The theatre was built on the site of an existing amphitheater in use since 1894, known as Ben Weed's Amphitheater. Architect John Galen Howard designed the theatre, basing his design on the Greek theatre of Epidaurus. It was Howard's first design for the university. The theatre's construction as financed by William Randolph Hearst, for whom it is named.
Over the years, the theatre has hosted numerous acclaimed speakers and performers. Speakers include William Randolph Hearst, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Dalai Lama. Past performers include Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Luciano Pavarotti, Elvis Costello, and REM. It also hosts numerous events affiliated with the university.
The theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.