The Morris Theater, originally called the Palace Theatre until the late 1950s, was built in 1922 as part of the Orpheum Theatre chain. 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 at that time.
In the early days, it served as a vaudeville house and vaudeville shows ran continuously with a new act every ten minutes. Patrons could get admission for only 22 cents and enjoyed 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. The Palace also presented serial photo plays (silent films), which were the soap operas of their day. The audience kept 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 dominated and not one single 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, patrons entered intricately detailed and carefully planned interiors when they entered “The Palace”.
The theater has seen its good and bad days. Through the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the theater hosted a plethora of famous artists and acts like: Ziegfield Follies ft. 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 even Frank Sinatra. Crowds would attend in staggering numbers.
On October 4, 1940, the Palace 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. Two-thousand 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 a family ritual and low attendance records at the theater threatened the livelihood of the Palace. In 1959, the board of the Palace Theatre voted to demolish it.
Later that same year, the theater was saved 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 top-rated acts like: 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, with the primary presenters being Broadway Theater League and South Bend Symphony Orchestra. 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.
As years went by, time was not kind to the Morris. The Board of Directors for Morris Entertainment, Inc. (formerly, South Bend Entertainment, Inc.) quickly 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 1998 and began a $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 boasts a brand-new, state-of-the-art stage house, while 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 the lower level of the Morris Performing Arts Center in 2003. In 2005, after raising another $750,000 in capital funds, the crown jewel of the Morris was added – the Magnificent Morris Marquee! Custom designed by Wagner Electric Sign Company and installed by North American Signs. This state-of-the-art, computer-controlled, full color, electronic marquee with LED display boards, shines in all its glory to over 50,000 drivers 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.
Currently, the Morris Performing Arts Center plays host to three resident producing companies including the Broadway Theatre League of South Bend, Inc., South Bend Symphony Orchestra and Southhold Dance Company.
A listed landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and South Bend, the Morris is consistently listed among the Top 100 Theaters Worldwide by Pollstar Magazine. The Morris has also received the national 2015 Outstanding Historic Theatre Award by the League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) for demonstrated excellence in community impact, quality of programs and services, and quality of physical restoration.