Growing up, there was always music around Roxana Rozsa Lorton’s home. It was only natural, part heritage and part pedigree.
“My father taught for the Graduate School of Music at The University of Tulsa for 36 years,” says Lorton, who with husband Robert Eugene Lorton make up one of Oklahoma’s leading philanthropic couples.
“He composed, conducted, played organ and piano – most things, really.”
Bela Rozsa, Roxana’s father, was far more than a music professor. He was mentor and inspiration to generations of students, a beloved figure to thousands of TU graduates and others now spread around the world, and one of the stones in the foundation of the university’s storied musical heritage.
Bela himself was son of a famed musician, Hungarian opera star Lajos Sandor Rozsa, and Bela attended Liszt Academy in Budapest. The family moved to New York City in 1922, where the elder Rozsa was welcomed into the Metropolitan Opera and the junior Rozsa into the Institute of Musical Art, which later became the Juilliard School.
When Lajos Rozsa passed away tragically soon afterward, Bela went on to take care of he and his mother by working as a pianist at a silent movie house. He later graduated Juilliard, worked as a staff pianist and organist at NBC before going on to earn multiple degrees and teaching in Texas and Iowa before landing at TU.
“Instead of Hollywood, he went the academic route,” Roxana Lorton says.
Roxana went her own route at TU, studying journalism and art, and thoroughly bonding with the university.
“It was like a family when I was there for my four years because the professors and faculty all knew me,” Lorton says. “It was a great experience.”
Driven by her love of the arts, Lorton would go on to become the first female president of the Tulsa Philharmonic and to hold ranking positions with the Philbrook and Gilcrease museums, among numerous other positions in arts and culture.
While establishing a legacy both through family and an immense footprint on the development of TU, Bela Rozsa wasn’t able to see all of his dreams for the university actualized. One goal – a sizable performance center – remained elusive.
“I remember we were trying to build a performance center as far back as the 1950s,” Lorton says.
This month, thanks to the hard work and dedication of many – from TU faculty to a talented creative team, to a host of charitable donors who contributed to an exceedingly brisk campaign championed by Robert and Roxana Lorton – that longtime ambition reaches fruition. With a grand gala event on Sept. 15, the Roxana Rozsa and Robert Eugene Lorton Performance Center opens its doors to a university and community that have been clamoring for it for decades.
“The night of the opening will be exhilarating,” Lorton says. “I know I am going to cry.”
The introduction of the Lorton PC also represents the latest milestone in the colorful history of music and the performing arts at TU – which have, in turn, strongly influenced the university and the entire northeast Oklahoma community.
Although TU’s music program wasn’t officially approved until 1922, the university – then known as Henry Kendall College and situated in “Indian Country” – received broad recognition as far back as 1896 when it formed a male quartet, which was featured in the Muskogee Times’ Thanksgiving edition a year later.
“In 1907, two of our original 11 employees were music instructors,” says Steadman Upham, president of TU. “The Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and Tulsa Philharmonic emerged from TU’s University Symphony Orchestra.”
In the 1920s, following its launch, the music program experienced a period of rapid growth, spearheaded by Albert Lukken as department head. An effort championed by Tulsa oilman Harry Tyrrell led to several new additions to the university campus including the Tyrrell Fine Arts Building (now known as Tyrrell Hall), which was dedicated in 1930.
However, it was a couple of other initiatives during that era that launched the music program into the hearts and minds of many Tulsans. Lukken championed the creation of the annual Starlight Concerts to bring music and a little joy into the community. The extremely inexpensive after-dark concerts at Skelly Field attracted students, faculty and members of the community and included performances by musicians from student to professional.
Around the same time the originators of the Starlight events began sponsoring operas in the school, culminating – many would later say – in the 1933 outdoor world premier of Aida. It was a Herculean production that brought together talent not just from TU and from the larger community, but from as far away as Chicago and New York. Carlo Edwards, impresario from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, arrived to serve as artistic executive. Local participation ranged from Central High School’s chorus to church singers, music teachers and dance instructors. The end result was a legendary performance, demonstrating the allure and power of opera in even the darkest of times – as well as the viability of and support for the performing arts in Tulsa.
Lukken led the effort for accreditation from the National Association of the Schools of Music in 1940, and in 1954 the School of Music was formalized.
Subsequent leaders and administrations continued to advance the role of music at TU. A pop chorale and modern choir were formed, and students garnered exposure on KVOO. Programs in the School of Music were added, expanded and all the while Tyrrell Hall served as an admirable (and acoustically solid) home base.
But hope for and promise of a larger stage developed, and later the hope for a facility that could house the university’s entire Film Studies department, was born.
“There is one faculty member who has now retired, who claimed that when he was hired he was told that there would be a new (performance center),” says College of Art & Sciences Dean Tom Benediktson.
In a spring “trial concert,” Benediktson says graduating seniors had a chance to perform in the Lorton PC and faculty had the chance to experience the two-floor, 700-plus capacity theater.
“We had a chance to hear the acoustics, and they were good,” Benediktson says.
State of the art technology abounds in the theater itself, from sound and lighting to a ballet floor, hydraulic orchestra pit.
Architect Chris Chivetta of Hastings + Chivetta, a firm that specializes in campus architecture, says that the theater is well designed for multi-purpose use.
“It’s unique in that its acoustics are designed for a variety of uses,” Chivetta says. “Usually universities choose music, vocal or stage, but TU wanted to have all three and had very high standards to meet.”
Chivetta says that isn’t the only uncommon aspect of the Lorton PC.
“TU had an interesting approach in that they wanted a world class performing arts venue but also wanted the PC to support their academic mission,” he says.
The Lorton PC is more than just the newest arts venue in Tulsa.
“We will have both Film Studies and Music housed in the building and the two will be able to work together as never before,” Benediktson says.
The PC will house offices for both schools, specialized rehearsal and practice rooms, classrooms, seminar rooms, two recital halls, a film production suite and many more amenities.
For film students and faculty, the Lorton PC will provide an important first.
“We’ll all be together, finally, in once space,” says Joseph Rivers, chair of the department of Film Studies.
“We have been scattered in several buildings – both students and faculty. We have a community of film students but it’s been scattered around. This is a wonderful opportunity to create a community in which to collaborate and share ideas.”
Rivers sees other advantages as well, such as newer, better equipment for film editing and a post-production lab.
“The film scoring lab is right nearby,” Rovers points out. “It will be a unique opportunity for music and film to work collaboratively.”
In fact, Benediktson says that potential collaboration between music and film and new equipment could have greater ramifications still for the university.
“We’ve applied for accreditation for a new cooperative program between music and film,” he says.
Rivers says that the new facilities will permit more screenings and festivals as well.
“In the future I think we will have more significant film festivals that go beyond the university and connect us to the larger film and general communities,” Rivers says.
Administration and faculty also recognize that the Lorton PC could be an important recruiting tool. Benediktson points out the frequency of students visiting their potential universities, meeting with faculty and touring facilities. The Lorton PC would be a clear advantage to film and music students as well as those for whom a vibrant collegiate arts community is important.
“We’ve taken many students on tours, and they have been impressed,” Rivers says.
The realization of the dream that is the Lorton PC was not an easy or inexpensive process, drawing both on leadership and a community of givers. Robert and Roxana Lorton are quick to credit the greater philanthropic community for what amounts to a spectacular campaign in the midst of the nation’s worst economic environment in almost a century.
“We have had some really wonderful people,” Robert Lorton says.
He says he had to be talked into heading the capital campaign.
“My brother, Fulton Collins, conned us into taking on a second campaign,” quips Robert Lorton. “Our only requirement was that the campaign had to be five years.”
The Lorton family, longtime owners of the Tulsa World, has a long history of supporting TU. In fact, Lorton says he remembers well the opening of the campus’s Lorton Hall, which is still an important academic venue today.
With the five-year period expired this summer, the results were impressive.
“The goal we set at a board retreat was a stretch at $400 million,” Robert Lorton says. “We raised more than $650 million.”
“It is remarkable that our Embrace the Future Campaign ended more than 60 percent over its goal – and during an economic downturn, no less,” says Upham. Robert Lorton, like Roxana, is a TU alumnus. Many other board members, he points out, are not.
“We developed a board that represents the leadership of the Tulsa community,” he says.
In turn, the performance center “provides a place for the university to interact with the community,” he says.
When Ellen Adelson audited a few courses at TU in the 1980s, it was the start of a long-term relationship with the university.
“I was struck by the richness of the library and particularly the rare books collection,” she says.
She’s been involved in campus social, philanthropic and intellectual life ever since. She and husband Dr. Stephen Adelson were among key contributors to the university’s campaign.
“As donors, we’re always thanked, but I feel like, no, don’t thank us,” Adelson says. “We’re constantly learning, being challenged and making lifelong connections. We get excited by new ideas and by new opportunities. We had a very emotional involvement (with the campaign) – we had an investment of pride.”
Peter and Nancy Meinig, like the Adelsons, are key philanthropic supporters who did not actually graduate from TU.
“We’re active Cornell alumni,” says Peter Meinig, who has been a TU board member for almost two decades.
“We have a strong belief in higher education and believe a strong TU is good for the city.”
Nancy Meinig says their participation in this campaign was driven by their support of the arts in general.
“We thought this was a big need on campus, that TU needs a facility like this,” she says. “We’re happy to support it because we feel the value of the arts. Also a 700-seat theater fills a niche in the city.”
Through hard work, dedication and commitment, campaign leaders and donors recognize the historic nature of the Lorton PC opening.
“This has been talked about for so many years, and it just couldn’t get going,” Adelson says. “This is the fulfillment of a longtime ambition.”
Robert Lorton says that conventional wisdom might assert that after the success of the long campaign, “we’d take a breath and feel a bit of a letdown.
“But nope,” he adds. “I feel exhilarated. It’s done but it’s a stepping stone to carry us to the future and TU has nothing but an upward trajectory.”
Thanks to a generous greater Tulsa community of givers, it is a trajectory that will be marked each step of the way, with music filling the hearts – and lives – of many.