By Beth Probst
The Magic of Lucius Woods
Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center Begins Its 20th Season of Showcasing Eclectic Music in a Beautiful Outdoor Setting
“Lucius Woods puts Solon Springs on the map. It helps to promote the community and it is just one more thing for us to be proud of.”
– Board Secretary Ken Thoreson
Twenty years ago, something magical happened in a small county park in the heart of Douglas County. And each summer, thousands travel to the small village of Solon Springs to enjoy the sounds of the magical concerts that take place at Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center.
The Performing Arts Center was an unlikely response to a group of folks working to respond to economic development concerns in the Solon Springs area. The University of Wisconsin-Extension, community members and the Douglas County Forestry Department were brainstorming on how they could improve the long-term economy of Solon Springs. One person involved in these conversations was Frank Giesen, who grew up in Superior.
Giesen, who is a long-time music enthusiast, loved attending Ravinia Festival events when he lived in Chicago with his wife, Mary. The outdoor venue allowed them to hear wonderful music outside, under the stars. When they moved back to Wisconsin and settled in Solon Springs, the Giesens strongly believed that experience could be replicated in the great Northwoods, even with the challenges summer in Wisconsin occasionally presents.
A combination of timing, the Giesens’ unwavering passion for music and a community that backed their vision led from an idea on paper to building an outdoor band shell in the heart of the a Douglas County forest. In July of 1994, the first concert in the park took place, providing an experience that attendees, board and community members called simply magical. Now, 20 years later, this experience has been replicated dozens of times.
What makes Lucius Woods so special?
“Dragonflies flying through the air, birds overhead, surrounded by trees with the lake in the background…” Pat Pluntz, who retired from the Lucius Woods
Performing Arts Center executive director position earlier this year, can’t help but be a bit romantic in describing why the Music in the Park series she oversaw for more than a decade is so special.
One can’t argue with her about the magical feel of the park. But certainly, some shrewd and strategic decisions early on also played an important supporting role in making this venue successful.
“One of the best things we did early on is that children’s admission 12 and under is free,” Pluntz explained. “In addition, a half-price fee for students 13 years old through college was initiated. We wanted to encourage families to attend and keep kids interested in music.”
“Something magical happens when the artists appear on stage. To see the audience engaged with nature and music is really special.”
– retired Executive Director Pat Pluntz
As a result, the Concert in the Park series has a family feel to it. Since the concerts take place outside in a large park and people bring their own seating, kids have plenty of space to roam freely while being introduced to a variety of eclectic music.
That variety of music is another strategy that has served the venue well. “We’re always keeping in mind that our audience skews a bit older and as we age, so do they,” Pluntz said. “So we’re always trying to move down the age demographic by bringing in new kinds of music in hopes of drawing in new people.”
Perhaps most successful is an annual performance by The Whitesidewalls. The concert draws up to 2,000 attendees who enjoy the group’s performances of classic doo-wop to rockabilly to pounding rock and roll.
A gorgeous, family-friendly setting and eclectic music play a major role in making the venue a success. But regardless of how great the venue and performers are, if the acoustics aren’t right, it can be a deal breaker. The folks behind Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center understood this from the beginning.
To create the perfect sound, the group hired a Minneapolis firm to create the best music resonance possible in an outdoor space. The actual concert shell was carefully crafted from local wood harvested from the black forest in Gordon, Wis. It consists primarily of red pine logs and tamarack panels on the interior. The end result is an outdoor performance with the quality of a controlled, indoor concert.
“Something magical happens when the artists appear on stage,” Pluntz said. “To see the audience engaged with nature and music is really special.”
For 11 years, Pluntz worked hard to recreate that magic every summer. In 2012, she knew in her heart it was time to retire, so she announced her plans to the board. “This is a very demanding job, where one wears many hats,” Pluntz said. “I wanted to retire before I needed to retire because I couldn’t handle the demands of the job.”
About the time Pluntz made her decision, Teresa “Mick” Salmen was going through a major transition of her own. Salmen, who had been coming to the Solon Springs area every summer since she was little, decided to move to Solon Springs in August of 2012.
“The best part is when the season begins. To see all of the hard work of the past 12 months coming to fruition and see everyone having a wonderful time is pretty perfect.”
– Board President Jean Till
“I always knew I wanted to end up in Solon Springs,” Salmen explained. “There is just something special about this area.”
Once settled in Solon Springs, Salmen began putting out feelers for potential work in the area. “People in town knew I was job hunting and told me they thought Pat might be retiring in April,” she said.
A long-time attendee of the concert park series and friend of the Giesens, Salmen was certainly familiar with the venue. She called Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center to learn more about the position and discovered it was a perfect fit. In April, she took over as executive director – something Pluntz feels great about.
“She is going to do a wonderful job. She’s terrific and gets along with everyone,” Pluntz said. “She enjoys people and relates well with the volunteers. I know she’s going to experience many years of success.”
Salmen has a long career of managing people and projects. Most recently, she worked as a production manager for Shadetree Canopies in Columbus, Ohio. There, she supervised a staff of 25 to 50 while overseeing everything from inventory levels to orders, production schedules and shipping deadlines. That experience serves her well in her role as executive director. “I’m used to watching a project from beginning to end,” Salmen said.
In addition to her skill set and genuine passion for the venue, she says being new helps. “I think the biggest thing I bring to the table is a fresh perspective to the venue,” said Salmen. “I hope to bring some ideas that are outside the box, especially in the areas of marketing and media exposure.”
Some of the ideas she’s already mulling are to encourage the community of Solon Springs to become even more involved with the venue. “I’d love to see more local events,” she explained, “maybe add some day concerts featuring local groups targeted to those living in the area.”
Currently, Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center utilizes the concert shell on nine Saturdays during the peak of summer. The park and shell are actually owned by Douglas County and managed by the Douglas County Forestry Department. Each year, Lucius Woods informs the county of concert nights. The rest of the summer, the space can be rented out to anyone within the public, so there’s certainly room to grow the number of events hosted by this venue.
To do so, though, is not as easy as it sounds. Salmen is the only paid staff member of the organization. Outside of Salmen, the Friends of Lucius Woods organization is what makes the magic happen.
“Their help is huge. Without them, I couldn’t do my job,” Salmen said. Currently, 83 individuals participate in Friends of Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center. At performances, these volunteers set up, tear down, take tickets, distribute programs and sell merchandise. Outside of the concert season, they assist with mailings and other office duties. They also oversee two major fundraisers per year that help keep Lucius Woods in the black. These fundraisers include a silent auction during the busiest summer performance and a golf tournament and dinner in early fall.
Outside of the Friends of Lucius Woods group, local Solon Springs high school students also pitch in at the venue to meet their service project requirements. The Solon Springs Fire Department provides the parking and emergency services. The Solon Springs Lions Club provides the concessions; profits from the concession stand are used to support the club’s local charitable projects. And there are many others who volunteer. Some are spouses of members of these organizations and others are people who simply believe in the benefits of the Music in the Park concert series.
It became clear early on to Salmen (as it did to Pluntz) that without the Friends of Lucius Woods and other generous community members, Lucius Woods would struggle to survive.
“This venue is great for the area. It is certainly an economic driver for the Solon Springs area.”
– Executive Director Kaye Tenerelli, Superior Business Improvement District
“The biggest challenge for Lucius Woods will always be financial,” Pluntz said. “There is not an arts organization that I know of that relies on ticket sales alone. It is the generosity of sponsors and donors, along with countless volunteers, that makes Lucius Woods work.”
In addition to the Friends group, Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center has a very active and engaged board committed to setting the vision for the organization. Current Board President Jean Till first joined the board about seven years ago. Like most board members, she was a regular attendee of the concerts and was passionate about the venue.
Today, she says the board is focused on ensuring the next 20 years for Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center are just as successful as its first two decades. “We’re focused on keeping the concerts enjoyable by providing professional entertainment that is affordable for families and free for kids,” Till said.
To accomplish this, she says the board pays close attention to who is attending the concerts. “It is important for us to know our audience really well,” Till explained. “We need to be alert to the changes in people’s music tastes and work to reach all age groups throughout the summer.”
Till says the hard work is definitely worth it, come the season kickoff. “The best part is when the season begins,” she says. “To see all of the hard work of the past 12 months coming to fruition and to see everyone having a wonderful time is pretty perfect.”
Cindy Theien, immediate past president of the board, agrees. “This is a crowning event for our area,” she said. “It brings in people from all over, but is also an opportunity to see people you haven’t seen for a long time. It has a real community feel.”
This influx of people results in a positive economic impact for the area. Executive Director Kaye Tenerelli of the Superior Business Improvement District (and former Lucius Woods board president) has always been a long-time fan of outdoor entertainment. “This venue is great for the area,” said Tenerelli. “It is certainly an economic driver for the Solon Springs area.”
Given the location of Lucius Woods, people wanting to attend the concerts make Solon Springs their destination. As a result, area restaurants and gas stations experience the ripple effect of welcoming an influx of visitors to town on Saturday nights. It also introduces thousands of people to the area each summer who might not otherwise have known about its many attractions and scenic beauty.
Local business owner and Lucius Woods Board Secretary Ken Thoreson was first approached to join the board about 10 years ago by Frank Giesen. “He basically told me I had no choice,” Thoreson joked. “But that was okay, because I was excited to be part of the board.”
“It brings in people from all over, but is also an opportunity to see people you haven’t seen for a long time. It has a real community feel.”
– Cindy Theien, immediate past president of the board
While his business, Solon Mercantile, caters to area residents’ needs and doesn’t see direct economic benefits from the venue, Thoreson feels Lucius Woods helps Solon Springs as a whole. “Lucius Woods puts Solon Springs on the map,” he said. “It helps to promote the community and it is just one more thing for us to be proud of.”
This summer will likely be no exception. As part of the 20th anniversary concert series, Lucius Woods has created a concert schedule with some of the most popular previous performers it has ever had, including “An Evening with David Itkin and Special Guest De Ann Burger Letourneau.” Itkin is most known for his work on the movie score for “Sugar Creek.” He has also conducted a large number of professional orchestras, both here and abroad. The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra will also be returning to the venue with a slightly smaller version of the orchestra. The concert features the premier appearance of the new DSSO conductor, Dirk Meyer, and will focus on jazz performances. Finally, the popular Whitesidewalls will also make their annual trek to the Northwoods.
Other concerts include The Highwaymen (a tribute to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash) and Michael Perry & the Long Beds, with their special brand of country folk music.
In keeping with the goal of showcasing eclectic music, the summer concert series will feature some totally new acts including the Celtic sounds of Brian FitzGerald and Martin McCormack, also known as Switchback and the Switchback Dancers. And those longing for a touch of Las Vegas glitz will definitely get it when Frankie Moreno takes center stage.
The talented singer/songwriter/pianist plays for sold-out audiences at the Las Vegas Stratosphere and has been on national tours, co-headlining with SugarLand and Billy Currington. Moreno also wowed the audience on NBC’s “Dancing With the Stars” show, appeared on PBS’s “Great Performances, Live at Lincoln Center” and was named “Headliner of the Year” in Las Vegas.
The lineup is the perfect blend of old and new favorites and marks the start of the next 20 years of magic in the park. “We’re passing on a legacy that may look very different in 20 years,” Thoreson said. “As things change and the climate changes for concerts, I’m confident we’ll be able to adjust to new times and new audiences.”
This widespread commitment to keep Lucius Woods vibrant speaks volumes to what a community can do when it comes together to provide a magical experience for area residents and visitors alike. P.S.
Beth Probst is a freelance writer in Iron River, Wis.