By Bianca Anderson
Michigan Governor Woodbridge N. Ferris signed a bill in 1915 giving funding for, among other things on Western Michigan University’s campus, a center for the performing arts.
But then the Depression happened, followed by two world wars.
Finally, in 1944, money donated by the Upjohn Corporation was used to purchase the old campus golf course, affectionately referred to as “The Goat Hills” because of its hilly terrain.
After the war, WMU President James W. Miller again reopened the idea, and construction began in 1965 on the $5.5 million building. In early 1968, Miller Auditorium opened with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, bringing in a full house. The KSO still holds shows at Miller today. The auditorium continues to serve as a regional anchor for cultural events large and small.
This is because the auditorium has about a thousand more seats than most area theaters, which typically run between 1,800 to 2,500. Miller can hold up to 3,497 people.
The need for the auditorium was to enhance the performing arts on campus. This was also a shot at bringing in more community and student engagement.
In the beginning, the shows were more student-based, with folk, rock and ballet. But as time went on, the student interaction declined as it became harder to compete with new technology such as T.V and internet, making it difficult to hold students’ interest.
Things have come full circle in a way, as Miller’s booking agent partners with other departments on campus to try and gain back student interest.
“We work with the dance and music departments offering master classes with the professionals that come to Miller, exposing the WMU students to professionals in their respective craft,” said Tracey Lawie, who is director of marketing in the auditorium.
Another department with which the Miller staff partners is the Campus Activity Board. C.A.B. is a student organization with goals of bringing entertainment to students who attend WMU.
C.A.B hosts its own “Miller Movie Night,” in which students are able to see an older-run movie for a small fee of $1-$3 dollars with free popcorn.
At the same time, Miller books Broadway shows such as “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys.”
Grammy Award-winning singer Taylor Swift even visited Miller when she was an up-and-coming artist. This spring, fitness queen Jillian Michaels will lecture on maximizing one’s life through healthy living and meeting goals.
Though the auditorium’s major events are Broadway shows, the auditorium has been the setting for hundreds of rites of passage, from the WMU and Kalamazoo Valley Community College graduations to local dance competitions and community plays.
The WMU Symphony Orchestra has its own recital hall but it uses Miller for its larger ensembles, according to Bonni Beebe, a senior who plays in the orchestra.
Beebe has performed at Miller numerous of times and enjoys it. She is most pleased with how much space it has on and off stage, and how well the venue is managed. After visiting Miller so often, “it feels like home after a while,” said Beebe.
Beebe even remembers her first time visiting Miller. “I was in high school and I played with the summer seminar concert band at Miller,” said Beebe.
She has also been an audience member, attending musicals such as “Chicago,” when it visited six years ago. She was allowed to sit in the orchestra pit with her teacher when her teacher played for “Wicked.”
Cushioned burgundy theatre seats fill the floor and balconies. Over the years, minor lobby renovations, carpet changes and furniture updates have been put in place. Backstage, photos of celebrities who have visited are posted, some even signed.
When asked about the future with Miller, Lawie said, “We hope to continue to bring the best Broadway has to offer and other shows, continue to grow and bring in the highest professional entertainment to the area.”