Unpacking the Ambassador | May 27, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 27, 2011

Unpacking the Ambassador

Concert hall's archive yields hundreds of boxes of recordings, photos and programs

by Rebecca Wallace

Pearl Bailey did a television special there with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Rudolf Nureyev danced there. Gene Kelly recorded a concert there called "An American in Pasadena."

The glass-fronted concert hall known as the Ambassador Auditorium had a heyday of only 20 seasons, from 1974 to 1995, but those seasons were remarkable. Built as a house of worship by the Worldwide Church of God, the venue became a popular destination for such big names as Luciano Pavarotti, Emmylou Harris, the Peking Acrobats, Dizzy Gillespie, Bob Hope, Ray Charles and Yo-Yo Ma.

The hall closed in 1995, and the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound acquired its collection of artistic and business materials. All told, it's more than 600 boxes. Sound and video recordings are plentiful, but the boxes have also yielded photos, concert programs and original artwork of the venue.

With such a big project, the boxes are still being unpacked and their contents cataloged. It's been a major project for archive sound cataloger and project archivist Frank Ferko and archival assistant Anna Graves.

"Six hundred and nine of the boxes are done," Ferko says earlier this week in the archive. "We have more coming, about another 40-some boxes." He smiles. "We're getting real close to the end."

The friendly Ferko is also a composer whose music is often performed by choral groups and other ensembles. He's clearly been enchanted by the Ambassador, and can recite details and history at will.

"They were called the Carnegie Hall of the west," he says, noting that the performers were high-quality and the venue was, too. He speaks of the top-notch acoustics, the Baccarat-crystal chandeliers. "No expense was spared."

The Ambassador is relatively small; it seats 1,262, compared to Carnegie Hall's main auditorium, which can hold 2,804, Ferko says. So the Ambassador was also used for solo recitals and chamber concerts.

One particularly memorable solo performance was given by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein in 1975. "January 15," Ferko clarifies without looking it up. The performance was called "The Last Recital for Israel," and a recording of it was released posthumously. "It was full of wrong notes, but the man was 88," Ferko says.

The Ambassador closed because its operators ran out of money, Ferko says. Things are looking brighter these days. The HRock Church bought the venue in 2004 for worship services, but has also been restoring the building and bringing back artists.

"Now the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra has made it their home," Ferko says.

As Ferko catalogs the past, he's hoping to plan the future — a future visit to the Ambassador, that is. He's never been there and is waiting for the right concert.

"I'm keeping my eye on their website," he says. "It looks like an absolutely breathtaking place."