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Pasadena Civic Auditorium

Pasadena Civic Auditorium

Architects: George Bergstrom, J. Cyril Bennett, Fitch Haskell

First Opened: 15th February 1932 (92 years ago)

Website: www.thepasadenacivic.com Open website in new window

Telephone: (626) 795-9311 Call (626) 795-9311

Address: 300 East Green Street, Pasadena, CA 91101 Show address in Google Maps (new window)

The Pasadena Civic Auditorium opened in February 1932, designed by the team of George Bergstrom, J. Cyril Bennett and Fitch Haskell. The huge auditorium seats 2,997. During the 1930s and 1940s the Pasadena Civic hosted numerous community events and radio broadcasts, helping to spread Pasadena’s name throughout California and across the U.S.

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Detailed Information

Civic Auditorium main facade
Civic Auditorium main façade

The Civic Auditorium was the last of three major civic center projects for the City of Pasadena, following construction of the City’s Public Library, and City Hall. Funding, to the tune of $1.3 million, came from the City’s Water & Power Department.

The exterior building is an Italian Renaissance style with the main façade set well back from Green St allowing for a large civic plaza. The building faces north, up Garfield Avenue, facing the City’s Public Library.

The interior decoration scheme is by Jess Stanton (Stanton also designed the exterior tiling), executed in a Mediterranean Revival style with Greek influences and even heraldic/castellated features on the side walls.

Civic Auditorium Interior
Civic Auditorium Interior

The auditorium’s intricately painted ceiling design is by Giovanni Smeraldi. The wide panels flanking the proscenium arch are Grecco-Roman with, in our humble opinion, a suggestion of Escher!

At its opening, the stage was reported as being second in size in California only to the stage of the Shrine Auditorium.

Opening festivities lasted a whole week, however the Auditorium was officially first opened and dedicated on 15th February 1932. Among the distinguished speakers were Dr Robert Millikan (noted physicist and Nobel Prize winner), Gilmor Brown (founder of the Pasadena Playhouse), Reginald Bland (conductor of the Pasadena Civic Orchestra) and Adolph Schleicher (founder of the Samson Tire & Rubber Company). John McGroarty, author of the “Mission Play” (successfully running at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse at the time), was an honored guest along with Mayors from more than ten Southland cities.

The 85-strong Pasadena Civic Orchestra played their inaugural concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Wednesday 17th February 1932, the second celebration of the opening week’s festivities. Prof. Albert Einstein was present for the concert along with other “dignified scientists from the California Institute of Technology”. Following the well-received concert it was reported that the Civic Auditorium had had its strictest acoustical test “and won approval on every side”.

Giovanni Smeraldi’s intricately painted ceiling
Giovanni Smeraldi’s intricately painted ceiling

Prof. Albert Einstein would return to the Civic Auditorium only weeks later, again with Dr Robert Millikan and this time adding Dr Charles Beard – a noted American historian. The event, styled as a mass student meeting involving 11 Southern California colleges and universities, was designed to give the youth of Southern California a “comprehensive view of the problems of the day, especially those concerned with international relations, peace, and good government”.

The theatre is arguably best known for being the home for the Emmy Awards from 1977 until 1997. To this day it continues to be a popular venue for TV specials and has been used for America’s Got Talent auditions every year since 2006.

The Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever Link opens in new window TV special was taped at the Pasadena Civic on 25th March 1983, and is best remembered for Michael Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean” in which he debuted his signature dance move – the Moonwalk.

Organ Console in 2018
Organ Console in 2018

In 1979 the Pasadena Civic was gifted a Möller theatre organ (Opus 6690). The organ has a storied past, having been commissioned in the late 1930s by ex-BBC Organist Reginald Foort, to fulfill his desire to tour a full size organ all around the UK to educate and entertain those who wouldn’t normally have access to such an experience. The organ was originally a 5-manual, 27-rank instrument, and weighed-in at 30 tons. It was transported around the UK in four large trucks by a staff of 15. Early in World War II, the BBC’s Compton theatre organ was destroyed in an air raid; Foort, upon hearing the news, loaned the Möller organ to the BBC. Post-war, with many UK theatres closed, Foort recognized that further organ tours were impractical and so he sold the organ to the BBC, who acquired a church in Hoxton, just north of Shoreditch in London, as a new BBC Studio to house the organ. The organ was heard broadcasting on the BBC for almost 20 years. In 1963 the organ was sold to Radio Netherlands Worldwide and moved to a church in Hilversum in the Netherlands. The organist, Cor Steyn, largely responsible for its installation, passed away soon after installation and the organ remained silent for most of its time in Europe. Ten years later the organ was purchased for installation into Organ Power Pizza of Pacific Beach in San Diego, where it was dedicated in 1975 after a comprehensive rehabilitation at the Möller factory, including addition of a Trumpet en chamade taking the organ up to 28 ranks. In 1979 the organ came up for sale again, at which point J.B. Nethercutt, co-founder of Merle Norman Cosmetics and a fervent collector of organs and similar musical instruments, formulated a plan to purchase the organ and donate it to the City of Pasadena.

The Gold Room
The Gold Room

The Pasadena Civic has hosted the New York Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Pasadena Symphony (their home for some time), and MUSE/IQUE, a counter-conventional orchestra. A Wenger Orchestra Shell is installed on the stage. The theatre was host to the dance program for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in addition to repeated engagements by the American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the San Francisco Ballet.

In addition to the theatre space the building also houses the Gold Room, a Georgian-style ballroom located in front of the Mezzanine lobby, above the entrance lobby, which can cater to a crowd of 300. The Gold Room has a small stage and can be used for move projection.

Bill Clinton appeared in conversation at the Pasadena Civic in 2009. Artists who have appeared at the Pasadena Civic include Victor Borge, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Hope, Luciano Pavarotti, Josh Groban, Marian Anderson, Eric Clapton, David Copperfield, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Hal Holbrook, Arthur Rubenstein and Carlos Santana. Broadway productions include Cats, Les Misérables, Riverdance, Beauty and the Beast, and Evita.

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How do I visit the Pasadena Civic Auditorium?

The Pasadena Civic does not currently offer tours however they host many events which are available to book online at the theatre’s website Link opens in new window.

My Valley Pass Link opens in new window visits the interior of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium as part of their Pasadena Walking Film Tour Link opens in new window, offered on an irregular basis according to venue availability.

Another way of getting into the Pasadena Civic is to audition for America’s Got Talent Link opens in new window. AGT generally holds their auditions every February/March at the theatre. Free audience tickets are usually available as well, most commonly from the On Camera Audiences Link opens in new window ticketing agency.

Further Reading


Technical Information

Flying System
Grid Height
74ft 9in
Total Linesets
58 (House Curtain permanent on L/S 1), with 2 additional lines for SR and SL Ladders
Available Counterweights
45,000 lbs
Individual Arbor Capacity
Max 1,000 lbs
Lines per Lineset
Maximum Out Trim
71ft 10in
Pipe Length
System Type
Single Purchase Counterweight system operated Stage Right
General Information
Seating Capacity
Total 2,997 (Orchestra 1,978 seats, of which 98 are removeable over the Orchestra Pit; Loge 560 seats; Balcony 459 seats)
Balcony Overhang
Row P of Orchestra seats
2 @ Strong Gladiator II (2.5kW Xenon)
Followspot Booth Throw
120ft to Proscenium
Stage Dimensions
Proscenium Height
31ft 6in
Proscenium Width
Clearance Below Fly Floors
21ft 6in
Clearance Under Paint Bridge
Stage Depth
Stage Left Wing
25ft wide
Stage Right Wing
23ft wide
Theatre Organ
Organ Type
Möller Organ: 5 manual, 28 rank Theatre Organ
Historic Photos & Documents
Files displayed in this section may be subject to copyright; refer to our Copyright Fair Use Statement regarding our use of copyrighted media.

Photos of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium: Orchestra Level
  2. Auditorium: Balcony Level
  3. Auditorium: Closeups
  4. Historic Fire Curtain
  5. Front of House
  6. Exterior
  7. Expo Hall
  8. Organ Console
  9. Organ Chambers
  10. Basement
  11. Projection Spot Booth
  12. Stage
  13. Above Proscenium
  14. Backstage: Fly Floors
  15. Backstage: Grid & Loading Galleries
  16. Back of House
Auditorium: Orchestra Level

The auditorium is lit almost exclusively by reflected light which emanates from behind coves, just below the ceiling, around the entire perimeter of the auditorium. The only additional lighting is balcony soffit lights.

Seating capacity is 2,997 with 1,978 of those seats being in the Orchestra section.

The walls are painted canvas and much of the decoration is actually flat paint although it looks very convincingly three-dimensional.

Auditorium: Balcony Level

The auditorium is lit almost exclusively by reflected light which emanates from behind coves, just below the ceiling, around the entire perimeter of the auditorium. The only additional lighting is balcony soffit lights for the Orchestra seating under the Balcony. Seating capacity is 2,997 with 1,019 of those seats being in the Balcony.

Auditorium: Closeups
Historic Fire Curtain

The theatre retains its original fire curtain which is painted to harmonize with the auditorium and ceiling decoration.

In 1968 a fire at the electrical switchboard (Downstage Right) scorched the fire curtain however temporary repairs were made. It was not until 2019 that the fire curtain was fully repaired which included repairing and repainting of the damaged section in addition to encapsulation of the asbestos fibers within the historic fire curtain.

Front of House

The Gold Room is a neoclassical-style function room at Balcony level, situated above the exterior and interior entrance lobbies (street level) with large windows facing out onto the plaza in front of the Civic Auditorium building. The Gold Room has a small stage (16ft wide, 7ft deep) and projection facilities.

Expo Hall

The Expo Hall is located directly behind the stage of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. For many years the Expo Hall was used as an ice rink.

Organ Console

The console of the Möller 5-manual, 28-rank theatre organ, which toured throughout the UK, spent time in the Netherlands and San Diego, before arriving at the Pasadena Civic in 1979.

Organ Chambers

The organ chambers are located to the left and right sides of the proscenium. While the auditorium was built with space for an organ, no organ was fitted until the late 1970s.


The theatre’s Möller organ is stored in the basement area underneath the Orchestra Pit when not in use. A lift in the central section of the Orchestra Pit lifts the organ, or other similarly-sized item, between Orchestra and Basement levels. The left and right sections of the pit are also on lifts.

In addition to offices, store rooms, wardrobe, plant facilities and an understage crossover corridor the basement also houses a large workshop for maintenance facilities.

Projection Spot Booth

Situated directly behind the rear Balcony wall, the Projection/Spot Booth has two wide windows to the Auditorium as well as a small square observation portal. What looks like an audio room is to the side which has a portrait-shaped window to the Auditorium. The theatre is equipped with two Strong Gladiator II 2.5kW Xenon followspots. The followspots are called Bert and Ernie.


Backstage is reasonably spacious, with roughly 25ft of wing space either side of the stage (slightly less Stage Right in lieu of the counterweight flying system operated from that side).

The Stage is 45ft deep and there are 58 linesets overhead. There are Fly Floors with pin rails located on both sides of the stage, and a paint bridge running across the rear stage wall between fly floors. The height of the grid is 74ft.

Loading access onto the stage is from Stage Left where the Dock Door opens into the side plaza between the Civic Auditorium building and the Exhibition Hall.

The theatre has a Wenger Orchestra Shell, ceiling sections permanently rigged on powered and dedicated lines, with vertical sections stored Upstage Left when not in use.

Above Proscenium

The large space above the left and right organ grilles, and above the proscenium, is used to hang speakers and rig special effects.

Backstage: Fly Floors

Fly Floors are located at both sides of the stage and are joined by a bridge along the rear stagehouse wall which was originally a paint bridge. Although there are clear signs of painting the paint frame no longer exists.

Backstage: Grid & Loading Galleries

Grid height is 74ft and the steel grid is clearly original to the building. The current sing-purchase counterweight system is not original (probably installed for The Emmys which started a 20-year run at the theatre in 1977) however is mounted on original infrastructure such as head beams.

The [pulley] blocks for the Fire Curtain are by manufacturer Armstrong Studios and circa 1920s/30s so assumed to be original. Coupled with a few “Armstrong Studios” counterweight blocks (weights) dotted around the theatre – incompatible with the current system – it seems a reasonable hypothesis that the theatre’s original counterweight flying system was by Armstrong Studios in 1932.

Back of House

Hidden areas of the theatre including organ chambers and attic spaces.

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