Zellerbach at 50

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Zellerbach at 50

Back in 1957, a large theater was part of Vernon DeMars and Donald Reay's competition-winning plan for a Berkeley Student Center. The scheme enveloped Lower Sproul Plaza in new buildings: the Student Union and Dining Commons, Eshleman Hall, and a new, as-yet unnamed performance space. While designing the new venue, DeMars and associate John Wells toured theaters in the United States and Europe, working closely with campus architects Louis A. DeMonte and John Takeheuchi as well as an advisory committee. The theater was the last of the projects to be built; construction did not begin until 1965. The new theater was named in honor of Isadore and Jennie Zellerbach, whose Family Fund donated $1 million of the $7 million cost. The Zellerbachs were well-known philanthropists who had given many gifts to the University of California for scholarships, medical research, and other purposes.

On Oct 9, 2016, the program performed by the great Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen recreated one of the first concerts performed in Zellerbach Hall (in May 1968). On that momentous occasion, the legendary Igor Stravinsky himself attended as the University Symphony, Chorus, and guest artists mustered their forces for performances of the composer's Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms.

As we gathered for a recreation of that unforgettable event, our thoughts and memories naturally turned to Zellerbach's storied history. And what a history! Dance companies of Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham (to name just a few). The Vienna Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra. Leontyne Price and Cecilia Bartoli. Julie Harris and Fiona Shaw. The Grand Kabuki Theater of Japan, Ravi Shankar, Yo-Yo Ma, and Isaac Stern. The list goes on and on, rivaling the performance history of any of the great theaters in the country.