Last updated: June 14. 2013 6:10PM - 3356 Views

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On a late-September evening in 1924, local music fans got a rare treat. They heard history being made.

That night the world-famous Paul Whiteman orchestra played in Wilkes-Barre’s Irem Temple. On the program was a work for piano and orchestra that had just taken the music-loving world by storm.

The piece was “Rhapsody in Blue,” by George Gershwin, which had only recently been premiered – with the same Whiteman orchestra – at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan.

Over the next few years, “Rhapsody in Blue,” with its famous opening sensual wail of the clarinet, would be nicknamed the “anthem” of the wild-and-woolly 1920s. Just think: the local folks in Irem Temple that evening were among the first in America to hear this true classic performed live, and by the original orchestra.

But that was 89 years ago.

I was driving past the Irem Temple the other day when a thought suddenly struck me.

The thought? I was driving past it, not going into it for an event.

That huge old building, with its quasi-Moorish minarets, has been a fixture of the Wilkes-Barre architectural landscape for more than a century now.

But its value was more than just adding a touch of the outrageously exotic to the city skyline. It was a genuine part of the lives of people who lived here, before and long after Mr. Whiteman and his boys came to town with Gershwin’s masterpiece.

I attended a couple of classic movies at Irem Temple when I was a kid. I saw my fellow King’s College debaters take on Cambridge University in it. I graduated in it. I enjoyed Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in it, as well as rousing concerts by the Stegmaier Band. My spirits soared when the brand new Northeastern Philharmonic gave its very first concert there in the dark months following the 1972 Agnes flood.

Designed by architect F. Willard Puckey for the Shriners (the same group that operates hospitals for children), it was conceived in the “eastern” style that’s still popular with the organization. A fanciful drawing in “Wilkes-Barre Architecture 1860 to 1920,” by Sgromo and Lewis, portrays the Irem amid camels and palm trees.

What ideas and dreams flowed there: political rallies, college convocations, public lectures, visiting celebrities.

But if there’s one thing I associate with Irem Temple, it’s the finest music of our culture. In the 1920s alone, it hosted a steady parade of world-class singers, composers and instrumentalists.

Within a single month – January of 1924 – pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski and violinist Fritz Kreisler performed there. Later that year pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff entertained, and Ernestine Schumann-Heink of the Metropolitan Opera sang there. In September, of course, Whiteman came to town. The thunder of John Philip Sousa’s Band also rolled from the stage that year. Our own Allan Jones, later a star of movie musicals, performed.

A cascade of names followed over the years: Dancer Ruth St. Denis, the Boston Pops, the New York Grand Opera Company, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, pianist-composer Peter Nero, the Cleveland Orchestra, soprano Lily Pons.

Irem Temple’s nearby and more ragged old companion, the Hotel Sterling – with its own host of memories – will probably not stand much longer. The Temple’s fate is uncertain, though every once in a while someone offers a plan.

I hope that both the building and I are still around in September of 2024. If so, I promise I’ll drive by the old place and offer a personal tribute.

“Maestro, strike up the band.”

Tom Mooney is a Times Leader columnist. Reach him at tmooney2@ptd.net.

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