FORT WORTH, TEX. -- Most people in this "boots and spurs" town, as Ted Cue puts it, prefer music performances at which they can holler and stamp their feet. A symphony generally is no foot-stompin' affair, and Cue, 72, believes that he and other traditionalists have won an important battle for Fort Worth's Western soul.
"The symphony and ballet . . . . We've already got places for those things," said Cue, whose Committee for the Preservation of Will Rogers Auditorium led the recent fight against the city's plans to reconstruct the vintage 1930s building.
The city asked voters to approve a $20 million bond issue to convert the art-deco building's dilapidated interior into a modern multi-performance area with superior acoustic design. Fifty-seven percent of the voters said no.
"Anything named Will Rogers has a very dear spot in the hearts of most people here and, when they started talking about demolishing it, people rose up in anger," said Cue, who is semiretired from his trucking company.
"There's a lot of ordinary people like myself who have their emotions invested in the auditorium," he said of the building erected in 1936 to commemorate the Texas Centennial. "I watched my two sons walk across that stage and receive their high school diplomas" in 1959 and 1963. "It's our heritage they're wanting to bulldoze."
The newly designed auditorium, Cue said, was "not going to be anything but a $20 million cocktail lounge for the rich and famous" that would "completely alienate the common people."
Gilson Riecken, planning director for the Fort Worth Cultural District, winced at such words. "These charges of elitism are ridiculous," he said, adding that Cue and his supporters "honestly don't understand how many people would really use the hall." He said the traditional facade would have remained untouched by the proposed work.
To advocates of rebuilding, the bond election last month was important to developing the local performing-arts scene. But voters, who had expressed anger in newspaper letters about a possible budget deficit, high crime rates and potholes, sent the City Council a message about priorities.
Contingent on approval of the bond issue, private donors had pledged $30 million for additional work on the auditorium and other performance spaces in the city. That offer was withdrawn after the election.
Riecken said the private match "was a particularly good offer" and added, "I don't know that we'll be able to put together this favorable a package again." Meanwhile, the auditorium is in limbo, a symbol of the tug-of-war over the city's identity.
"What happened was that one day the Bass brothers were sitting around having lunch and they decided, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have a place for the symphony to play?' " Cue recounted. Fort Worth's billionaire Bass brothers -- Sid, Edward, Robert and Lee -- control a diverse empire ranging from oil and gas holdings to hotels and real estate. Active for years in Fort Worth's arts community, the family had pledged part of the $30 million private offer.
"This time, the people said 'no' to the Basses" and other wealthy citizens, Cue said. "The will of the people triumphed."
The auditorium is part of the Will Rogers Memorial Center, which includes the Will Rogers Coliseum. To save money and meet Centennial deadlines, much of the planned ornamentation was struck from the original plans, although the auditorium's art-deco character survives in such details as glass brick and stairway railings of tubular chrome.
A popular feature is the colorful tile mosaic across the top of the buff-colored facade of brick and limestone. Depicting scenes from Texas lore, the mosaic shows Spanish conquistadors astride prancing horses, men picking cotton and cowboys branding cattle.
The building is in serious disrepair. Wire mesh has been strung across the ceiling to catch falling tiles. Torn velvet curtains and musty carpeting in the lobby abet a dank smell.
Compared with other buildings in the 950-acre area known as the cultural district, the Will Rogers complex seems old-fashioned. Across the street is the Kimbell Art Museum, designed by Louis Kahn. It is framed by sleek white arches, and wide outdoor pools suggest a feeling of movement absent from the monolithic yellow-brick auditorium and coliseum.
Other nearby buildings, such as the William E. Scott Theatre, are similarly modern in design, with minimal ornamentation along their clean white lines.
Cosmetic considerations aside, the auditorium's physical layout, designed to segregate patrons by race, is an obstacle to modern uses, according to supporters of the bond issue. Riecken described as inefficient use of space such anachronistic features as separate ticket counters for whites and blacks and closed stairways leading to an oversized balcony for "coloreds."
Vestiges of Fort Worth's segregationist past are historic but inappropriate in a modern public building, Riecken said. To illustrate his point, he lifted a glass ladies' restroom sign from its wall mount. Holding the cracked and dusty glass at an angle, he pointed to the faint outline of the word "colored" obliterated by paint above "ladies."
"When the sign is lighted up, you can still see the 'colored,' " Riecken said. "What strikes me about this is that no one ever bothered to get a new sign. They thought just painting over the word would be enough."
There has been enough "painting over" on Will Rogers Auditorium, Riecken said. "We had hoped to come in and do it right. We wanted a world-class facility where we could hold such events as the Van Cliburn piano competition. Now we've just got, well, a disaster.
"Cue and those people think we want to kick out . . . all the high school graduations," he added. "We don't. That's what's unique about Fort Worth," Riecken said, noting that professional football star Herschel Walker performed with the Fort Worth ballet last year and that the coliseum next door regularly hosts cutting-horse and calf-roping competitions.
"We're not snobs," he said, citing "a great mixing" of cultures.