insider to keep up with news, features and programs related to the Eisenhower Auditorium 50th anniversary celebration.


  • University Auditorium was rededicated Eisenhower Auditorium in 1974, after Penn State’s 11th president. Milton Stover Eisenhower, who took over as president in 1950, officially named the school Pennsylvania State University.
  • Eisenhower Auditorium was built by the approval of General State Authority of the Commonwealth at a cost of almost $6 million.
  • The auditorium was built with 532,485 bricks.