The Mabel Shaw Bridges Music Auditorium is the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Appleton Shaw Bridges as a memorial to their daughter Mabel, who died in 1907 at the age of 22 while a student at Pomona College. When it was built in 1931 at a cost of $600,000, it provided seating for some 2,500 persons. The auditorium opened in 1932 with Artur Rodzinski conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, a performance that led to a continuing association between the orchestra and The Claremont Colleges.
The auditorium was designed by architect William Templeton Johnson. Conceptually, it is as a free adaptation of Northern Italian Renaissance architecture. Johnson toured the leading concert houses of Europe before drawing his plans. Its great white columns, vaulting arches and massive wooden doors provide an imposing entrance. The foyer is grand but warm with soft lights, hand-painted coffered ceiling and Carrara marble columns.
The building he created was widely regarded as the finest hall in Southern California and quickly became one of the area's major cultural assets. The Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects presented a Certificate of Honor to the colleges in 1933 for the "exceptional merit" of the building.
Presiding over it all, brilliant in indirect lighting, is Giovanni (John) Smeraldi's 22,000-square-foot ceiling, depicting the signs of the zodiac in blue, silver and gold. It rises 55 feet above the auditorium floor and spans 120 feet with no inside supports. Within, the hall is aesthetically and acoustically gratifying. A 500-seat balcony cantilevers over the main floor without visually obstructive posts. The auditorium has some 60,000 square feet of inside floor space, 14,000 square feet of porches and walks, and a 90-by-40-foot stage with 62-foot proscenium opening. When Bridges was built, it provided 2,581 seats. After its renovation in 1975, it had 2,497 seats. Current seating accommodates about 2,494 people.
Smeraldi's ceiling has continued to intrigue visitors, including astronomer Dr. E.C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory, who photographed the ceiling in August 1998. While the position of the stars is fanciful, with neither significance nor astronomical integrity, it inspires interest and awe. The constellations depicted include Aries (ram), Orion (hunter), Taurus (bull), Gemini (twins), Cancer (crab), Pisces (fish), Triangulum (triangle), Pegasus (flying horse), Ursa Major (bear) and Draco (dragon). The wide band across the ceiling represents the Milky Way.
From that beginning, the idea was to create something more than just a building; over the decades since, it has become a statement of faith, foresight and imagination more eloquent than the countless thousands of words that have been written in its praise. It has become a symbol of The Claremont Colleges and one of the most photographed buildings in Southern California.
Over the past 86 years of service, the auditorium has seen such artists and personalities as Amelia Earhart, Andres Segovia, Steve Martin, Lily Pons, Fritz Kreisler, Marian Anderson, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Henry Fonda, Ella Fitzgerald, Martha Graham, Beverly Sills, John Charles Thomas, Muhammad Ali, Benny Goodman, Chuck Mangioni, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Yehudi Menuhin, Eve Curie, Sandra Day O'Connor, Hillary Clinton, President Bill Clinton, James Earl Jones, Dave Chappelle, Carlos Mencia, Lewis Black, Russell Peters and Bono. Great symphony orchestras, distinguished operatic companies, and celebrated personalities in the dramatic arts and entertainment fields make a list that defines the best in arts and culture for the better part of the 20th century.
Also performing in concert at Bridges Auditorium have been many of the popular bands of the day. Among them are Fiona Apple, Morrissey, Dave Matthews, Violent Femmes, Third Eye Blind, Gavin DeGraw, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Black Eyed Peas and Cocteau Twins. Rehearsal space has been provided for others, including White Zombie, Stone Temple Pilots, and House of Blues "Barn Burner Four."
Bridges Auditorium continues to be one of Southern California's premier college venues for the best in music, theatre and performing arts.