As the bright lights of the 2015 NFL Draft bathed Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre in swaths of pink, purple and blue and the 4,000 fans in attendance roared approvingly, Edward Weil beamed with pride and emotion.
He knew millions of people all over the country were getting a look – many for the first time – inside the architectural gem that his great-grandfather, Dankmar Adler, had designed 125 years prior.
“My heart was pounding,” recalled Judie Green, the theatre’s chief development officer who accompanied the 87-year-old Weil, an Auditorium Theatre board member and volunteer usher, to see the Draft’s dramatic opening. “This is a man who has been around for a very long time. He is prouder of the theatre than almost anyone I know. To be there with him at that moment is something I will always treasure.”
Soon after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell approached the podium, announcing the first pick of the April 30-May 2 seven-round, 256-player draft, Weil turned to Green and said, “Can you believe all these people are seeing this building?” He paused for a moment, thinking of the enormity. Then he added: “If only my great-grandfather knew.”
“Can you believe all these people are seeing this building? If only my great-grandfather knew.”
Edward Weil, great-grandson of architect Dankmar Adler
“It choked me up” recalled Green, who has worked at the theatre for nearly 20 years. “It made me realize we were in the limelight like never before.”
The Auditorium Theatre and Roosevelt University began preparing for the Draft in earnest on Oct. 2, 2014, when the NFL announced that Chicago would be the first city outside of New York to host the Draft in half a century.
“I would like to thank Roosevelt University for collaborating with us and allowing the NFL to use its historic space during this unprecedented event,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president who oversees NFL events. “During the Draft’s three-day span, more than 200,000 fans attended the Draft inside the Auditorium Theatre and outside at Selection Square and Draft Town. We are appreciative of Roosevelt University and the City of Chicago for this amazing and memorable experience,” added O’Reilly. “Chicago was on the clock and surpassed our expectations.”
C.J. Dillon, chief operating officer for the Auditorium Theatre, credited Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for leading the charge in bringing the NFL Draft to Chicago.
“It took determination, vision and imagination to make an event of this magnitude possible,” he said. “We had people from all over the University involved in making sure things ran smoothly,” added Dillon, who co-led a Roosevelt team that worked with the NFL, Chicago Sports Commission and the Choose Chicago tourism bureau to make the mayor’s dream a successful reality.
“Our goal was to be welcoming and accommodating, and we did it as a community in a national spotlight that showcased our friendliness, dedication and capability,” he said.
By all accounts, the Draft, which drew fans from around the country to Chicago’s lakefront, was a huge success in both the way it was presented and in the publicity it attracted.
Dozens of writers, broadcasters, photographers, camera crews, bloggers and tweeters reported on the Draft from the Theatre and the press interview room, located in Roosevelt’s second floor Congress Lounge. Approximately 50 million people tuned in during four days of Draft coverage, including 8.8 million viewers who watched at least three minutes of opening night on ESPN or the NFL Network. In addition, approximately 4.7 million people tweeted about the event, making it among the top-tweeted sports events of all time.
“We put on a show and made people happy, which is what my job is about – just not normally on that kind of scale,” added Dillon.
One of the many details was a platform erected on the back section of the theatre’s stage that was used as a Green Room where top players and their families waited until the players were selected. After being drafted, the future NFLers donned their new team’s hat and crossed the famous Auditorium stage to shake hands with Goodell.
“From the onset, we were clear about the historic importance of the theatre,” said Dillon, a 15-year theatre management veteran and Roosevelt alumnus. “The NFL was absolutely mindful of our historic treasure. In many ways, they left the theatre better than they found it.”
Before the show could be transmitted to the viewing public from ESPN and NFL Network broadcast booths erected inside the theatre, there was need for a powerful bandwidth capable of uploading data to multiple mobile devices at once.
Neeraj Kumar, the University’s chief information officer, began working on the technology piece in January and recalls as many as 50 walk-throughs with the NFL, ESPN and various cell phone providers. The end result was a three-fold increase in bandwidth at the University and Theatre which remains in place after the event. The technology improvements were made courtesy of the NFL and Choose Chicago. The Auditorium, which opened in 1889 as the first multi-use building with electricity, continues its cutting-edge tradition as a venue that can host complex, major media events.
The “brick-and-mortar” improvements, however, pale in comparison to Roosevelt’s biggest asset – its community of people who were everywhere putting the University’s best foot forward during the NFL Draft.
“Our community was volunteering in so many different ways,” said Jodi Daily, Roosevelt’s director of conference services who led the University’s 40-person volunteer contingent that provided customer service to NFL fans and guests. “You could feel the excitement that volunteers had about being involved. It’s not something you always see at special events.”
Sophomore Maya Maynard, a Roosevelt business major, exuded that spirit during opening night as she directed guests along the route they should take through the Auditorium Building’s winding second floor. “I’m so glad that Roosevelt got to host this and that students got to be part of it. I will put the experience on my resume. It shows I’ve done something unique that others can’t say they did.”
“I’m so glad that Roosevelt got to host this and that students got to be part of it. I will put the experience on my resume. It shows I’ve done something unique that others can’t say they did.”
Maya Maynard, sophomore business major
Directing people at the second-floor connection between the Auditorium and Wabash buildings was College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bonnie Gunzenhauser, who said she couldn’t miss the opportunity, even though American football and her love for English literature rarely intersect. “I like football and I love spectacle. I wanted a front-row seat to some of the drama,” she said.
Roosevelt volunteers weren’t limited to the Auditorium Building. In fact, many were selected by Choose Chicago and were stationed at the NFL’s gigantic outside Draft Town festivities, located just east of the Auditorium Building.
“I’m working longer than they wanted me to because it’s just so exciting,” said Ester Rogers, Roosevelt’s recent assistant provost of institutional research and assessment who handed out fan bags at the NFL’s Selection Square, and actually got a few hugs from the fans.
“I think we put on a fabulous party,” said Kristina Peterson, associate professor of counseling and human services in Roosevelt’s College of Education. She spent opening night volunteering in the NFL’s VIP hospitality tent and a second day with fans in line for the Vertical-Jump challenge, an assignment she won’t forget as she got to interact with youngsters from a pee-wee football team and a grandmother taking the challenge on a whim.
Jocelyn Ashford-Yarbrough, administrative secretary for Roosevelt’s Biological, Chemical and Physical Sciences Department, had a similar experience talking to fans in line for the Sweetness Simulator. “Everybody from the young to the old wanted to try it. They got in flight suits and were thrilled to be able to just float in the air. It was an amazing experience – our community coming together on behalf of this event. I was so proud to be from Roosevelt.”
Another Roosevelt volunteer had the opportunity to interact with fans as they headed inside the theatre. “It was really neat to hear people from out of town say, ‘This is such a beautiful place,’” said Elizabeth Gomez De La Casa, who worked side-by-side with many Roosevelt student volunteers handing out fan bags as the crowd poured into the theatre. “All of us were saying to one another, ‘This is our theatre. We shouldn’t take it for granted. This is part of Roosevelt University.’ It was really a proud moment.”
Pride was something that Weil felt as he watched the opening-night extravaganza that put Chicago, the University and its theatre into the limelight.
“My grandmother told me many stories about my great-grandfather and the theatre, but I can’t remember any involving an athletic event of any consequence,” he said. “I do know my great-grandfather certainly believed the theatre was built for all people and all activities. I think the NFL Draft is something that would have made him proud.”