WILKES-BARRE — It doesn’t qualify as one of the “performing arts,” but for participants, it’s once-in-a-lifetime theater.
The Kirby Center has spent most of its open hours hosting everything from “Oklahoma!” to Beethoven, Bennett to barbershop, and from a fake, big red dog to some very real cows.
Yet since 1987, the venue also has hosted an American ritual: graduation ceremonies. On that list are 50 high school events and three college commencements.
Along with the annual return of the robins, every spring morphs the Kirby into a posh palace for hundreds transitioning from stay-at-home teens to out-in-the-world adults.
“It seemed like more of an occasion than if it was in the gym,” Marcella Morgan said of her son Robert’s graduation ceremony in 2012. The Mountain Top clan came to the Wyoming Valley for his graduation from Holy Redeemer High School.
And going upscale in surroundings might subconsciously affect student behavior. Arline Mallis of Hanover Township suggested that the elegant decor of the Kirby has encouraged teens to be more formal.
“I liked it when they marched in,” she remembered of her son Michael’s graduation from Bishop Hoban High School in 1989. “Nobody was throwing their hats up into the air.”
The trappings certainly left an impression on Cecilia Galante — now a teacher at Wyoming Seminary — when she graduated from Bishop Hoban in 1989.
“I remember being enamored by the beautiful lights and all the red carpeting, and by how enormous the place seemed,” she said.
The fond recollections also include the most recent graduation season.
“I grew up admiring the beauty of the Kirby Center,” said 2016 Holy Redeemer salutatorian Alexis Davison. “There’s so much history and sense of community there.”
She recounted attending classic concerts and a Beach Boys performance at the Kirby before she got her chance on the stage to address classmates and their families.
“It was an extravagant and elegant place to end your high school career and start your adult life,” the Dallas resident added.
Of the 50 high school commencements held at the Kirby, Bishop Hoban held the most — 20 — from 1987 through 2007. Bishop O’Reilly was next with 16. In 2008, the Diocese of Scranton combined the two schools at the Hoban site and renamed it Holy Redeemer, which has held five commencements.
Wilkes-Barre Area’s Coughlin High School held nine graduations at the Kirby — the first in 1988, the second in 2002, and the third in 2006. Coughlin ceremonies have been held annually at the theater since 2011.
The Kirby added college commencements in 2014, when the Commonwealth Medical College held its first of three graduations there.
While the setting is grand, Mallis said Bishop Hoban’s 1989 ceremony was tight on access.
“It was hard to get a seat,” she said.
Mary Ruth Burke, whose children graduated from Holy Redeemer at the Kirby Center, said that may be true sometimes, but the Kirby generally is bigger than most high school auditoriums.
Burke graduated from Meyers High School in an auditorium highlighted with ample stained glass, including a ceiling with the seals of 48 states around the edges (the building predates the statehood of Alaska and Hawaii).
While it was great, she said, she suspects a venue such as the Kirby would have been better seating-wise.
Burke said they probably would have had to limit the guests in many high school auditoriums, including Holy Redeemer’s. The Kirby Center’s spaciousness likely meant “more family members could attend,” she said.
Asked about the three graduation ceremonies she attended for nieces and nephews leaving Holy Redeemer, Chris Bedwick of Plains Township said, “It was elegant.”
Yet when asked where her commencement was held, both Chris and her husband, George, beamed as they said together, “GAR!”
So was the Kirby Center better than GAR Memorial auditorium?
“Oh, no,” George blurted, unabashed. “Everything GAR was great!”
Like the others, Rachel Stilp Young’s Bishop Hoban class of 1992 recalled the elegance, and she voiced appreciation for air conditioning — not a given in many local, older schools.
But she did have one nit to pick.
“I remember it was long, and we wanted to get the heck out of there,” the Hanover Township resident said with a laugh.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish