Inside one man’s quest to bring performing arts back to Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium
BURLINGTON — In a corner of a studio space in Burlington’s South End, there is a door that goes nowhere.
It might be like any other interior door except that it’s covered top to bottom with stickers, mostly promoting punk and hardcore bands. It leans against a wall, detached from its frame, displayed under soft lights and set back behind a barrier.
The door is an artifact in the Museum of Vermont Music, a tiny tribute to the state’s music scene set up in the back of the Big Heavy World headquarters on Howard Street.
Jim Lockridge is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit that devotes itself to music advocacy and support for artists. Lockridge was giving a tour of the museum space when he pointed to the door in the corner.
“That’s the door from 242 Main,” he said.
The Burlington address maps to the downstairs at Memorial Auditorium where from the 1980s until 2016 an all-ages, teen-focused music venue brought countless bands and music fans into a small dingy space with a stage. It’s taken on legendary status in the local underground music scene and is the subject of a documentary currently in the works.
The door that now sits at Big Heavy World was an interior office door at 242 Main, which started as a teen center funded by the city during Sen. Bernie Sanders’ mayoral administration. It evolved into primarily a music venue and became a stop for local and national bands alike.
That the former office door sits preserved as an artifact under lights on Howard Street and not on hinges inside Memorial Auditorium is a problem to Lockridge, who has translated his own history in the music scene into advocacy to preserve the aging and empty auditorium in downtown Burlington.
Through a campaign waged in public meetings, letters and blog posts, Lockridge, 54, has made the case for not only preserving Memorial Auditorium, but also ensuring that youth arts programming remains a feature as they were at 242 Main. The city has moved forward with accepting plans for the building’s future, but Lockridge argues those plans ignore the public’s input.
“There was decades of deferred maintenance and lack of interest,” Lockridge said, speaking about the auditorium in an interview. “And I’d suggest that ties in part to the political framework for how the arts are served locally.”
Memorial’s past and future
According to the city’s recent request for proposals on how to make new use of the building, Burlington built Memorial Auditorium in 1927 to honor veterans from World War I. The main feature of the building is a 2,500-seat hall with a stage that has seen a variety of performances over decades of use.
In the early 2000s, the building started to suffer from a lack of upkeep. By 2016, the city decided to close it. Then in 2018, the city sought public input on redevelopment of the building, eliciting priorities that centered on maintaining a community space featuring arts programming.
But the city says the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 dragged down momentum. Now with the city’s borrowing power greatly limited by voter approval this month of a $165 million bond for a new high school, the city is seeking to partner with private organizations for Memorial Auditorium’s next chapter.
Lockridge wants the city to preserve the building and to focus on its performing arts legacy and importance to youth programming. In an interview, he accused city officials of ignoring public feedback on the building’s fate. As the city is accepting proposals from organizations on a plan for the auditorium, Lockridge said he plans to propose that the city reinstate 242 Main and that Big Heavy World manage the programming.
The city lists nine goals and objectives in its requests for proposals for the building, including beginning construction within two years under a public/private partnership with a “long term public benefit” and maintaining public space with input from the community on programming.
The request also lists a need for “employment opportunities or new, mixed-income housing,” something that Lockridge argues is out of line with the public’s priorities from 2018.
Proposals are due to the city by Dec. 2. Brian Pine, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Office, said the city has received “several” proposals, though he declined to elaborate.
Pine said the city modified its request for proposals based on Lockridge’s feedback, after he emailed the city asking that youth-based cultural programming be included in the priorities.
But Lockridge said that despite the inclusion of some of his edits to the request, he still felt the proposal process was “entirely inadequate” by ignoring much of the feedback from earlier public surveys.
“I’m witnessing the administration sidestep its responsibilities, defer them to others who at this point are anonymous and show no interest in commitment to the public’s voice,” he said.
The city was recently authorized by voters to spend up to $1 million to shore up the roof and some structural elements of Memorial Auditorium. Pine said the city has contracts for about $800,000 for that work as well as a new heating system.
“But it has been, definitely, a challenge,” Pine said. “Covid threw a real curveball into the redevelopment plans, and we’ve tried to try to refocus the city’s efforts on making the upgrades that are needed to stabilize the structure to really ensure that we can preserve it and we can have future public uses of the building.”
Big Heavy World
The headquarters of Big Heavy World on Howard Street feels cozy and lived-in, emanating the feel of a rehearsal studio. Colorful stage lights rotate around carpets, worn-out couches and chairs. Walls are covered with concert posters and portraits of local musicians. Amplifiers and drums are stacked up around the walls.
The headquarters has moved several times around Burlington, but has always kept the cluttered yet comfortable aesthetic, like dropping in on a band’s personal studio space.
Lockridge grew up on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, but spent some time with his grandparents who lived in Springfield. When he was old enough to choose where to live, he chose Burlington. Eventually he worked as the arts director for Seven Days but said he left that role around the time that Big Heavy World started to take off in the late ’90s.
Lockridge now works at Big Heavy World in his spare time, he said. He primarily earns income through his role as director of the Youth Safety Council of Vermont, a highway safety group based in Burlington.
When he started the music organization in 1996, he was a graphic designer who was fascinated by the internet as a new medium. He lived in a band house, attending shows every night.
“So that was the environment I was in and Big Heavy World started out as an encyclopedia of local music,” Lockridge said. “Bands were bringing me press kits, ultimately by the hundreds, and we were scanning them and transposing them to this encyclopedia on the website.”
Soon that work expanded into a team of volunteers, mostly teenaged, he said. The website cataloging opened up into compilation CDs, concerts and even the early days of livestreams as that technology emerged.
In 2004, the group applied for a license with the Federal Communications Commision for a local radio station in Burlington. After years of work, the station went on the air in 2007 with what Lockridge called “hyper-local” programming. Today the station broadcasts from the top of the L.L. Bean building downtown, though Lockridge said he wasn’t sure how long that would be able to remain there with the possibility of development in that area. The low-powered station can be picked up mostly around the city of Burlington and relies on local DJs and automated programming of a library of Vermont music that consists of around 5,000 recordings.
The station and the Big Heavy World website hosts “Rocket Shop Radio Hour” where each week a different local musical artist is interviewed and performs.
Lockridge said the group usually has about a few dozen volunteers, mostly students who hope to connect personal interests with career exploration. Volunteers can work on a variety of projects from research and writing to sound engineering.
With all of the work to provide resources to musicians, Lockridge said he thought it was important not to approach the work as a “patron.”
“That has a place in the world but it can also be old-fashioned and disempowering,” he said. “Our way of being an organization is to relate to musicians as a larger family and work together to create opportunities or resources that are shared.”
Lockridge’s criticism of the city’s approach on Memorial Auditorium is influenced by what he considers a wider issue within the city’s arts community that goes back decades. He pointed to the passage last year of the “Percent for Public Art” ordinance wherein the city sets aside 1% of its capital projects budget for public art — but he argues that performing arts are not included.
“You come away realizing that the performing arts have been purely neglected by the city for many years,” he said.
Lockridge said when he raised the issue with Burlington City Arts, the city-funded organization pointed to live music performances in City Hall Park as evidence of Burlington’s support for the medium. He was unmoved.
“Paying artists to perform in a park under a tent is the equivalent of throwing lollipops from a parade float when your job as an arts office is to create sustained resources that support every art form in the city,” he said.
Today, Memorial Auditorium sits empty, waiting for whichever path the city chooses to take on its future. It has become a frequent target of graffiti, and wooden boards cover many of its windows and doors.
There’s one door that Lockridge said he would like to see put “back where it came from” at Memorial Auditorium: the sticker-covered office door from 242 Main. For now, he said, the museum will hold onto it.
Disclosure: Patrick Crowley has performed on Rocket Shop Radio Hour.
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