Topeka Performing Arts Center continues to shine

Tanner Ballangee / Washburn Review

The Topeka Performing Arts Center (TPAC) has been serving its city by “…providing for the advancement, promotion, presentation, and development of the arts to meet the diverse cultural and educational needs of our community,” as stated in their mission statement.

This concept has prevailed at this location since as early as the late 1800s when the building was known as “The Municipal Auditorium.” Located at 214 S.E. Eighth Ave. in the core of downtown Topeka, Kan., TPAC now plays host to about 160 events a year, attracting roughly 61,000 people in 2010 alone. From what first stood as the site of the first building in Topeka with electric lights and indoor bathrooms, TPAC has gone through numerous changes and renovations to stand as the successful arts venue it is today.

The original land where TPAC now resides first housed Col. George W. Veale and his family before it was demolished and rebuilt as a two-story civic building. The new building contained city offices, a fire station, and “The Municipal Auditorium,” which hosted shows that attracted lovers of music and the arts from all over.

Starting with dance-band leader Paul Whiteman and his orchestra as its first performer, the Municipal Auditorium brought forth many well-known names to the city of Topeka, such as Nat King Cole and even Elvis Presley.

Not only did the auditorium serve the community in regards to arts and entertainment, but it also helped the city’s citizens in its most dire times of need. Be it the great flood of 1951, where 1,500 people were fed and sheltered in the auditorium, or the disastrous tornado that tore through Topeka in 1961, like a real friend to its citizens, TPAC was there to provide a safe retreat.

Despite seeing success with traveling performers, Broadway shows, trade shows, circuses, and even high school graduations, the auditorium ran into a threat in the 1980s with the opening of the Kansas Expocentre. To eliminate the need for competition, an ambitious and determined group of citizens and city officials came together and proposed a pivotal transformation for the auditorium, giving it a permanent stage and other adjustments to allow it to support those performing arts events that the Expocentre could not. The campaign was able to raise enough money to make the dream a reality and in 1987 the renovation of the auditorium began.

The renovation of the building did great things for TPAC and it’s community: creating jobs for citizens of Topeka, enhancing the architectural dimensions of the building while still retaining it’s original style and character, altering its walls and seating for better hearing and viewing purposes, and giving it its new title: The Topeka Performing Arts Center.

On March 23, 1991 the Topeka Performing Arts Center was open to the public. The following 20 years brought many upscale events and big names to Topeka, such as blues guitar master B.B. King, country-singing superstar LeAnn Rimes, and comedic-genius Jerry Seinfeld.

Ashley Schmidt, a senior business major at Washburn University, was able to attend a TPAC event that took place on April 24, 2010. The event featured Nate Phelps, an estranged son of radical media star and pastor of Westboro Baptist Church Fred Phelps, speaking about his controversial family.

“It was really interesting and informative,” said Schmidt. “I found the speech that he gave to be really enlightening, because nobody really knew the truth about the inner workings of the family.”

Nate Phelps’ performance brought many people to TPAC, causing the building to be slightly crowded. “I could still hear well, though,” said Schmidt. “It was still a good experience . . . I think that TPAC is a good staple in Topeka and I wish there were more venues like it.”

Barbara Wiggins, Executive Director of TPAC, is the decision maker when it comes to events TPAC will host. Wiggins works with national promoters who bring the ideas for possible events to her, and she determines which of those will best suit Topeka and its surrounding area citizens.  The TPAC staff will support Let’s Help’s fundraising efforts by co-hosting an upcoming outdoor event featuring the music group from the 1970s, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Wiggins, who says she is a fan of the ‘70s funk band, also explains that although she and her employees may be at every event TPAC hosts, they do not get to sit and watch them.

“We don’t work in this industry to enjoy the events,” said Wiggins.

Wiggins points out that not only does TPAC serve as a national touring house for Broadway shows, comedians, dance performances, and other such events, a safe-haven for Topeka’s citizens in times of despair, and a historic landmark, but also stands as an economic stronghold that keeps downtown Topeka flush with new faces.

“Downtown businesses thrive because of events,” said Wiggins.

The events that TPAC hosts not only bring in members of the Topeka community but also patrons from cities all over Kansas, throughout the Midwest, and at times from across the nation. These people stop at gas stations, eat dinner at restaurants, shop at the mall, and are putting money into the community and are boosting Topeka’s economy. Without TPAC, Topeka would lose all that incoming money and would suffer in that respect, said Wiggins.