Documentary bows on Hill

When I’m having a really meaningful, moving experience in Hill, I think about the people who sat in my seat before me, and I think about the people who maybe even heard the piece of music that I’m listening to—in the very seat I’m sitting in—before me. And it makes me feel connected to our past, to our community.”
Michael Kondziolka, UMS Director of Programming

Turn it up

The new documentary about Hill Auditorium, A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone, also could be called An Embarrassment of Riches. The compelling film is the product of a huge and multifaceted on-campus archive that will impress the most diehard historians and delight the most nostalgic sentimentalists.

Turn-of-the-century Ann Arbor springs to life through rarely seen film footage of the earliest performers, patrons, and University leaders who first breathed life into Hill Auditorium. Vintage stills and moving images of the fashions, the town, and the campus (including interiors of the original University Hall) are just a few of the visual treasures included in this 57-minute tribute to one of the greatest music halls in the United States. Recordings and testimonials from artists like Rosa Ponselle and Leontyne Price, and news clippings, ads, menu cards, and programs for every single event presented by the University Musical Society (UMS) since 1879 are just some of the archival elements filmmaker Sophia Kruz, BA ’11, used to tell Hill’s story.

“The scope was definitely huge,” says Kruz, who served as producer, director, editor, and co-writer on the film. “My problem was not deciding what was the very best thing to include in the film, but what to leave out.”

A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone chronicles the first 100 years at Hill Auditorium. The movie is available to Comcast Digital customers via On Demand through June, and can be streamed now at the UMS website or viewed in its entirety below. It aired on Detroit Public Television May 19.

Theme and variations

In addition to mining the plethora of supporting material available at UMS and the Bentley Historical Library, Kruz interviewed some 40 people—artists, longtime Ann Arbor residents, former Hill and UMS staffers, and current students—about their impressions of and affection for the historic venue.

“Common themes emerged that drove the storyline,” Kruz says, from how people felt in the hall to the wonderful acoustics. “And while we all have similar experiences, each person we spoke to had their own very personal and deep connection with Hill. There are a lot of ways to tell the history of the hall, but our goal was to tell the universal story of our community within the hall itself.”

Set against a century of U.S., regional, and Ann Arbor history, the film illuminates sociopolitical themes by way of classical, opera, jazz, cabaret, choral, and rock performances, as well as dance. Through it all, the viewer sees Ann Arbor and its residents transform with the times.

Jessye Norman at Hill, courtesy of UMS

Leontyne Price at Hill in 1971. (Image courtesy of UMS.)

Kruz was particularly thrilled to discover moving images of the parties at Barton Hills Country Club celebrating the earliest iterations of the UMS May Festival. The multi-day event actually opened Hill with its 20th annual celebration on May 14, 1913; it ran through May 1995. Once upon a time, the festival drew residents who would train in from points across the state, crowding the streets in a way that could be compared to the modern-day Football Saturday. But in this case, patrons were wearing long skirts and cloche hats, suits and spats.

“That visual was very striking to me,” Kruz says, “and that footage was a gold mine.”

Kruz also discovered a box of menu cards penned by hostess Alva Gordon Sink, wife of longtime UMS President Charles Sink. It was Charles Sink who brought Enrico Caruso to campus in 1919, and it was Alva Sink who ensured every visiting artist enjoyed his/her time in Ann Arbor. She kept copious notes regarding guest lists and the dishes she served to performers and dignitaries, citing which meals they favored or rejected.

“Alva was well known for her parties and connecting people,” Kruz says. “That box held a very specific record of events that is completely amazing.”

Music, magic, and a seat for everyone

Kruz, a graduate of U-M’s Department of Screen Arts and Cultures, currently is the video producer and editor at UMS, chronicling modern-day performances at Hill. Producing the documentary has given her new perspective about her own process and what she is recording today that will be of value to future historians. She’s worked on productions for E! Entertainment Television and the Clinton Global Initiative. She also worked in marketing for the PBS series “POV.”

But the documentary about Hill’s first 100 years is particularly meaningful to this alum and Ann Arbor native. When A Space for Music, A Seat for Everyone initially premiered inside Hill earlier this year, Kruz was unprepared for the emotional impact it would deliver.

“It was an incredible moment when the lights went down and the movie came up,” she says. “We were all experiencing the history of the hall in the hall itself. That was so special. So much of the film is focused on the community, and it gets you to think, ‘How many other people in the audience right now have had these same experiences?’ I didn’t realize that would be so powerful for me.”


  1. Linda Cooke - l961

    As a student at UM, I was fortunate to often usher at Hill Aud. concerts. I heard Glen Gould play Bach’s Goldberg Variations and remember that he sang quite audibly as he played which was pretty distracting. His skill and technique were amazing. Not the most exciting for an untrained ear to hear. Still memorable


  2. Nancy Kushigian - 1973

    I remember free concerts by the University Orchestra at Hill in the early 1970s. They were well attended by undergraduates, and a great way to escape from dorm life and studying at the UGLI. A magical experience in a beautiful venue, followed sometimes by a soda at Drake’s.


  3. stanley tangalakis - 1952

    Not to forget Norman Granz’ “Jazz at The Philharmonic”. These concerts were always held in non-segregated auditoriums, breaking down “Jim Crowism”, in the late post war era of the 40s.


  4. Lewis Dickens - 1964 BArch

    One can never deny the long and very rich history of Hill Auditorium. It literally lives in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people.
    When the Band was initiated on Grosse Ile in 1950 we traveled to the Auditorium on a yearly basis to listen to the competitions.
    It was stunning, particularly the long reverberation time in the upper reaches of the third balcony of the auditorium and the collection of antique musical instruments on that upper landing was stunningly beautiful. I could stare at them for hours listening to the sounds wafting through the door openings.
    Architectural acoustics was taught in the Engineering School and the course was populated with both Architects and Physicists. We were graded separately. It was a course that fascinated, me and having to buy a $64 British text at that time was astounding and it was exceptionally different from the American Text.
    Also I do remember a scene not at all unlike Dustin Hoffman’s Church scene in “the Graduate”.
    Later I had the opportunity to work with the authors and their representatives of those texts one of them being Dr. Knudsen from Berkley who studied under Dr. Sabin at Harvard who is considered the founder of Modern Acousitics having developed the formulas now commonly used. Sabin’s formula is the Gold Standard.
    There is a great body of mythology about Architectural Acoustics and some of it surprisingly has to do with visual taste and the love of history.
    There are some rules of thumb about acoustics that have developed through the years.
    One of them is that 3,000 listeners is about maximum upper limit for the best listening. And there are now reverberation time parameters that are considered to be within acceptability for fine listening.
    There is a recent myth perpetrated by one acoustician about the auditorium having to be a box. If you watch Frank Gehry on his Effort for the Disney Auditorium he tried to follow that advice.
    Very nice presentation answering some long standing questions.
    Bill Dickens,’64
    But the irony is that the Auditorium in Cincinnati, is similar to the Hill although smaller and it has some of the most wonderful acoustics in the world yet it is hemispherical and being smaller the reverberation time fits within the accepted parameters.
    The extreme reverberation time of the Hill is fascinating and much like the kids with their reverberators on their sound systems in their cars in the late sixties, there is something interesting and intriguing and compelling about excessive reverberation.
    With a disciple of the renowned British acoustician we tested The Hill, The Power Center, Orchestra Hall and the Ford Auditorium.
    Working with an engineering student from Engine School we developed 3D diagrams of the Attack/Decay curves of each. The Power Center was what might be called a disaster requiring electronic augmentation. No thought had really been given to acoustics and to be sure the Hill had the longest reverberation time of all, perhaps the longest in the world.
    I once asked Morton Gould about the experience of being a conductor and what you heard as a conductor versus what the audience hears. He said that he could never tell what the audience heard and that is considered to be the correct answer by the acousticians.
    My Dean once gave me some tickets to listen to an operatic performance and his seats were on the orchestra or main floor about seven rows back and about a third of the way in from the right side.
    For me the performance was a disaster because I spent the whole time looking at the acoustic virtual image behind the lateral wall on the right.
    I worked in a most minor way at Albert Kahn on the recent restoration of the hall with the recession of the Organ and the problem that I noticed had not been resolved.
    Hill Auditorium will remain one of America’s most renowned Auditoria.


  5. Javier Domenech

    I was a grad student for 2 years in 1993-1995. Concerts were a great part of my Michigan Experience. I couldn’t believe the quality of offered at great prices for students. I particularly remember The Romeros, Christopher Parkening, Paco de Lucia and Leo Kotke at Rackham (yes, I play guitar, actually Joe Pass was scheduled with Paco and Leo in a flamenco jazz blues encounter but Joe got ill and passed away shortly after). I also attended NY Philarmonic, Frederica von Stade, and Ute Lemper, among other great concerts.


  6. Greg Heuer - 1969

    A wonderful video and history. While we understand the UMS focus, it was unfortunate to omit the performances of the Michigan Bands.


  7. Joan Barber

    Thanks so much for the great doc on Hill Auditorium. Joan Barber, Class of ’68


  8. Anne Wolfe

    What a wonderful history and great memories. I was happy to see at the very end a bow by Vladimir Horowitz, who I saw in at Hill in 1979. Such flawless musicianship, grace, humility, charm…and what a splendid platform to display it. I was a grad student in ’79 when I got a job as an usher at Hill. Seeing and hearing Horowitz was a privilege that came with the job — and one that I had not bargained for. What music! Being in the presence of of something historic like that–though I had not heard of him before — was magical. Thank you for reminding me, and showing me what a cavalcade of greatness there has been at Hill Auditorium. This movie is a fantastic review of Hill’s performances and history of how it was bought to fruition. My memory of watching Horowitz make magic on the piano will always stand out in my mind. I followed up by buying a season ticket one year and driving two and a half to three hours there and back several times for the wonderful music. It was worth it.


  9. Karen Lewis - 1965, 1968

    I think I paid one dollar to hear Robert Frost read at Hill Auditorium. And I was lucky to be invited to Handel’s Messiah one spring. Both were amazing experiences. I don’t return to Ann Arbor often these days, but when I do, I find a few minutes to sit on Hill’s steps in the warm sunshine and reminisce


  10. Alex Krezel - 1968 and 1973

    When I think of the fantastic advantages I enjoyed growing up in Ann Arbor, it’s amazing how many of them involved Hill Auditorium, which drew into my world the best the rest of the world had to offer. My mother ushered at Hill in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, before I was born, and she had some great stories to tell about that part of Hill Auditorium’s history. Although many of the events I attended at Hill were UMS offerings – primarily from 1964 through 1973 – many were not, and many were not even concerts. My earliest memories of Hill were the Christmas programs for Ann Arbor’s school children in the early 1950s and the annual Christmas performances of Handel’s Messiah. I also remember how huge the May Festival was each year, with Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and other luminaries such as Aaron Copland coming to Ann Arbor; it’s a shame that couldn’t continue. I remember how scandalized some citizens of Ann Arbor were when University professors were seen dancing in the aisles of Hill during a Louis Armstrong appearance in 1960; the concerts by pop icons such as John Denver and Tina Turner; and Ann Arbor’s deeply moving celebration at Hill of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. My own graduation from Ann Arbor High School took place at Hill in 1964, and I also was part of UofM Television Center crews that video taped various large meetings held at Hill in the 1960s. Through the UMS, I attended concerts, opera, and ballet and other dance performances. Some of my experiences at Hill during those years that made the greatest impression on me were seeing Marian Anderson in the penultimate performance of her career; watching a Rostropovich cello performance from the third row and feeling his perspiration shower down upon us as he totally threw himself into his performance; and experiencing the audience’s delight when the Moscow State Orchestra played the theme song from the TV show “The F.B.I.” as an encore. At Hill I also learned the importance of knowing when a piano was going to be involved so I could be sure to sit on the keyboard side. Since I left Ann Arbor in 1973, I have never again found a place that has even come close to rivaling Hill as a venue of unbelievably varied and rewarding life experiences.


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