Van Ellis Theatre’s History of Faculty and Student-led Construction
(ABILENE, Texas)–One of the many hidden treasures of Hardin-Simmons University hides in plain sight. In the center of campus stand Behrens Auditorium and Van Ellis Theatre (VET), a double-sided theatre complex that has earned a spot in the memories of countless HSU students due to it’s ever-changing scenery.
While Behrens is home to chapel each Tuesday morning and a variety of campus activities and gatherings throughout the year, Van Ellis is home to the HSU Theatre Department. HSU finished construction on Behrens Auditorium in 1962 after the original structure burned down in 1957. Tile flooring in both the Behrens lobby and the Van Ellis lobby remains as the last surviving piece of the original theatre.
Mr. Larry Wheeler
Mr. Larry Wheeler, head of the HSU Theatre Department, arrived on campus in 1988, when the main stage area in the VET was still a lecture hall. Wheeler, along with many theatre students, is responsible for most of the renovations within Van Ellis Theatre.
Department-led renovations have become a long-standing tradition in the VET. Students helped finish major projects, like transforming the VET’s lecture hall into a performance space, constructing a catwalk, and renovating the Down Centre Stage Lab Theatre.
When Wheeler began working at HSU, he noticed that students had constructed the theatre’s fly system: the system of ropes, pulleys, and weights used to raise and lower curtains, lights, and other hanging objects. Students had also made stage curtains from army-issued green canvas from the Korean War in the 1950s, which hung for three decades.
The Centennial Campaign in the early 1990s, which also provided funding to bring football back to HSU, provided the theatre program with a large sum to be used for renovations to Van Ellis Theatre. A portion of the funds went toward removing and disposing of the solar tiles from the front of VET. The remaining funds allowed Wheeler and a team of student workers to remove VET’s ceiling tiles to create and suspend a new catwalk in 1994
That summer, Wheeler sketched a catwalk design and sent it to a local builder. After receiving feedback, Wheeler adjusted his plan and decided that the program could save funding by constructing the catwalk themselves. Construction began at the end of HSU’s 1994 summer camps.
Wheeler instructed student workers to clear the desks from what is now audience seating in Van Ellis Theatre while he climbed into the rafters and started cutting the wires that held up the ceiling panels. Over the following week, maintenance workers cleaned the space, and a crew spray-painted the walls and rafters black.
When Wheeler and his students returned, they built a catwalk from the ceiling down. By the opening night of “Dearly Departed” in October 1994, the catwalk was complete. During the run of this production, the HSU chapter of the American Advertising Association threw a reception to honor Wheeler for his dedication to the department and VET.
Down Centre Stage Lab Theatre
In the spring of 1995, Wheeler’s attention shifted to updating the Behrens Auditorium basement, now called the Down Centre Stage Lab Theatre. After the renovations by Wheeler and his student workers, Down Centre Stage became a favorite venue for many theatre students on campus, due to the unique use of the pre-existing spaces. Students, led by Wheeler, completed the venue in time for Van Ellis Theatre’s April 1996 production of Marion De Forest’s 1911 version of “Little Women.”
“For all theatre majors, Van Ellis Theatre is like a second home and a comfortable place to be around friends,” Wheeler said. “Theatre folk are a different breed of people. Because we spend a lot of our time on stage pretending to be someone else, it is great to be around people who have had the same experiences, dealt with the same challenges, and received the same exhilaration of presenting a play to an audience. These experiences tie us together as students and faculty in a permanent way… The building itself has a lot to do with that shared experience.”
Wheeler also is responsible for the theatre department’s two prop closets, which were once a two-story room that housed the Behrens Auditorium pipe organ. The lower level of the organ room housed the console, the main body of the organ, while the upper level of the room provided space for the long pipes. The university decided to remove the organ in 1986, leaving an empty space for Wheeler to renovate.
A Legacy of Hard Work
One of the most significant contributions of Wheeler and the theatre department to the Behrens Auditorium side of the complex is the lower level of the stage. The initial stage ended further back than the one seen today, so President Emeritus Dr. Lanny Hall requested that Wheeler extend the stage in Behrens so that the chapel speakers could be closer to the audience.
Wheeler worked with another group of students to create a more permanent stage lip, where speakers now stand during chapel each week.
Wheeler deeply invests himself in the lives of his students. Starting with an empty mezzanine and a few old green couches, he created a space for students to get away from the hustle of student life.
“The building [Van Ellis] is in use for the unpopular 8 am class all the way to the completion of a late-night project at 1 or 2 in the morning,” Wheeler said. “It has become an integral part of who we are and what we do.”