College Sports

Municipal Auditorium, 80 years after doors opened, is rich in sporting history

The day after Stanford and All-American Hank Luisetti defeated Central Missouri at Municipal Auditorium, The Kansas City Times proved prophetic.

That game, played few days before Christmas in 1936, was the first sporting event in the new building.

“As the years roll by and new Municipal Auditorium becomes rich in sporting history, chances are the basket ball fans who witnessed the debut of the cage sport in the Hall will turn to the younger follows of the game and say, ‘What a show that Hank Luisetti put on.’”

Luisetti scored 21 points, and maybe those in attendance later recalled the performance as being among the best they’d seen. But Municipal becoming rich in sporting history is unequivocally true.

Look at all the activities, performances and gatherings it has seen … and still sees today.

The NCAA crowned nine men’s basketball champions in Municipal, more than any other building. Bill Russell won his first title there. So did John Wooden.

The NCAA moved on long ago, but the NAIA Tournament, running at the venerable venue through Tuesday, remains. So does the MIAA men’s and women’s championships. UMKC plays there, making the 10,000-seat, city-owned-and-operated arena one of the oldest home courts in college basketball.

Not to mention the most ornate, with its art deco stylings, artwork and carvings in and on the arena, Music Hall and Little Theatre all under the same roof.

“For most of our teams, our student-athletes, they come to downtown and walk into a historic building,” NAIA president Jim Carr said. “It grabs your attention on the outside and inside.”

Unlike today’s arenas, sports weren’t the primary focus when the idea of a building to replaced aged Convention Hall was hatched in 1931 as part of the city’s 10-year plan and a flurry of downtown construction.

In the early years of the Great Depression, voters overwhelmingly passed a $40 million bond program. And up went 29-story City Hall, the Jackson County courthouse, a downtown airport expansion, the zoo, a hospital … and Municipal Auditorium.

Some $6.5 million was assigned to the auditorium’s construction. Designed by Gentry, Voskamp and Neville and associated architects Hoit, Price and Barnes, Municipal was built with no pillars. The ceiling measured 92 feet from the floor in part to accommodate circus trapeze artists.

Municipal was dedicated on Oct. 13, 1936, with President Franklin Roosevelt as the keynote speaker. That year, Architectural Record called it “one of the 10 best buildings in the world.”

It was easily one of the most unique, with its many ramps, staircases and inclines. Early stories about Municipal mentioned people getting turned around and lost, including a guest lecturer who was supposed to speak on politics in the Music Hall. He was said to have left that area and decided to return through another entrance.

He traversed the building and wound up in the arena at a dinner given by a poultry association group. “We don’t need any speeches here,” he was told.

It wasn’t unusual to have multiple events occurring simultaneously: the auto show in the exhibition hall, a concert in the Music Hall, a basketball game in the arena, all with patrons parked in the garage across 13th Street and entering the building through a tunnel below the street.

Here is where the building begins to step out of the traditional character of a sports arena and into something much more stylish.

Entering from street level or below, Municipal feels like the lobby of art museum, with marble walls and art deco signage.

At the top of the Music Hall’s grand staircase is a mural entitled, “Mnemosyne and the Four Muses.” It was painted by Ross Braught. A series of four floor-to-wall murals outside the hall’s entrances depict the four seasons and changes of life. They were completed by Walter Bailey, a Kansan who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute with Thomas Hart Benton.

There are no guided tours of the building, but curiosity seekers still find it irresistible.

“There was a couple here during the MIAA Tournament who told me they always try to come in early and walk through the Music Hall because it’s a great old space,” said Steve Lesher, Municipal’s senior event manager.

Check out the zodiac signs on the ceiling of the Little Theatre and the classic themed medallions on the Municipal façade, created by Albert Stewart in 1934.

“It’s just a super-cool old building,” Lesher said.

Basketball was well entrenched in the Kansas City sports scene by the Depression years, with the national AAU tournament here in the 1920s and 1930s and the game growing in popularity on area college campuses.

This was especially true at Kansas, where the game’s inventor, James Naismith, taught physical education, and one of the sports’ most influential forces, Phog Allen, coached the Jayhawks.

But when it came to filling Municipal with basketball events in the early years, and showcasing the building to national audiences, George Goldman proved to be the right person at the right time.

A former city councilman and standout amateur basketball player with the Kansas City Athletic Club, Goldman merged those backgrounds upon becoming Municipal’s first director.

“His job as director was not to run the facility,” said Mick Lerner, an Overland Park attorney and Goldman’s great nephew. “It was to attract anything possible to fill up the auditorium and to promote whatever attractions he brought.”

Fill it he did. Games, performances, trade shows, dances, balls, meetings, community events — Municipal in its heyday was attracting 2 million customers a year.

Lerner remember seeing the Kingston Trio perform there and watching Clyde Lovellette and KU at the Big Seven basketball tournament. One of the most famous concerts occurred in 1956, when Elvis Presley played for 20 minutes before fleeing when teenage girls rushed the stage.

But basketball was Municipal’s national calling card. Goldman had been a star some 25 years before Municipal opened, the best player in Kansas City, according to newspapermen who followed the hoops scene.

That experience helped Goldman make the contacts he needed to assist in creation of the NAIA Tournament, which debuted with eight teams in 1937. The event remains the nation’s oldest continuous national college tournament, having returned to Municipal after spending time at Kemper Arena and in Tulsa, Okla.

The NCAA Tournament, now playing through its opening week across the country, also discovered its popularity in Municipal.

The first NCAA title game in 1939 was played on Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Ill., and lost $2,500. Why play another one and compete against the better-organized NIT in New York City, college officials asked?

Phog Allen promised the NCAA a sellout crowd and profit if the second attempt at a national final was staged at Municipal. And he delivered. It helped that his Jayhawks played in the game, which filled all 10,000 seats and turned a $9,500 profit after expenses.

In all, nine men’s teams walked out of Municipal as NCAA champions. The building has been the site for men’s and women’s regionals at the NCAA level and played host to perhaps the most famed high school game in Kansas City history, Central’s double-overtime victory over Raytown High and star Tyronn Lue, now the Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coach. The game was played in 1995 before an over-capacity crowd estimated at 11,000.

The biggest college game beyond the NCAA titles? Probably 1964, when Rockhurst defeated favored Texas-Pan American and Lucious Jackson for the NAIA championship in a building so full, hundreds of fans who couldn’t score tickets stood outside during the action.

Municipal was home to the Kansas City Steers of the short-lived American Basketball League and later the Kansas City-Omaha Kings of the NBA for two seasons while Kemper Arena was being built.

Over the years, boxing, wrestling, roller derby, track, tennis and ice skating have taken place in the building.

Some 10 arenas used as college basketball home floors are as old or older than Municipal. Places like the Palestra in Philadelphia and Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis deserve their reputations as charmed hoop cathedrals.

But there may not be a more grand civic building, and one so visually appealing, with an accent on basketball, than Municipal Auditorium.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff