Calumet Theatre raises curtain on marquee season

The iconic archway above the Calumet Theatre stage features paintings and ornate decoration.

By Darla Hane
Past the fast-food joints on the highway, a gas station, and 6th Street’s four-way stop, visitors see the new sign perched above the Calumet Theatre’s entrance—illuminating a cultural icon in the Village of Calumet. The Calumet Theatre has been an oasis for cultural wayfarers since the renaissance revival structure opened with its first operetta, “The Highwayman,” on tour from Broadway, in 1900.
When first built, the village and the surrounding area’s population of over 30,000 locals helped the 1,200-seat Calumet Theatre to flourish. Today, the village population hovers around 700, but locals and thousands of out-of-town guests still gravitate toward the now 700-seat non-profit theatre. Hundreds of theatre members and volunteers, along with a small core of theatre employees, host dozens of events and performers through the season, including movies, The Red Jacket Jamboree (a radio show recorded live at the Theatre), and visiting Grammy award-winning performers.
The 2019 season schedule was released in full, in a unique move from the theatre’s new director, Marlin Lee. “Some people jump out of airplanes,” says Lee, “putting on shows is my adrenaline rush.” Lee’s background and passion for concert promotion shines through in the 2019 season lineup. Lee is ushering a string of nationally recognized talent onto the theatre’s historic stage; introducing Shelby Lynne, Robbie Fulks, and Lee Roy Parnell—folks with Grammy awards and recognition. Grammy-nominated Jim and Teri Enrietti, and Summer Brooke from “America’s Got Talent” are slotted for June and December respectively, filling out a robust season schedule of national and local performers.
Lee also has a background in media and marketing, with a voice cultivated from morning radio. In joining the Calumet Theatre as director, he wanted to, “up the ante for more marquee artists” and states that “a lot of these artists I’ve worked with. There is definitely a Texas connection with these artists.” Lee is also quick to add, “But we still got all our local performers here.” Blues, guitarists, and singers also make room for movies on the big screen from July through mid-August.
Lee, born and raised in Houston, Texas, saw photos of the Upper Peninsula throughout his life and says that the area’s beauty is intriguing; its remoteness, mysterious. He and his family explored the Keweenaw in the summer of 1996. They would return many times over the years. It took a family vacation in 2016 for Lee to begin to seriously consider making the Keweenaw home. Lee says he was, “trying to get out of the big city,” after living in Texas metropolises, and moved to a community in Wisconsin where he worked with several radio stations while coaching state championship high school football. His dream of relocating to the U.P. was realized after he was offered the position of the executive director for the theatre, and he was appointed in November of 2018.
Lee now walks to work from his century-old Calumet home almost every day. But moving to a small village has promotional challenges—namely the remoteness that is mysterious and unique to the peninsula can be difficult to describe when booking performers who may not realize the distance and challenges with touring in the Upper Peninsula. “We are geographically challenged out here,” says Lee.
There are other challenges unique to the theatre building. The theatre is an independent organization, incorporated more than three decades ago as a non-profit. It’s also unique in that the theatre is not only listed as a National Historic Landmark, but is also the only Heritage Site with the Keweenaw National Historical Park that still serves its original function.

Marlin Lee is the new director of the historic Calumet Theatre.

“There is a lot involved. We have to stay historically correct,” says Lee and lists some of the daily issues that come with maintaining a building that survived decades of history, issues that sound like teasers from popular home DIY television shows: plumbing, roofing, constant maintenance.
A leaking stage roof had staff struggling to strategically lay tarps and buckets out to mitigate water damage until the stage roof was replaced with a new roof in 2014.
Last year, an elevator was added to the building, providing access from the first floor to the second floor ballroom. Laura Miller, former executive director of the theatre, oversaw years of fundraising until the goal of $300,000 was met in July of 2016. In a statement on the theatre website, Miller notes, “This is so exciting! This is going to be a big boost for the use of the entire building. We are so thrilled that this project was able to happen—all because of the generosity of donors!”
All of this maintenance and improvements to the historic venue ensures that the Theatre has a long life ahead, continuing to serve as the oldest performing arts venue in the U.P.
“I would like for us to be a leader in the revitalization of this area,” says Lee. “I would like for the Theatre to play a role on a more national level to make folks more aware of this area.”
Tours of the Calumet Theatre are also available. For more information about the historic Calumet Theatre, visit their website: The Calumet Theatre box office is open Wednesday through Friday, noon-5pm (and two and a half hours before show-time). Or call the theatre at (906) 337-2610.

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