Collections Spotlight: the Civic Light Opera Records

Civic Light Opera Records, 1946-1996, MSS 955

Extent: 18 linear ft. [18 boxes]

History of the Civic Light Opera

The Civic Light Opera Association of Greater Pittsburgh (later the Civic Light Opera) was founded in 1946 by Edgar J. Kaufmann (owner of Kaufmann’s Department Store in Pittsburgh, Pa.) and City Councilman Abraham L. Wolk. At the close of World War II, Wolk advocated for the creation of a civic light opera in Pittsburgh in order to help foster the city’s post-war renaissance. Wolk partnered with Kaufmann, who donated $50,000 to fund the CLO’s first season. As early as 1939, Councilman Wolk had been able to attain $5,000 from the Pittsburgh City Council in order to coordinate summer concerts in Schenley Park in the spirit of the St. Louis Municipal Opera.  In September 1945, Wolk enlisted Max Koenigsberg of the St. Louis Municipal Opera to help launch the CLO in Pittsburgh.  Koenigsberg served as the CLO’s first managing director.

 

CLO performance of The Wizard of Oz at Pitt Stadium, 1949

CLO performance of The Wizard of Oz at Pitt Stadium, 1949

Gathering business and civic leaders in the region, Wolk spearheaded a board that negotiated the usage of the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt Stadium rent-free for CLO performances.  At the time of its founding, H. Edgar Lewis, president of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, stated that the “light opera will open a new era in the cultural life of the entire Tri-State area.”

 

On February 20, 1946, the CLO’s first season of operettas was announced for the summer of 1946.  Ticket prices for CLO performances ranged from 60 cents to $3 and were sold at Kaufmann’s Department Store. As a professional theater company, the CLO staged productions of musical theater classics during its annual summer seasons. The CLO’s premiere performance in the summer of 1946 was Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. Under Koenigsberg’s direction, performers Mimi Benzell, Morton Bowe, Rosemarie Brancato, Mack Harrell, Lansing Hatfield, Ralph Herbert, Bill Johnson, Lucille Manners, Richard Manning, Ruby Mercer, Muriel O’Malley, Wilma Spence, and Margaret Spencer were among the CLO’s inaugural cast. In its first season, the CLO attracted 270,000 people to watch its performances in Pitt Stadium.

 

CLO audience members enduring rain at Pitt Stadium

CLO audience members enduring rain at Pitt Stadium

Beginning in 1947, William Wymetal became the managing director of the CLO and would serve for the next 22 seasons until 1968. Wymetal is credited with bringing names such as Allan Jones, Jackie Gleason, Irene Manning, and Harry Stockwell to perform with the CLO. Karl Kritz served as conductor of the CLO from 1948 until 1968.

 

While the CLO endured inclement weather conditions at Pitt Stadium, the Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Trust proposed to make funds available for an arena to be owned and maintained by the city. The proposal called for a venue that would be outfitted with a retractable roof that could open or close depending on the weather.  City planners broke ground on the Civic Arena on March 12, 1958.

 

While construction continued on the Civic Arena, the CLO ascertained permission to build a tent in which to perform its 1959 season.  This second home for the CLO was a tangerine and green “Melody Tent” that was constructed in the lower Hill District, a neighborhood east of downtown Pittsburgh and adjacent to the future location of the Civic Arena. The CLO performed in this venue for three years until construction of the retractable, domed Civic Arena was complete. The CLO performed in the Civic Arena from 1961 until 1969.

 

Henry John Heinz II and his family funded the renovation of the old Penn Theatre on 6th Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. The new Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, the fourth home for the CLO, would also house the Pittsburgh Opera, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  The Civic Light Opera moved to its current home at the Benedum Center in 1988.

 

Collection Summary

The Civic Light Opera Records pertain to the history and function of the CLO from its founding in 1947 until 1996. Worthy of note is the photograph series that documents CLO auditions, rehearsals, fundraising events, performance venues, and most productions. The bulk of the material in the CLO Records is scrapbooks, press books, and photo albums. These press books and scrapbooks document the CLO’s publicity efforts while also highlighting the reception of CLO productions over time. In addition, the CLO Records also include administrative records such as meeting minutes, budgets, and newsletters that document the activities and functions of the CLO Guild. The Civic Light Opera Records consist of administrative records, photographs, contact sheets, negatives, drawings, news clippings, scrapbooks, press books, and promotional posters.

Series I: Administrative Records, (1959-1981)

This series is comprised of the Civic Light Opera administrative records that primarily pertain to the CLO Guild.

Series II: Performance Programs (1947-1996)

This series primarily consists of CLO performance programs and copies of the Civic Light Opera Review from 1947 to 1996.

Series III: Scrapbooks, Press Books, and Photo Albums (1947-1991)

This series contains CLO scrapbooks, press books, and photo albums that chiefly document CLO performances.

Series IV: Photographs and Film Reel

This series consists of photographs, contact sheets, color slides, and negatives that document CLO functions and activities. In particular, the images in this series document various CLO performances. Also included are photographs pertaining to the various venues in which the CLO has performed, including Pitt Stadium, the Melody Tent, the Civic Arena, Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center. This series also includes a 16mm film reel that contains footage of CLO award ceremonies, a fashion show fundraiser, Pink Frolics, and CLO performances.

Series V: Oversized Material (1946-c1980s)

This series consists of oversized material relating to the Civic Light Opera. Included in this series are two drawings of Downtown Pittsburgh from the Point that project the location of Civic Arena.

CLO performance of the Wizard of Oz, 1994

CLO performance of the The Wizard of Oz, 1994

This collection has been made accessible as part of an NHPRC-funded Basic Processing grant.  For more information on the Civic Light Opera Records, please see the collection’s finding aid.

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