Whittier College Revels in Its New Arts Center : Building: Chief benefactor Ruth B. Shannon is center of attention at inaugural concert that caps 10-year quest for funds.


Ruth Shannon has made a hobby of learning about building benefactors, those people who have buildings named after them. She knows that the freshman dorm she lived in decades ago at a Kentucky college was named after an educator from that state. And she can tell the stories behind the nameplates that adorn the buildings at Whittier College, where she is a trustee.

Now it is her turn to have a building.

The $10-million Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts hosted its inaugural performance Tuesday night, a concert by the Chanticleer vocal ensemble, to a full house of student, faculty and residents. And appropriately enough, at the center of it all, resplendent in a green dress and pearls, was Shannon herself, in Row P, Seat 1, seated between her son on one side and college President James Ash and his wife, Patricia, on the other.

Unlike almost anyone else, Shannon never stopped believing that building the center was possible. "A few other people had their doubts," she said. "I never did."

Shannon and her husband, Ed, an oil company executive, were the largest single benefactors (amount not revealed) and Ruth Shannon chaired the fund-raising committee. In that capacity, the veteran Whittier philanthropist cajoled, harassed, pleaded for and demanded contributions from individuals ($1.5 million), foundations ($3.15 million), corporations ($1.37 million) and trustees ($3.92 million).

Shannon's 10-year quest began as she listened to the inaugural address of former Whittier College President Eugene Mills in 1979. Mills listed a performance center as one of his goals.

Said Shannon: "I was so impressed, I went up afterward and said, 'I will help you build the building.' "

The need was acute because the drama and music departments had led a somewhat nomadic campus existence since Founders Hall burned to the ground in 1968. Founders Hall had been Whittier College's first building, said Jack de Vries, 52, the drama department chairman who has been around long enough to remember rehearsing at Founders Hall. The cramped, second-floor theater there had no permanent seats. Actors stored costumes in the balcony. Prophetically enough, the Fire Department finally banned performances in the hall.

Until De Vries moved into the Shannon Center two weeks ago, his office was in a cellar. His department had one 24-by-34-foot room to use as both a class and rehearsal space. Students built scenery sets in an old gym, where fire regulations prohibited electrical tools.

Students performed at the Whittier Community Center, where no student show could run longer than a single weekend. "We had to build a set that could be assembled in four hours," De Vries said. "Basically, it was a road-show set. On opening night, the paint was still wet."

By contrast, the Shannon Center has two performance areas. The main hall seats as many as 403. It combines a classically arranged horseshoe-shaped balcony with a flexible orchestra section that can be modified to accommodate a ballroom setting or a dinner theater. The adjacent studio theater, basically a high-tech black box, seats about 70 people in its current configuration.

The center also contains a classroom, offices, spacious dressing rooms, prop and costume rooms and a set shop.

"Miracles do happen," De Vries said.

Former faculty dean Richard Wood describes the building's creation differently. "It was a real gamble, an act of faith."

Wood, now the president of Earlham College in Indiana, recalls worrying over the decision to break ground with barely half of the needed money accounted for. "There are great risks in starting construction before you finish fund-raising," he said. "But it was the right thing."

That is because it is not just drama and music students who benefit. The college considers the center vital to its image, a linchpin in its efforts to reverse declining freshman enrollment.

The center "was a big hype when I came to visit the school," said freshman Tracy Knight, who did indeed journey from Utah to Whittier. "But it's great."

That is pretty much the way senior Michael Cable felt. A veteran of campus theater, Cable will soon perform at last on campus, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

"I was questioning whether they'd get it done on time," he admitted Tuesday night.

Cable was one of more than 100 students, many on free passes, among the crowd.

Although benefactor Ruth Shannon was literally besieged by older well-wishers and dignitaries, few of the students knew much about her. Shannon knows that, in time, most people forget about the identities behind the names on buildings.

But she remains unfazed. She figures that some people will take the trouble to remember the name "Shannon." That's why she wants the building with her name on it to be just so.

The morning of the opening show, she noticed the clock in the lobby. "It looked like a white kitchen clock," she explained. With impromptu bravado, Shannon climbed a ladder and replaced the unseemly clock with a tan Seiko that coordinated with the building's colors nicely. That evening she pointed to the clock with pride, noting that it, like the center, should last a good long time.

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