The Morris Performing Arts Center, 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.
In the early days, it served as a vaudeville house and shows ran continuously with a new act every ten minutes. Patrons could get admission for only 22 cents! 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.
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 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. With many different architectural styles including Baroque, Spanish Renaissance, Greco-Roman and even a little Art Deco..
Through the 1920s – 1940s, the theater hosted famous artists and acts like: Ziegfield Follies ft. Fanny Brice, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Houdini, Betty Davis, Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
On October 4, 1940, the Palace hosted the world premiere movie: Knute Rockne: All American starring Pat O’Brien as Knute Rockne, Ronald Regan as George Gipp (“The Gipper”), Gale Page, Donald Crisp, Albert Bassermann, Owen Davis Jr., Nick Lukats, Kane Richmond, William Marshall and William Byrne. Nearly 2,400 people enjoyed the premiere inside the theater and 24,000 gathered outside with the hope to catch a glimpse of the movie stars.
With TV on the horizon, the nightly news became a family ritual and low attendance records at the theater threatened the livelihood of the theater. In 1959, the board 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 was officially renamed the Morris Civic Auditorium.
The 1960s – 1990s brought the Morris top-rated acts: Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, Stevie Wonder, Jerry Lee Lewis, REO Speedwagon, The Eagles, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Loretta Lynn, Fleetwood Mac, Ted Nugent, Judas Priest, B.B. King, Eddie Money, Hootie and the Blowfish and many more.
As years went by, time was not kind to the Morris. The Board of Directors for Morris 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. On March 3, 2000, the Morris held a grand re-opening with a new name: the Morris Performing Arts Center. Among the many updates to the theater, the auditorium stage was expanded and the theater seating capacity was increased to 2,564 seats.
A listed landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, the MPAC is listed among the Top 100 Theaters Worldwide by Pollstar Magazine. The MPAC 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.