BY TOM LAVIS
When the ground was broken in the late 1980s to build Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center, it was predicted to be the crown jewel of the Johnstown arts scene.
It unquestionably has lived up to the hype.
The facility on the Pitt-Johnstown campus boasts a state-of-the-art lighting system, vibrant acoustics and breathtaking architecture.
But the structure was a long time coming until developer and philanthropist Frank Pasquerilla generously donated millions of dollars to make it a reality.
Lacked cultural center
Founded in 1927, Pitt-Johnstown lacked an adequate performance facility for activities other than those suited for a gymnasium.
Anytime a performance or exhibition was scheduled, lecture halls, classrooms, cafeterias and a cavernous gym were used.
The construction of a performance arts center had been discussed for years, beginning in 1976. But other projects took priority.
In 1985, a number of things emerged that emphasized a need for a permanent solution.
There was a need for adequate facilities for the ever-expanding academic programs as well as offerings in music, theater, fine arts and communications.
There also was pressure from the community for Pitt-Johnstown to assume the position of being a cultural center for the region.
In December 1985, the late Frank Blackington III, Pitt-Johnstown president at the time, approached Pasquerilla with a proposal.
The package outlined the immediate needs for improving the university, namely a performance arts center, a student union and recreational facilities.
Mark E. Pasquerilla, son of Frank Pasquerilla and president of Pasquerilla Enterprises of Johnstown, recalled when university officials approached his father about the project and how he reacted.
“The arts meant a lot to my father,” he said.
“Growing up in Johnstown, there were a lot less opportunities for kids of that era to be exposed to the arts and he wanted to change that.”
By donating to the project, Frank Pasquerilla wanted to make a positive impact on changing the lifestyle of the community.
Since the Pasquerilla arts center opened, there has been an explosion of interest in the arts.
“Seeing the tremendous growth of the arts with the establishment of such arts centers as the Bottle Works and Art Works, the potential for growing the arts is as high as it has ever been,” Mark Pasquerilla said.
During the groundbreaking ceremony on Aug. 8, 1989, on the Pitt-Johnstown campus, Frank Pasquerilla received accolades for his $6.8 million gift.
Place for students
Pasquerilla told a crowd of 300 people that the arts center would be a place for students to work and to learn about the arts.
“It will be a place where young minds will discover new forms of expression,” he said.
“It will give this campus and this city a new lease on life.”
The Crown America Corp. board chairman and chief executive officer pledged $4 million to Pitt-Johnstown’s “Shaping the Future” capital fund drive in 1987 to build the arts center.
When the design was completed and construction bids were received and the cost doubled, Pasquerilla added $2.8 million to his original gift.
He explained that he increased his gift because he didn’t want to cut back on anything.
E. Jeanne Gleason of Westmont, executive director of the Pennsylvania Rural Arts Alliance at the time, said the new facility would become “a jewel and crown for the campus and the community.”
In reflection of her statement of more than 20 years ago, Gleason, now the vice chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts (PCA), said the arts center has done more for the performing and visual arts in the region than any other facility.
“It has been key in building audiences for not only UPJ presentations and the Johnstown Symphony, but also for local dance companies, not to mention the traveling Broadway musical productions, major dance company appearances, foreign country presentations of folk arts, classical, jazz and the list goes on,” she said.
Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, housed in the gallery, brings the highest level of fine American visual arts and crafts to the region.
“When you come to a presentation at PPAC, you really get a full arts experience,” Gleason said.
“There is something for everyone, no matter how old you are.”
She said the arts center will continue to be the region’s finest facility as long as people support the programming by buying tickets and contribute to the fundraising.
“Ticket sales pay for less than half the cost of each seat in the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center, so additional support is always a necessity,” Gleason said.
At the time of construction, people speculated the arts center was designed to resemble Crown America’s headquarters in downtown Johnstown.
UPJ officials and the architect, Damianos, Brown and Andrews Inc. of Pittsburgh, said the resemblance was purely coincidental.
“Believe it or not, the designs for the arts center were complete before the building downtown,“ Blackington said.
The arts center stands on its own.
Construction progressed with few interruptions.
The ribbon was cut on Sept. 11, 1991, by the Pasquerilla family, including Mark and his sister, Leah (Pasquerilla) McCullough.
With the slice of the ribbon, the curtain went up on the 42,000-square-foot multipurpose facility at Pitt-Johnstown.
It contains a 1,000-seat concert hall, a 200-seat black-box theater, and supporting administrative spaces.
Jem Spectar, president of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, said it has been a privilege to watch Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla’s vision of a top-flight performance center continue to provide a home for the world of lively arts for Pitt-Johnstown and the Greater Johnstown community.
“The countless artists, musicians, dancers and touring performers who have taken to the arts center’s stage imbue the space with an ambience and creative energy befitting our region’s cultural life,” he said.
Spectar is gratified to see the university’s students showcase their talents on the stage as members of the Pitt-Johnstown theater troupe.
“We are deeply honored to serve as the home of Johnstown’s cultural landmark,” he said.
The auditorium is the home of Johnstown Symphony Orchestra, Johnstown Concert Ballet, River City Brass Band, and serves as home for Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art satellite exhibitions.
People enjoy entertainment ranging from classical music to modern dance, and performances of ballet, musical theater, jazz, Shakespeare and symphony music.
The arts center was christened Sept. 29, 1991, with a sold-out performance by Russian pianist, Alex Slobodyanik.
It was a trial-run performance to the invitation-only grand opening several weeks later on Oct. 27.
The black-tie affair was a night of pageantry to celebrate the culmination of years of work and millions of dollars.
Blackington said the opening completed a journey that began as a request from Frank Pasquerilla.
$9 million center
The late Pasquerilla and his wife, Sylvia, were longtime supporters of the arts and the Pitt-Johnstown campus, contributing more than $7 million toward the $9 million center.
Prior to building Pasquerilla arts center, the philanthropist donated more than $20 million to other colleges and universities.
The Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center presents a variety of high-quality performing arts events including the Mainstage Series, Winter Jazz, Stage Door Series for children, and Pitt-Johnstown Theater Department performances.
The arts center is the envy of larger metropolitan areas.
And much of that has to do with the yearly programming.
From the Opera Festival to the symphony’s series and children’s programs, it’s a community asset that offers a quality performance package.
Mark Pasquerilla had that opportunity with the establishment of the Blackington Endowment to help Pitt-Johnstown provide a regular season of high-quality performances.
Winter Jazz series
Mark Pasquerilla is a jazz lover and he took a similar approach as his parents did with the Opera Festival when he supported the establishment of the annual Winter Jazz concert series to benefit the Blackington Endowment.
“We need young people to see different art forms because you never know if a child sees a performer like Shirley Horn, it may inspire that youngster to reach for that dream,” Pasquerilla said.
“It carries on the same idea my father had about instilling the love of the arts in kids.”
Pasquerilla sees a bright future for the arts center.
“The smartest thing the university did was to hire Mike Bodolosky as the executive director because he has a grassroots understanding of the area,” he said.
“He knows his audience and how to put people in the seats throughout each performance season.”
Air of elegance
For those who have never been inside the structure, a balcony overlooks a large lobby at the center’s entrance. A grand staircase leading to the balcony area offers a comfortable climb and an air of elegance.
An 11-by-12 foot oil and canvas artwork titled “Opening Night” hangs permanently in the lobby.
The piece was commissioned by the Pasquerilla family and was done by renowned Canadian-born artist Miriam Shapiro of New York City.
The stage and concert area rival any in the country.
The orchestra level of the auditorium seats 624 people and provides a handicapped area that accommodates four wheelchairs.
The balcony level has 376 seats. There are also private boxes for the Pasquerilla family as well as a presidential box.
A feature at the arts center is the European design of the orchestra pit.
The front portion of the stage is removable, allowing an orchestra to be seated on risers and chairs underneath the stage with only the maestro’s hands visible to the audience.
The stage floor is a series of basket weave furring strips capped with oak boards.
In theatrical vernacular, it is known as a sprung floor, which absorbs shocks, giving it a softer feel.
Computers are used to control the 190 dimmer lights and 14 houselights.
Performers are pampered as well. Spacious dressing rooms, costume rooms, 72 lockers and storage area are located in the basement.
The auditorium ceiling and walls are equipped with motorized acoustical panels and acoustical curtains.
There are also two star dressing rooms and a star suite. All the dressing rooms are equipped with an intercom system to ensure no performer misses a cue.
Along the right side of the auditorium is a 520-foot art gallery occupied by SAMA at Johnstown. At the far end of the gallery, a concession area is available.
The Black Box Theater, home of UPJ Theater Department productions, holds 250 people and boasts more stage area than its previous location.
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