Odds are the edifice often called Louisiana’s finest structure of the Art Deco era would never have been built had Shreveport dragged its feet. By luck, though, the three-year task of erecting the city’s Municipal Auditorium was complete (not yet even dedicated) when the Stock Market crash of 1929 halted major municipal-funded construction projects for a generation.
Thanks to that good timing and to 10 years of restoration projects begun in 1994, the splendid structure stands today as a National Historic Landmark, a worldwide top-200 performance venue (Pollstar Magazine, 2018) and, once again, a major downtown attraction. The events that comprise its story are best described by guides during the building’s Backstage Tours (shreveportmunicipalauditorium.com, 318-841-4196), but the place is impressive even at a distance. Imagine a single facility whose raison d’être was a salute to the soldiers of World War I, whose very creation was an adventure (its exotic bricks, tiles, ironwork and enormous windows all created onsite) and whose basement housed newfangled, top-secret radio/radar gear for protecting nearby Barksdale Army Airfield during World War II and, well in advance of D-Day, for gathering worldwide intelligence in anticipation of the U.S. invasion of Europe.
Peacetime brought a variety of functions to “the Municipal” (as locals call it), from “showbiz wrestling” to cotillions, from variety acts to Broadway shows, but its focus soon narrowed to KWKH radio broadcaster W.K. Henderson’s famous Louisiana Hayride and its history-making mission: finding, polishing and introducing dozens of singers and musicians of the 1940s and ’50s whose names are still remembered. Many of those would also include stints at the Grand Ole Opry along their routes to greatness, but the Hayride richly deserves its nickname of “Cradle of the Stars.”
Fronting the auditorium and its grand entry steps at 705 Elvis Presley Ave., where the tours begin, are statues of Elvis and world-acclaimed guitarist James Burton of Shreveport (now 80), who was the preferred backup musician for virtually every known singer of the day, boasting credits on more than 500 albums and innumerable personal and broadcast appearances.
Inside, visitors soon learn that the Municipal’s wartime contribution was impressive to say the least, and stories like Mary Martin’s “Peter Pan” soaring across its glorious stage can capture the imagination, but the Louisiana Hayride remains the true legacy of the place. Think of Hank Williams who gave Louisiana our “Jambalaya” anthem, and his “Cold, Cold Heart” which turned hillbilly into country. Or Bob Wills who transformed the singing cowboy tradition to Western swing. Think of the era-changing moment in 1954 when Elvis stunned the Hayride crowd with “That’s Alright Mama,” from the flipside of his “Blue Moon of Kentucky” 45, the disk that combined Delta blues and bluegrass to create rock ’n’ roll. He went national in 1955, when the Hayride was televised, and quickly earned credit (or blame) for the flood of rock that would push country off the pop charts.
Thus ended the Hayride in 1960 (although Henderson would use the name for “packaged music tours” throughout the ’60s), but many of those scenes and sounds survive in films like 1947’s “Louisiana” (a Jimmie Davis bio) and 2016’s “I Saw the Light” (Hank Williams’ Shreveport days). “At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight” – the 2019 Grammy-nominated 20-CD boxed set of 561 original Hayride performances – is available at amazon.com.
An interesting variety of music and other entertainment fills the Municipal’s calendar these days, and the Backstage Tours take visitors through the entire building, from the lounge and makeup rooms of the stars to the heights of the theater (where Peter Pan launched that flight), to the stage itself with its vintage but thoroughly-updated sound system that treats tour-takers to the voice of Marvin Gaye, whose immortal “You’ve Been a Long Time Coming”was inspired by a nearby hotel’s refusal to register the star on the night of his local performance.
Pure nostalgia fills the Municipal’s museum rooms and the guides are entertaining and informative, but most visitors will agree the highlight is standing on the wide stage themselves as the live recording of “That’s Alright Mama” fills the vast auditorium with the voice of young Elvis Presley, changing the Louisiana Hayride and the world forever.
Exploring downtown Shreveport along Texas Street and its parallels, from the Municipal Auditorium to the riverfront, can reward visitors in many ways, and a stop at the nearby Welcome Center (629 Spring St., 318-222-9391, shreveport-bossier.org) can provide sightseeing suggestions plus live music schedules (including the almost constant calendar of events at Festival Plaza, 101 Crockett St.).
Ask also about stage and screen presentations at three unique theaters — the Robinson Film Center with its foreign and indie movies plus highly-praised bistro (617 Texas, 318-459-4122); the opulent Strand at 619 Louisiana (318-226-8555, once flagship of the Saenger chain); and Louisiana’s only “IMAX Dome” (riverfront, 318-424-3466).
Artspace at 708 Texas is the Regional Arts Council’s center for every form of fine arts (318-673-6535, artspaceshreveport.com), and at 416 Texas stands a statue of Caddo Parish’s prolific composer and master of the 12-string guitar, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (“Goodnight Irene,” “Rock Island Line”), a frequent employee in the St. Paul’s Bottoms Red Light District which, incidentally, inspired visitor Jellyroll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp.”
Facing Red River, the statue of Henry Miller Shreve (steamboat man and town founder) is surrounded by a cluster of family attractions like the Shreveport Aquarium (318-383-0601, shreveportaquarium.com), the Corps of Engineers’ Grand Ecore Visitor Center (318-354-8770) and Sci-Port’s Exploration Gallery and Space Dome Planetarium (318-424-3466, sci-port.org).
Mealtimes bring opportunities to enjoy memorable downtown restaurants like the Noble Savage Tavern with its music, spirits and good food (417 Texas, 318-221-1781), the bountiful bistro called Market 104 (in the Hilton at 104 Market, 318-698-0900) or Ernest’s Orleans, where dining and dancing have been popular since the ’50s (601 N. Spring, 318-226-1325).