The Morris Theater
The Morris Theater, originally called the Palace Theatre until the late 1950s, was built in 1922 as part of the Orpheum Theatre chain. At that time, the theater cost $1 million to build and was constructed on a $100,000 piece of property. It was the most modern theater in the country.
In its early days, it served as a vaudeville house and vaudeville shows ran continuously with a new act every ten minutes. Patrons could obtain admission for just 22 cents and enjoy the days new acts as they made their way on and off the stage. Broadway troupes traveling from New York to Chicago would often stop in South Bend and perform on the Palace Theatre stage on their way through the area. The Palace also presented serial photo plays (silent films), which were the soap operas of their day. This kept the audience coming back because they didn’t want to miss an important plot twist.
At its inception, the interiors of the theater were glorious. Old roses, blues and creams predominated and not one singular architectural style could define the whole of the structure. The architect, J.S. Aroner from Chicago, envisioned the theater as a little palace; a place in which theatergoers could feel as if they were royalty. A trip through the theater was intended to make a patron feel as if he or she had just made a trip through Europe. With many different architectural styles including Baroque, Spanish Renaissance, Greco-Roman and even a little Art Deco to name a few, patrons entered intricately detailed and carefully planned interiors when they entered "The Palace".
The theater has seen its good days and its bad days. Through the 20s, 30s and 40s, the theater hosted a plethora of famous artists and acts such as Ziegfield Follies featuring Fanny Brice, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Amos and Andy, Houdini, Betty Davis, Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds, Imogene Coco, The Gene Autry Show, Elvis Presley and, yes, even Frank Sinatra, to name a few. Crowds would attend in staggering numbers.
On October 4, 1940, the Palace even hosted the World Premier movie: "Knute Rockne: All American" starring Ronald Regan as George Gipp ("The Gipper"), Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope, Jane Wyman, Kate Smith and Pat OBrien as Knute Rockne. Twenty-four hundred people enjoyed the premier inside the theater and twenty-four thousand gathered outside the theater with the hope to catch a glimpse of the big stars.
But with the advent of television, Uncle Milte and the nightly news became family rituals and low attendance records at the theater threatened the livelihood of the Palace. In 1959, the board of the Palace Theatre voted to demolish.
Later that same year; however, the theater was saved from the wrecking ball by local philanthropist and lover of the arts, Mrs. Ella M. Morris. Mrs. Morris purchased the Palace for an undisclosed sum and sold the building to the city for $1. After a $15,000 facelift the Palace Theatre soon re-opened and, in recognition of Mrs. Morris’s valiant efforts, was officially renamed the Morris Civic Auditorium.
The ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s brought the "Morris Civic" such top-rated acts as Louis Armstrong, Betty Grable in "Hello Dolly," Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, Stevie Wonder, Jerry Lee Lewis, REO Speedwagon, The Eagles, Bachman Turner Overdrive, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Loretta Lynn, Fleetwood Mac, Foghat, Ted Nugent, Judas Priest, Freddie Fender, B.B. King, Eddie Money, George Thorogood, Hootie and the Blowfish and many more!
An average of approximately 60 events per year were held on the Morris Stage. Its primary presenters being Broadway Theater League and the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. And, in October of 1993 the Morris Civic Auditorium would again be the chosen venue to host a second World Premier movie: "Rudy" starring Sean Astin as Daniel E. “Rudy” Ruettiger, Jon Favreau and Ned Beatty.
However, as the years went by, time was not kind to the Morris. This time, the Board of Directors for Morris Entertainment, Inc. (formerly, South Bend Entertainment, Inc.) jumped into action and began a lengthy planning and fundraising process, collecting donations from both private and corporate donors to bring the theater back to life. The Morris closed in May of 1998 and began a complete $17 million restoration and renovation. On March 3, 2000, the Morris Theater held its spectacular grand re-opening and once again had a new name: the Morris Performing Arts Center.
The newly restored Morris Theater boasted a brand-new, state-of-the-art stage house and the interiors were restored to their original 1921 splendor. Among the many updates to the theater, the auditorium stage was expanded and the theater seating capacity was increased to 2,564 seats.
The Morris Bistro Restaurant was added to lower level of the Morris Performing Arts Center in 2003. And, in 2005, after raising another $750,000 in capital funds, the crowning jewel of the Morris was added – the Magnificent Morris Marquee! Custom designed by Wagner Electric Sign Company and installed by North American Signs, the State-of-the-Art, computer-controlled, full color, electronic marquee with LED display boards, shines in all its glory to over 50,000 drivers and their passengers each day. The Prostar® display board on the front of the marquee is over 39 feet wide and 3-1/2 feet tall while the Galaxy® display boards on the sides of the marquee are nearly 11 feet wide and 3-1/2 feet tall.
Since re-opening in 2000, the Morris Performing Arts Center has brought in top acts from around the country such as Jerry Seinfeld, Trace Adkins, Ann Murray, Casting Crowns, Stomp, George Carlin, Johnny Lang, David Copperfield, Riverdance, Harry Connick, Jr. Carlos Mencia, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Jethro Tull, Counting Crows, Cheech and Chong, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Jeff Dunham, Blue Man Group, Robin Williams, The Nutcracker, Straight No Chaser, John Mellencamp, Darius Rucker, The Avett Brothers, Daniel Tosh and the list goes on! The Morris has had an average of 90 shows per year on, including a Broadway Season, a Symphony Season, Children’s, Country, Rock, Christian and Comedy performances.
Currently, the Morris Performing Arts Center has 14 Commercial Promoters and hosts three Resident Producing companies including the Broadway Theatre League of South Bend, Inc., South Bend Symphony Orchestra and Southhold Dance Theater.
An award winning theater, a beloved landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and South Bend, Indiana’s Premiere Venue for Live Entertainment, the Morris is consistently listed among the Top 100 Theaters Worldwide by Pollstar Magazine, has been given Prime Site Awards in multiple years by Facilities Magazine.
In addition to national ratings, the Morris has been given the Reader’s Choice Award, in various categories, by the South Bend Tribune - voted on by South Bend Tribune Readers, every year since 2003. And, the Morris has earned further recognition in WNDU Viewers’ Choice Award for favorite concert venue.
These rankings help to, both, attract new business and support continued business from promoters, agents and artists throughout the country resulting in a positive, multi-million dollar impact for the City of South Bend.
And, we are happy to add, the Morris Performing Arts Center was awarded the prestigious national 2015 Outstanding Historic Theatre Award by League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT).
So come take a tour or see a show and be part of the fabulous history of the Magnificent Morris! We’re holding a seat just for you.