Kalamazoo's State Theatre returns with State on the Street where musicians play from the marquee

State on the Street is free. The patio opens at 5 p.m., live music 5:30-8:30 p.m. on various Fridays through Aug. 13.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

The State Theatre is full of memories. About 94 years' worth.

Harry Phillips, marketing and development director for Kalamazoo's old movie house/music venue, didn't grow up in the area, but people are always telling him about their first movie, their first concert, that one unforgettable experience they had at the State.

This writer flashed back to 1996, seeing The Ramones' final tour. As the foundational punk rock band roared through its set, the sweaty packed crowd on the floor formed a whirlpool of joyously moshing, slam-dancing maniacs. I was on the fringe, bopped around like the ball on a foosball table. 

Blue Veins is Marisa Aguirre on guitar/vocals, Erik Sebastian on drums and Sean Duross on bass."You wouldn't have given it a second thought then!" Phillips says -- "it" being a virus causing a global pandemic, that is. "Your worst thought then was whether I wanna get injured in the mosh pit, right? And now we look back and go, wow, we did crazy stuff! We lived on the edge! We touched each other, we had no masks!"

The State Theatre is doing what it can to bring back live entertainment and to remind people that it's still a vibrant venue -- as vibrant as a global pandemic allows.

Their State on the Street has returned to put local musicians on their marquee, literally.

A devastated industry, but not shutting down

How has the State Theatre been doing during this time?

People gather on a cold May evening for live music.Phillips laughs. "Well, we have not had a public show since March 7, 2020. It's been, for our industry in general, for... venues, we've pretty much been devastated," he says.

"What a lot of people don't realize is we still have to pay rent on the building, we're still paying the liquor license, we're still paying for all the other stuff, and it adds up."

However, instead of shutting down, "we're very fortunate, our executive director Stephanie Hinman chose to have everyone stay on staff, no one was furloughed," he says.

The theater did receive help from the Michigan Stages Survival Grant, which awarded over 100 entertainment venues $3.4 million in grants. They've applied for the federal counterpart, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, and expect to see a response in a few weeks, Phillips says.

"We spent the year coming up with new ways doing what we feel we do best, which is provide entertainment to the community, try to support the arts and things like that." 

So they took it to the street. The State on the Street series began in late summer 2020, as downtown Kalamazoo formed the Central Commons Refreshment Area, a means of regulated outdoor alcohol purchase and consumption. 

Downtown Kalamazoo's Central Commons Refreshment Area has brought some life to downtown since September 2020The State got permission to use the sidewalk and part of Burdick Street as a patio area, got the cups, and got an outdoor beer and wine bar going. For the first time since country star Scotty McCreery was on their stage, March 7, 2020, the theater saw life.

"We were able to support local artists and have people come to the theater for live entertainment," Phillips says.

Live music came from the marquee every Friday for eight weeks."The reception was so great, seeing people come week after week," he says. Downtown organizations asked them to do it again this year, "and we said, why not. This can be part of our DNA moving forward." 

Blue Veins on the marquee

On a cold but sunny May 7, the local band Blue Veins wailed their Chicago-by-way-of-Kalamazoo electric blues down Burdick and Lovell, the music echoing down the Kalamazoo Mall to draw Art-Hoppers. 

Blue Veins is Marisa Aguirre on guitar/vocals, Erik Sebastian on drums and Sean Duross on bass.People were there for the band, for the blues -- a large contingent of the West Michigan Blues Society was in attendance -- and a lot were there just drawn by something rare and magical, live music.

A couple of women were dancing in place against the former newspaper building across the street. Asked if they came for the band or just wanted to get out of the house, one says, "We heard there's going to be live music!? We're there!"

As the first Friday of the week, it was also Art Hop. Grand Rapids painter Stephanie Clark was in front of the State, selling her environmentally-inspired work and painting on any State Theatre T-shirt purchased at her booth. 

Art Hop, traditionally a time of free cups of wine inside any building with art, has in latter pandemic times become a socially distanced and socially lubricated event on the sidewalks of the Central Commons Refreshment Area. Most people we saw that Friday were behaving responsibly, many masked (the CDC has relaxed mask rules for outdoors for those vaccinated) and giving each other some space.

Phillips says the State has been doing all it can in its outdoor patio, with tables spaced, requiring masks unless people are sitting at tables, and tables cleaned between users. "The last thing anyone wants to be is responsible for some sort of outbreak." 

He says they're gearing up for their first indoor event, a showing of the 1998 Coen brothers comedy "The Big Lebowski" May 15. Seats will be limited to 300, arranged in pods of two, three, and four seats separated by six feet. "We're taking all the precautions that we can." 

We got a chance to get on the marquee to get an artists' eye view. Up there the wind was cold, and the platform bounced a tiny bit with people's movements. There's no barrier to prevent a tumble to the sidewalk during, for example, an emotional guitar solo. 

Blue Veins bassist Duross says between sets, "Exciting and fun to play our first gig in over a year, and a little scary up there, ha-ha!"

Singer/guitarist Aguirre says it's "quite an honor to perform at such an iconic local venue. Although a bit chilly up there!" She adds that she's excited that the band is set to open for Robert Cray inside the theater Sept. 15. 

The first music act to return to the stage should be guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, July 29. In this time everything still feels uncertain, but the State is confident enough to put him on their schedule

So, the theater is going to survive to see live music on the stage again?

"We're surviving from the standpoint that people know we're still here," Phillips says. 

State on the Street isn't a big money-maker. The goal of blasting live music to the downtown streets is to simply remind people that the State is still an active venue. "So when we are able to open up for concerts people will feel comfortable coming back. That's the ultimate goal."

Upcoming events
State on the Street, free, patio opens at 5 p.m., live music 5:30-8:30 p.m. 


Singer/songwriter Minny Niich, originally from Galesburg. May 14: Jazz from the students of the Kalamazoo Music School's Jazz and Creative Institute.

May 21: Singer/songwriter Minny Niich.

June 4: Lasoulful Rock, local saxophonist/flutist originally from Jamaica. 

June 11: Blues band James Reeser and The Backseat Drivers.

June 18: Dylan Tolbert, multi-instrumentalist influenced by Stevie Wonder, Prince, Marvin Gaye.

Lasoulful Rock, local saxophonist/flutist originally from Jamaica. June 25: Crescendo Academy of Music presents Bill Cessna Trio and the Sofie Yang Duo.

July 16: Lisa Can't Sing, '80s covers.

Aug. 6: Kanola Band, New Orleans jazz.

Aug. 13: St. Joe Jack, eclectic covers.


Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.