Midland Center for the Arts Turns 50

Looking Back and Into the Future at Five Decades of Cultivating Regional Arts & Showcasing World Class Entertainment

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre, Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 921   By: Robert E Martin

29th October, 2021     0

When the Midland Center for the Arts first opened its doors on January 1, 1971, it proudly stood as one of the most uniquely and innovatively designed structures of its kind throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region - a position that 50 years down the road, it still retains today thanks to the eminence of its scope and the vision behind its design.

Of course, long before the Center was conceived the Midland community was making music, staging dramas, painting majestic landscapes, and appreciating fine concerts, rare books, and the authors that created them.  But the places they gathered in pursuit of their artistic needs were divergent - ranging from barn lofts and churches to company cafeterias, riverbanks, and school auditoriums, to name but a few.

The idea of combining arts programs and activities under one roof in Midland was discussed as early as 1960. A definite move in that direction was made when interested members of the Midland Art Association (now part of the Alden B. Dow Museum of Science and Art) and the Midland Little Theatre Guild (Center Stage Theatre) got together to discuss their housing needs.

In 1965, the organization of Midland Center for the Arts was formalized under a preliminary set of rules drawn up by John E. Riecker. It was chartered in the State of Michigan as a non-profit tax exempt educational corporation governed by its own Board of Directors, including member groups such as the Midland Art Council, Theatre Guild, Midland Symphony Orchestra, Music Society, Midland County Historical Society and Community Concerts.

Over the expanse of the 50-years since it first opened its doors, it has showcased and featured some of the most amazing, talented, and significant performers, intellectuals, physicists, and writers of international caliber to the Great Lakes Bay Region. 

Indeed, back in the early days when I first started The REVIEW, I can remember attending a 3-day Writer’s Workshop with author Joseph Heller, who wrote the epic novel Catch-22); and over the years thanks to their top-notch programming through their Matrix:Midland series, have been fortunate to interview other ground-breaking authors such as Norman Mailer and P.J. O’Rourke, actors such as Shirley Jones, comedians & musician’s such as Steve Martin, and musical performers such as Stevie Winwood, America, Roseanne Cash, and Bonnie Raitt, whom have all graced the various stages at the Midland Center for the Arts,

In order to get this amazing facility built, a massive drive for funds to build a new “home” for the member groups, was launched in 1967 and headed by Dr. Shailer L. Bass, with many others helping. Funding came from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, Alden B. and Vada Dow, as well as over 3,000 individuals giving various public support.

 

Ground was broken in July 1968 and the building was officially deemed complete and turned over to the Board of Directors on January 1, 1971. The first opening night was the annual Christmas symphony concert on December 5, 1970, with Don Jaeger conducting. Special dedication performances and exhibits were scheduled by each group during a month-long celebration in May 1971.

What makes the Center unique is that it includes two performance venues, two museums, art studios, lecture halls and a historical campus.  The performance venues feature a 1500-seat auditorium and a 400-seat theater for shows and events. The design and history of the building includes some of Alden B. Dow's architecture throughout.

As the Center is now embarking upon its 50th Anniversary Season, recently I had the pleasure to interview MCFTA Director Terri Trotter to discuss the impact of the Center upon the region, the significance of its legacy, and what activities are planned to celebrate delivering 50 years of cultural excellence to the community.

REVIEW; The last time we spoke was 18-months ago when you were dealing with cleaning up the Center and salvaging priceless artwork following damage caused by flooding from Sanford Lake after the dam break.  Were you able to get everything restored and did you lose many priceless artifacts and artwork?

Terri Trotter: The answer to that question is yes and no. We had about 25% damage to the Center and did get everything put back together and in terms of artifacts and artwork I believe we’re going to lose only maybe 1 to 5%, which is really good. What we haven’t yet accomplished is getting everything fixed in terms of the facility itself.  The Center still doesn’t have full power, but we are operating and good to go in the theatres and lobby spaces, but are short on power in the museum area.

The reason for that is that we’re still working with FEMA on how to not only repair it, but we want to make sure that its done right. The Center is 50 years old and most of the systems are that old. Right before the Pandemic we were about to go into a major upgrade on some of those systems, so now we’re integrating the repair with the upgrade. A lot of the power supplying the main Center is located in the basement, which tends to get a lot of water back-up, so we need to get that power out of there and FEMA is helping us with the mitigation, but it does take time.

REVIEW: Given the spectacular and diverse array of programming the Center has showcased over the past five decades, how did you go about configuring the itinerary for this 50th Anniversary celebration?

Trotter: We thought about this a lot in terms of what do we wanted this celebration to look like and initially started planning it before the Pandemic, which obviously changed things considerably, although we have maintained the same strategy.

We definitely want to celebrate our achievements from the past because people don’t realize the pallet of talent that has come through the Center over the decades along with all the memories forged, so we’ve designed things that allow us to celebrate and remember that history; but within that, we want the celebration to also be looking forward.

I don’t believe most people recognize how incredible and unusual a community asset the Center truly is. You would be hard pressed to find an entity like us throughout the country. Some resemble us, but are not designed with as broad a scope of programming within the community.  In addition to showcasing live entertainment we also feature museums and a history campus, which is very unusual; plus on top of that we have this gorgeous building that could use some refreshing and which we’re looking at doing.

Coming out of the Pandemic I feel the big question is how do we look moving forward? What does the future look like?  How does the Center continue to serve the community in innovative ways for the next 50 years?  We have a very big 50th Anniversary Gala Celebration planned for May of 2022; and our Midland Symphony Concert in May will be featuring numbers that were featured from the program of the very first performance at the Center, so we will be remembering throughout the season but also looking forward.

REVIEW: You’ve got new outdoor staging and additions that were made during the Pandemic, but obviously Arts organizations took huge hits this year.  How has response been to the programming thus far for this 50th Anniversary season?

Trotter:  I’m very pleased.  Both our Broadway Theatrical series and Midland Symphony Orchestra have started back up and people buying season packages are very strong. Our Broadway series subscriptions are 25% higher than they were back in 2019, which was our last fuss season; so I think people are excited to get to live entertainment.  That doesn’t mean things are going to be easy and I believe they will continue change. It was a process to get here and will be a process to get back, but we’re going full steam ahead and people seem to be looking forward to what we are doing, given our strong sales figures thus far.

REVIEW: What are some of the pivotal 50th Anniversary Season events scheduled that really stand out for you?

Trotter:  Well, I mentioned our 50th Anniversary Gala Concert earlier that is coming up in May, but I’m also very excited about our entire Center Stage Theatre Season, which I feel does a good job of representing the Center through the years and also where we want to go in the future with a variety of inclusive entertainment.

We started out with an innovative performance of Jesus Christ Superstar that was updated with a fresh translation, and will also be featuring Men on Boats Nov. 5-7th, which will be played by female and gay actors using contemporary language, which the way it is cast and presented speaks to the inclusivity we are striving for in the future moving forward.  We’ll also be presenting the debut tour of An Officer and a Gentleman, which is the first year it’s been on tour and nobody has seen before. Plus, we have Riverdance coming up which is a super-fun show.

REVIEW: I know it’s been difficult to get larger national music acts lined up because many artists are still not back out on tour.  What are your thoughts on that?

Trotter:  Many of them are going back out on tour, but what’s interesting is trying to figure out what the rules and regulations are. We have protocols in place here at the Center, but many of these acts have protocols for backstage, which is the most interesting and challenging thing in terms of navigating those types of shows right now.

We are trying to grow our opportunities for Family Entertainment and have the national production of Rudolph Live! Coming up in November, plus Dinosaurs Live on Stage, so are making sure we’re serving audiences across the board from a generational perspective, so we offer a little something for everyone.

For a complete line-up of upcoming events and exhibitions at The Midland Center for the Arts, please check them out at www.midlandcenter.org

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