Nifty Fifty: Miller Auditorium celebrates its semicentennial anniversary

“Miller.” For many residents of Southwest Michigan, that one word conjures up visions of an auditorium that has spent 50 years as a backdrop for performers, making them laugh, cry, ponder and cheer.

The 3,500-seat Miller Auditorium on Western Michigan University’s campus will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year with a gala and soon-to-be-announced show, said Tracy Lawie, who has been Miller’s director of marketing since 1999.

“We are kind of the flagship of entertainment venues here in Kalamazoo,” Lawie said.

This distinction will be further cemented when the blockbuster musical The Lion King makes its West Michigan debut at Miller on April 4.

Through the years, the auditorium has played host to major Broadway shows like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables while also maintaining a commitment to community as the location for countless high school graduations, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra performances, and speeches by politicians and celebrities.

Lawie said on her very first day on the job she was asked to take the cast of Rent to the Kalamazoo Public Library for a promotional event.

“Most of my fondest memories are surrounded by meeting casts and performers who come here. Celebrities can be so warm, kind and funny,” Lawie said. “Jeff Foxworthy did meet and greets and I got to hear a lot of his stories. Sinbad comes out early and does promotions for a couple days with us.”

Guy Barks, Miller’s technical director, said he considers himself fortunate to have met many of the people who have graced the auditorium’s stage. President George H. Bush, President Barack Obama, comedian Red Skelton, Captain Kangaroo, and Nelson Mandela are among the luminaries Barks has met.

Since 1974, he has taken a behind-the-scenes role at Miller to ensure that audiences will see only what they are meant to see onstage. While a student at Loy Norrix High School, Barks had plans for a career in theater in front of the curtain. During junior high and high school, he acted and was part of the stage crew.

“In high school, I had smaller parts and was on the stage crew, so I’d run off the stage to cues on and off the stage. But behind the curtain is the place where I’m at home,” Barks said.

While a student, Barks dreamed about working for Miller, but there were no jobs available. When he finally got hired, he had no idea that he would never leave.

“Back then, I didn’t see myself staying here, but once I became full-time, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” he said.  “No two days are the same and there’s always something challenging on the horizon.”

Some are quite unexpected.

“We had a group coming in who had been off the road for a few months and we were their first show. Their tuxedos weren’t fitting and they didn’t know what to do,” Barks said. “Nothing was looking good.”

He ended up calling his mother, who used to make clothes for him when he was a child, and she recruited a neighbor. They showed up with sewing machines in hand and proceeded to rip out seams and create well-fitting tuxes for the performers.

Once a show is booked, it falls to him to determine the cost of labor, what type of additional equipment or gear is required, and how all of these needs will fit into a budget. With a show the size and scope of Lion King, Barks said he already knows that he will need plenty of additional labor to prepare the auditorium for the performances.

“I’ll need to get rid of everything in their way,” Barks said.

Miller Auditorium under construction. (courtesy photo)

These efforts result in a huge payoff for the Kalamazoo area. Lawie said Miller annually pumps an average of $13 million back into the community. She said this includes 1,500 room nights for the cast and crew with shows that have a longer run; an uptick for restaurants who feed patrons before or after a show; and a demand for vacation rentals for people who travel longer distances to attend a performance at Miller.

Lawie said one of Miller’s biggest challenges is that while the auditorium is part of the university, the majority of its funding is generated elsewhere.

“We started a whole new funding model,” Lawie said. “We changed the way we program our shows and we’ve built up our sponsorship and donor program so we’re able to sustain ourselves.”

The amount of competition for entertainment dollars in the area has increased since Miller opened its doors 50 years ago, particularly with the number of casinos who have their own performance venues, Lawie said. Despite this, she said Miller is uniquely positioned to offer entertainment that continues to resonate with patrons.

The reality, she said, is that casinos aren’t going to be bringing in Broadway shows or comedians and musical groups that prefer a venue of Miller’s size.

“We program smartly and bring in those things people want to see,” Lawie said. “There’s no magic ball. We minimize the risk and look at how a show may be selling in markets that are similar to Kalamazoo. Our customers will email and give us suggestions and we listen and research these shows to see if they’re financially viable.

“If it is a show that’s in-demand and one that people want to see, we will give it a shot.”

Barks said the geographic location of Kalamazoo — being the midpoint between Chicago and Detroit — has made it easier for Miller to bring in shows that are traveling between the two larger cities.

“The idea that we have something of this size in Kalamazoo is pretty amazing,” he said. “You’d have to go to Detroit or Chicago to even get close, and because of that we were able to bring in a show the size of Phantom, because we had a stage big enough to make it fit.”

Lawie said she never ceases to be amazed at how Miller has the capacity to be transformed, particularly for shows like Phantom and Lion King. She said Miller’s success will continue because of the arts’ relevance in people’s lives.

“The product is always changing, but then you have shows that have been in existence for 20, 30 or 50 years,” Lawie said. “Their art is relevant and audiences want to see them, so we try to blend each season with some of both.

“Part of our mission is to educate. The arts open your mind to new ways of thought and thinking.”


Miller’s January Events

The Wizard of Oz, Jan. 5-7

MAZE, Jan 19

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood Live, Jan. 20

STOMP, Jan. 23