58 Commencements, Van Cliburn and Lynyrd Skynyrd: A History Of Interlochen's Kresge
By Craig Manning | July 18, 2021
“Dedicated to the promotion of world friendship through the universal language of the arts.” So reads the inscription on the back of the stage of Kresge Auditorium, the largest and most well-known performance venue at Interlochen Center for the Arts. The inscription, which spells out Interlochen’s organizational mission, has been on Kresge’s wall since the auditorium was built and dedicated in 1948. In the 73 years since, Kresge has been the venue for countless student performances, graduations, concerts from nationally touring artists, and more. But who’s Kresge, and who are the most famous performers who have stood on its stage? Ahead of August 3, when the band Chicago will give the first live and open-to-the-public performance on Kresge’s stage since 2019, The Ticker explores.
Kresge Auditorium is named after Sebastian Spering Kresge, the “Detroit retail magnate” who founded the S.S. Kresge Company in 1899 (later and better known as the Kmart Corporation). The success of the business enabled Kresge to start directing money into philanthropy – efforts that took the form of The Kresge Foundation, which he established in 1924. The mission? “To promote the well-being of mankind.”
Thanks to those philanthropic efforts, Kresge has dozens of namesakes throughout the United States and beyond, including libraries, university buildings, and, of course, performing arts venues. In fact, there were once six different Kresge Auditoriums including structures at MIT, Indiana University, and Stanford University (the Stanford Kresge was torn down in 2009).
According to information provided by Leo Gillis, Interlochen’s director of libraries and archives, Kresge’s son, Stanley S. Kresge, presented the Interlochen incarnation Kresge Auditorium at its dedication on August 1, 1948. At the time, the auditorium was dubbed “Kresge Assembly Hall” and had a very different seating setup for the audience: a “raked series of terraces with park-bench seating, and a canopy roof sheltering about half of the seating area.”
The actual stage was closer to what it is now: A concrete and cinder block structure that included both a stage and a covered orchestra pit with enough collective space “to accommodate a 400-piece band, chorus, or orchestra in performance.” Gillis says the structure “also featured a substantial stage house with an orchestra pit, several classrooms, scenery storage rooms, and a recreation and food service area below the stage – called the ‘Corduroy Club,’ after the camp uniform pants.”
Though it’s become the core venue for the Interlochen Arts Festival – the summer concert series that helps Interlochen raise much of the money it puts toward student scholarships – Kresge was initially used almost exclusively for educational purposes. Gillis says that the stage “was in continuous use all day and every evening with rehearsals, concerts, broadcasts, operettas, ballet performances, assemblies, or other services.”
Kresge Assembly Hall officially became Kresge Auditorium – and entered a new era – in 1964, when a new grant from the Kresge Foundation allowed Interlochen to enlarge and improve the building. The money went toward bench seating for about 4,000 people and put a roof over the entire auditorium. Kresge finally traded benches for proper seats two years later.
Finally, prior to the 1990 Interlochen Arts Camp summer, Kresge got its full modern makeover, including the installation of new cedar-shake roofing, renovated stage house windows, and new lighting and sound systems. The stage house, Gillis says, has largely stayed the same throughout these modernizations, though he notes that the orchestra pit is rarely used anymore and hasn’t been since about 2005.
Kresge’s most impressive attribute might just be its roof. In the summers, the roof becomes a showpiece, with Interlochen flying flags off the edge of the roof for every nation represented among that year’s camp population. Even just in terms of architectural design, though, the roof is unique. Citing a piece of old stationary from Bethlehem Steel – which provided the 170 tons of structural steel that were used to build Kresge – Gillis notes that the auditorium’s roof is like no other on the planet.
“The huge roof, which covers more than 4,000 seats, is supported by a unique structural steel framing system that has only two interior columns,” reads the caption on the Bethlehem Steel stationary. “The free-form roof structure is believed to be the only one of its type in the world. The structural steel design…employs 15 different truss sizes to frame the architectural shape of the six-sided roof.”
Of course, Kresge Auditorium isn’t just famous for the way it was built, but for the events it has hosted. Though Interlochen Arts Camp (founded 1928) predates the construction of Kresge, Interlochen Arts Academy (founded 1963) came along after, and every academy commencement ceremony since – save 2020’s, which was virtual – has been held there; 58 in all. Kresge has also been a common venue for the graduation ceremonies of both Traverse City Central High School and Traverse City West Senior High, dating back many years.
Other traditions are just as beloved. At the start of every summer camp season, for instance, Interlochen hosts a celebratory “First Gathering,” during which all campers converge on Kresge Auditorium. Additionally, every summer Sunday evening going back decades, the Interlochen Arts Camp high school orchestras have had a standing appointment to perform on the Kresge stage.
And then there are the tours: famous bands, artists, and entertainers that have made stops in northern Michigan to play for audiences at Kresge Auditorium. From 1961 to 1977, famed American pianist Van Cliburn – himself a long-time friend and supporter of Interlochen Center for the Arts – performed a concert at Kresge every single year.
Some of the other famed artists to play that stage over the years? Bob Dylan, B.B. King, James Taylor, Little Richard, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Barrie Manilow, John Denver, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, The Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Pat Benatar, Lyle Lovett, Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, Brad Paisley, Reba McEntire, Hall & Oates, Styx, Ben Folds, Norah Jones, Indigo Girls, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Tony Bennett, Steve Miller Band, Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sheryl Crow, ZZ Top, Melissa Etheridge, The Decemberists, Lucinda Williams, The Avett Brothers, O.A.R., The Wallflowers, OK Go, Jewel, Yes, Blondie, Vince Gill, Steely Dan, Ray LaMontagne, Gavin DeGraw, Jason Mraz, Josh Groban, and Earth, Wind & Fire. To name a few.Comment