Calumet Theatre director outlines plans

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Marlin Lee, executive director of the Calumet Theatre, speaks during Wednesday’s Keweenaw Alliance meeting.

HANCOCK — Change is scary, Marlin Lee admits. But reaching for a dream should be.

“If you don’t have a dream, you don’t have something to look forward to, that’s not living, it’s just existing,” he said. “…You’ve got to step outside your comfort zone.”

Lee, executive director of the Calumet Theatre, spoke about his plans to broaden the theater’s ambitions and reach at Wednesday’s Keweenaw Alliance breakfast.

He estimated he’s talked to 1,000 people since taking the job, asking them about their experiences, good and bad.

“That’s the only way that you can make positive changes and make this what it should be, is to get input from the community,” he said.

For the first time in many years, the theater announced its schedule for the year at once, allowing people to plan in advance and also serving as a statement of intent.

Lee is working to improve the offerings at the theatre, moving away from tribute bands and bringing in higher-name performers.

Five artists on this year’s calendar have won or been nominated for a Grammy, including recent performer Shelby Lynne and Rodney Crowell.

While this year’s slate is music-heavy, Lee said he would also like to bring other acts such as comedy and theatrical productions.

Lee has changed the sponsorship package, including high-level sponsors on the website and its newspaper and radio advertisements.

One thing he’s noticed since coming to the Copper Country is the lack of cohesiveness, where L’Anse/Baraga, Houghton/Hancock, Calumet and Copper Harbor can feel like separate worlds. He’s working to bridge that gap, handing out pocket schedules in Copper Harbor and aiming for a Geico ad-level market saturation.

“My long-term goal for the theater is for it to be a catalyst and a leader in the revitalization of this area, and in particular, Calumet,” he said.

He is also looking beyond the Keweenaw. Later this week, Lee will do an interview about the theater with a radio station in Marquette. The Travel Channel will come to the theater this summer to film a segment for a paranormal show.

And Lee has talked with Marquette’s PBS station about filming a show modeled on “Austin City Limits.” There are obstacles — the station would need more equipment, and the show would need an underwriter. But it’s something that could make the theater known nationally, he said.

“That would be a goal of mine, but it’s one step at a time,” he said. “First, I’ve got to get butts in the seats.”

The path to Calumet was not an obvious one for Lee, who grew up in the Houston area. As a 16-year-old, Lee was sports editor for his high school paper, where he interviewed Houston Oilers head coach Bum Phillips. He continued working in sports in radio, where his first major assignment was the National League Championship Series in 1980 and working as a feature writer for the Oilers’ in-house publication. Among his close friends at the time was Jim Nantz, now famous as a sports announcer.

From there he moved into programming, working for large stations in Houston and Austin. Looking to get out of the big city, Lee sent out tapes to smaller markets in the Midwest. He landed in Lancaster, Wisconsin, a town of about 4,000. He worked as program director and ended on the coaching staff of a high school football team, where he won five championship rings. (The coaching experience helped shape the mentality of Lee, who still yells “Game day!” to staff when walking into the theatre the day of an event.)

He first came to the Keweenaw in 1996 while on vacation.

“All it took was a drive over Brockway, a drive through Eagle Harbor on (M-26), and we fell in love,” he said. “And we kept coming back.”

After his oldest son, Marlin Lee III, graduated in 2009, Lee moved back to Austin. there he did independent concert promotion and eventually hosted a morning radio show. His oldest son was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma cancer at 24, dying two years later in 2012.

They stayed in Texas until a 2016 vacation to the Keweenaw made Lee and his wife seriously consider moving to the Keweenaw.

Lee’s son still inspires him every day, he said.

“He taught me you value every day and every experience that you have, and you make every day a special day,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do at the Calumet Theatre.”