Front and center on the Bob Jones University campus, Rodeheaver Auditorium, a 10-story structure resembling a megaphone, stands prominent.
Stretching 150 feet from wall to wall and rising 65 feet to the grid in the upper portion of the stage house, its wood-floor proscenium stage is one of the best-equipped collegiate stages in the Southeast. Beneath its 45-foot arch, the auditorium features a revolving stage, a large turntable lift, an orchestra pit, two electrically-controlled contour curtains and three separate stage elevators.
In addition to the stage, the auditorium also houses dressing rooms, the scene shop, five prop rooms and wig, makeup and costume departments. Seats divided between the main floor and the balcony are available for guests.
Although Rodeheaver Auditorium has changed since it was first built, it has remained home to many of BJU’s fine arts performances on the Greenville campus.
After Bob Jones College announced its move to Greenville in April 1946, the first building phase began that September. Included in that phase was an auditorium that would surpass the fine arts facilities of other small Christian colleges in the region.
To further the school’s emphasis on culture, fine arts and preaching, Bob Jones Jr. designed the new auditorium to be three times the size of the Margaret Mack Auditorium in Cleveland, Tennessee. With all its amenities, the building accounted for one-fourth of the budget for the first phase of construction.
Construction and Functions
Although the rest of the campus was completed in time to begin classes on Oct. 6, 1947, the auditorium was still incomplete. Once finished in November, Rodeheaver Auditorium hosted the campus’ formal dedication service on November 27, Thanksgiving night. From then on, it hosted all campus-wide events, including chapel, Artist Series and Commencement. Even society rush — now held at Alumni Stadium, built in 1968 — was in Rodeheaver Auditorium.
In its initial years, the auditorium also housed music and speech classrooms along with faculty studios. Once the Fine Arts Center was built in 1956, the auditorium classrooms were devoted to the speech department as originally planned. After the Bob Jones Elementary School vacated the now Pennington Child Development Center in 1981, the speech department left the auditorium for that building. By 1993, only two fine arts studios remained in the auditorium, and today all speech and music studios and classrooms are centralized in the Gustafson Fine Arts Center.
By 1968, the auditorium did not have enough space for the growing student body. Some students had to attend chapel, Sunday morning worship and Artist Series programs from the Concert Center via closed-circuit television.
By 1971, events were broadcast to War Memorial Chapel as well, and faculty sometimes sat on the auditorium stage. When visitors flooded the campus during Bible Conference and Commencement, the Science Lecture Hall, Alumni Lecture Halls A and B and the Social Parlor served as overflow rooms.
To alleviate the crowding during chapel, Commencement and Bible Conference, the Founder’s Memorial Amphitorium was built in 1973. Since then, Rodeheaver Auditorium has been primarily reserved for productions of the School of Fine Arts and Communication as well as Concert, Opera & Drama Series.
Improvements to Rodeheaver Auditorium
Rodeheaver Auditorium has remained essentially the same since 1947, but since then additions and renovations have improved the venue.
The first major addition to the auditorium was air conditioning. Without it, especially during every season except winter, the auditorium was impossible to cool. The doors had to stay shut to preserve the lighting, and the original blower system only recirculated air. Even large quantities of ice in front of the blower were ineffective at cooling the building.
In the spring of 1954, a new air conditioning system with two Chrysler units was installed on the lower east side of the auditorium. In 1953, the Alumni Association agreed to pay for half the $46,000 cost. This first major project of the association was paid for by 1956. Today, the air conditioning works so well that the auditorium can make the room chilly even during the hot southern summers.
Salvaged Stage Lifts
Before the stage was built, Jones planned to enhance it with lifts, but because of time and money, they could not be included when the auditorium opened in 1947. However, in 1954 Katherine Stenholm — then director of Unusual Films — heard that the 21-year-old Center Theatre in New York City was being torn down and its contents sold. Items for sale included a contour curtain, three elevator lifts and a 27-foot revolving stage that could change a scene in 40 seconds. They were just what Jones wanted.
Jones figured the equipment would not be in high demand because no one else was building a theatre. He made a low offer — to pay for the theatre to dismantle the equipment and for BJU to load and ship it — which the theatre accepted. But the theatre never contacted BJU about picking up the equipment. Eventually, BJU called the theatre and discovered that the demolition crew did not want to take the trouble to carefully extract the equipment. To prevent the deal from falling through, stage manager Mel Stratton flew to New York to ensure the equipment was not destroyed.
After the equipment arrived on campus on July 1, Stratton laid out the pieces behind Rodeheaver Auditorium. There, using only a few observations he had jotted down during deconstruction, he reconstructed the lifts and turntables. In the process, he even modified the lifts to create an extra turntable lift and an organ lift since the orchestra pit only needed lifts to go down.
Stratton and former stage manager John Ludwig, then BJU’s physical plant manager, reconstructed the entire stage floor and installed the equipment. The additional contour curtain was also altered to fit the stage.
In 1957, students, faculty and staff redesigned and rebuilt the sound system. A third of the projection booth was converted to a new sound control room with a console, turntables, intercom, control panels and telephones. Additionally, in the walls of the auditorium, two three-story-tall speaker panels were installed to send more sound to the rear of the auditorium. These panels, designed by Dwight Gustafson and built by Stratton and others, added to two speakers already mounted in the overhead fold.
Since then, the audio has been improved further, including an update in 1995. As of 2010, the soundboard computer can be programmed by scene to automatically adjust actors’ microphones as they enter and exit the stage.
In 1968, a three-manual 57-rank pipe organ replaced the original organ in the auditorium.
W. Zimmer and Sons, whose family had made organs since 1893, built the organ in their factory near Charlotte, North Carolina. A combination of classical and romantic registers made the organ capable of many musical styles. The pipes were installed on the east side (left side, facing the stage).
Over time, the organ wore out. Keys would stick and sometimes there was not enough electrical current to activate all the stops on the console, which had its own deficiencies. In an article about the organ dedication, music faculty member Paul Overly explained, “(The) console (was) powered by a pneumatic electrical system that sent signals to a relay box in the basement of Rodeheaver. The signals were then relayed up three or four stories to the pipes. This caused significant delay from the time one pressed a key until the time a pitch actually sounded.”
Refurbishing the organ was too expensive for BJU. However, the family of Judith Matthews Grant (‘85, Home Economics) gave the School of Fine Arts a large contribution to rebuild the organ. In March 2002, Grant had passed away after fighting Hodgkin’s disease for 15 years, so her parents, brothers and husband — all BJU alumni — donated funds in her memory.
In 2004, Cornel Zimmer Organ Builders — founded by the grandson of Wilhelm Zimmer of W. Zimmer and Sons — refurbished and enlarged the organ. Renovations included a new console and added digital enhancements. On Feb. 14, 2004, Ed Dunbar, then chair of the Division of Music, performed the recital that dedicated the organ to Grant’s memory.
The organ was used for church and chapel before the transition to the amphitorium. Afterward, it remained essential for teaching, practicing and Vespers programs.
The earliest mention BJU publications made about the auditorium’s interior decor was its first renovation in 1953. Little Moby’s Post describes the interior as having “been done in various beautiful colors.”
In 1960, the entire auditorium was decorated to match the rear wall of the auditorium. Mauve with gold accents covered not only the walls but also the floors. Additionally, the walls in the main floor lobby and the mezzanine were covered with green and dark buff (brownish yellow) textured vinyl.
Eventually, the walls were redone with the present wood-like covering, and the carpet was changed to tan.
The seats have also been replaced. Originally, there were 3,000 wooden seats — 2,000 on the main floor and 1,000 in the balcony. According to the memories of alumni, those seats were exchanged for 2,600 seats with gold padding in the ‘80s.
In May 2008, the lobby of Rodeheaver Auditorium was demolished in preparation for a bigger, more aesthetic entrance. Plans for the renovation had been around for some time. In a Collegian article, Darren Lawson — dean of the School of Fine Arts and Communication — explained, “Before (Dr. Bob Jones Jr.) died (in 1997), he told me, ‘Now Darren, I have plans here in my desk for what I wanted to see done to Rodeheaver. When I die, I want you to come get those out.’”
The new lobby, completed in 2009, features a glass window front and a portico extending over the sidewalk. Inside the open lobby, a coat check, ticket booth, theater displays and accessible restrooms are on the main floor, and two staircases lead to the lobby balcony.
Jones named Rodeheaver Auditorium after Homer Rodeheaver, a close friend of the Jones family from the days of the Winona Lake Christian Assembly and evangelistic campaigns. When Rodeheaver visited the Cleveland campus in 1945, he saw how crowded the Margaret Mack Auditorium was. He gave the school $25,000 to build a new auditorium. However, because the entire campus needed to expand, the money was saved to build an auditorium on a new campus.
In addition to partially funding the auditorium, Rodeheaver received an honorary Doctor of Sacred Music from Bob Jones College in 1942 and was a member of the co-operating board.
Childhood and Education
Homer “Rody” Alvan Rodeheaver was born on Oct. 4, 1880, near Union Furnace, the fourth son of Thurman and Fannie Rodeheaver (one died in infancy). His father, who had fought for the Union Army during the Civil War, owned a small sawmill.
When he was 6 months old, his family moved to Newcomb, Tennessee, where his father expanded his sawmill into a furniture manufacturing plant. At the time Rodeheaver was frail and not expected to live. However, living in the Cumberland Mountains helped him regain his strength.
When Rodeheaver was 8, his mother died. Five years later, his father married Bettie Newman, who was only eight years older than Rodeheaver. Together they had Rodeheaver’s half-siblings, Ruth and Jack.
Rodeheaver began working at a young age. For his first job, he used a blind horse and an abandoned sled to haul grocery supplies from the railroad to his uncle’s store. Later, when he had a wagon and a different horse, he hauled lumber and coal. Using a team of four mules, he also hauled food and supplies to and from his father’s mill and worked at his father’s furniture factory.
Meanwhile, he attended and graduated from the public school system. By 1896, he had enrolled in the Preparatory Department of Ohio Wesleyan University, which enabled him to take classes for six months and work in coal mines, logging camps or sawmills for the rest of the year. While he was taking classes, he also did small jobs such as waiting on tables, shoveling snow, emptying garbage cans, collecting students’ laundry and singing in church choirs. He studied law or music — or a combination of both — at the university until 1905, including one uninterrupted year from 1900–1901.
Rodeheaver became interested in music at a young age. He first sang in a church quartet with his older brother Yumbert. Upon his death, the Times-Union of Warsaw, Indiana, even said, “In his autobiography Dr. Rodeheaver cites the times as a small child in his Tennessee home when he would place chairs in the form of an audience in the sitting room, then get up on another and sing and preach to this self-made congregation.”
As a music teacher, Yumbert also taught Rodeheaver how to play the cornet, bass drum and trombone. Living in Tennessee, Rodeheaver learned guitar and banjo as well. He paid $7 for his first trombone, one of at least nine that the photographic record shows he used throughout his life. BJU owns one of those trombones. Previously on display in the lobby of Rodeheaver Auditorium, it is now kept in the BJU archives.
With his trombone, Rodeheaver joined the University Cadet Band at Ohio Wesleyan University. Along with his brother Yumbert, he also played in the regimental band of the Fourth Tennessee Volunteer Infantry, which occupied Cuba for a short time after the Spanish-American War. The unit was mustered in July 1898 and mustered out the following May.
Rodeheaver may be best known for his work in evangelism. Hearing gospel music as he grew up influenced his decision to be involved in the ministry. After his time in the regimental band, he began evangelizing part time. He preached, sang, played his trombone and led choirs and congregations. In 1900, he and Henry Fillmore traveled to the Midwest on one of his first evangelistic tours.
While Rodeheaver was at the university, evangelist R. A. Walton contacted the school, looking to temporarily hire a student for a nearby meeting since his song leader was sick. The university suggested Walton ask Rodeheaver and gave him a leave of absence for the two weeks he was gone.
In 1907 he also led singing with evangelist James B. Ely and later William Biederwolf. In between meetings, he played at recitals and concerts. He also began participating at Chautauqua meetings — religious gatherings that featured lectures and music. At one such meeting in Winfield, Kansas, in July 1909, Rodeheaver concluded with music a lecture by Billy Sunday. It was the first of many times they would be seen together.
Sunday asked Rodeheaver to be his full-time song leader, and on July 15, 1910, they held their first meeting together. They collaborated for the next 20 years, only interrupted twice. In September 1918, Rodeheaver left for four months to play for World War I troops in France as a YMCA representative. He also left in September 1923 to spend nine months on a world evangelistic tour with Biederwolf. They held meetings in Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Siam (Thailand), Ceylon, India, Australia, Egypt and the Holy Land.
Rodeheaver also served at the annual Winona Lake Bible Conference in Indiana. Consequently, he bought a farmhouse on the lake in 1912, remodeled the exterior to resemble a ship (equipped with a railing around the flat roof) and called it Rainbow Point. The carpet and dishes in his house even had rainbows on them. He lived there with his sister Ruth and her husband.
As part of the conference, he founded the Rodeheaver School of Sacred Music in 1925. It was held every August to equip people to serve with music in churches.
Because of his time at Winona Lake, Grace College at Winona Lake named its auditorium Rodeheaver Auditorium as well. Today, the building is leased and also called the Winona Heritage Room.
Having handed out so many songbooks at campaigns, Rodeheaver founded the Rodeheaver Publishing Company in 1911 for gospel music. It merged with the Hall-Mack Publishing Company by 1938. Rodeheaver also had his own custom music label, Rainbow Records.
As media began to play a greater role in the lives of people, Rodeheaver extended his ministry to radio. In fact, he aired the first program of gospel songs on the radio in the early 1920s.
In 1950, he founded the Rainbow Ranch for Boys — now Rodeheaver Boys Ranch — for troubled and dependent children in Palatka, Florida. After noticing the area when traveling for evangelism, he began accumulating land over time with the boys ranch in mind. BJU even donated land for the project.
Out of the many songs he led or performed during his life, Rodeheaver loved one chorus the most: “Every cloud will wear a rainbow if your heart keeps right.” So, when he founded his own ministries, he named them with that song in mind. Even his publishing company, though without rainbow in the title, had a logo with the chorus’ musical notation in the shape of one. And the auditorium at the music school was called the Rainbow Room.
In 1953 Rodeheaver was diagnosed with a heart condition that caused him to have several heart attacks over the next few years. Nevertheless, the Times-Union said, “Dr. Rodeheaver maintained a business schedule which would have literally broken the backs of most men many years his junior.” Several days after one such heart attack, Rodeheaver died from a cerebral hemorrhage on Dec. 18, 1955, at Rainbow Point.
Seen by many leading songs with his trombone, Rodeheaver is remembered for his charismatic personality. In the days before women could be cheerleaders, his role as a yell leader at Ohio Wesleyan University influenced the university to recommend him to Walton.
And when he led singing, Mark Ward wrote in his book The Lord’s Radio: Gospel Music Broadcasting and the Making of Evangelical Culture, 1920–1960, “(It was) almost magical (the) way that Rodeheaver could rouse a crowd into full-throated song.”
His personality also helped balance out Sunday. As the Historic Brass Society Journal said, “Rodeheaver’s easy-going manner, ability to tell a humorous story or perform a magic trick for the audience stood in stark contrast to Sunday’s high-strung demeanor.”
Being “suave and tactful,” as another source says, he often entertained guests at Rainbow Point, including Will Rogers, Billy Graham and John D. Rockefeller.
Despite his winsome demeanor, he never married. Jones wrote of him, “He had a few very close brushes with matrimony and once or twice a suit for breach of promise. He loved to be surrounded by women of charm and beauty, and with them his manner was always extremely gallant.” He added, “I doubt if he was ever seriously in love with any woman. He was just in love with the idea of romance itself.”
Throughout his life, Rodeheaver impacted thousands of people with gospel music and even popularized the Easter sunrise service. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Though his name is not as popular as it once was, the songs he published and popularized, such as “The Old Rugged Cross,” have impacted Christians as they worship today.