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Becoming a Yooper: The Calumet Theatre; Finding a treasure

On one of my weekend exploratory trips I went to Calumet, Michigan, 15 miles north of Hancock. The town was a historical treasure. I learned that in its zenith, at the turn of the century, it was a thriving town surrounded by copper mines. At its height there was even some talk in the Michigan legislature to make Calumet the State Capital.

The mines were owned by big money interests from the Boston area. From 1907-1968 daily passenger trains connected the town to the rest of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. In fact, one could get on the “Sleeper” in Chicago in the early evening and arrive in Calumet the next morning. European Immigrants poured into the area seeking and finding work in the copper mines. Calumet was settled in 1864. Its original name was “Red Jacket” named for a Native American Chief of the Seneca tribe.

Truck farming and dairy industry also flourished but the big money was in mining and the smelting of copper. By 1900 the town, now known as Calumet, had grown to 4,668, and the township consisted of 25,000 inhabitants. Sadly by 2010, due to several strikes and the closing of the mines, that number had dropped to 726.

At the turn of the century the mining company sweetened the deal by providing the village with “paved streets,” the first in Michigan. This was done in order to maintain “total control” over the “village” of Calumet. This would keep the “village” from incorporating into a “city,” which would mean taking control away from the mining company. The company also provided Calumet with a first class hospital. They also provided outstanding police and fire departments. The mining company also built and donated to the “village” a combination town hall, fire barn and a state of the art theatre.

It was the theatre that drew my attention. It was, in its day, a magnificent performance venue. It attracted internationally famous talent such as: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Lon Chaney, John Philip Sousa, Sarah Berhardt and Madame Modjeska. The acoustics were phenomenal. One could sit in the second balcony, and without aid of any electronic amplification, understand every word spoken on stage! For me, it cried out, “THE SOUND OF MUSIC!”

While teaching in Lower Michigan, I had produced and directed several Broadway plays, such as “Camelot, The King and I, You’re a Good Man Charley Brown and THE SOUND OF MUSIC!” I just knew what we were going to do that this winter. There was no question in my mind. I could hardly wait to get back to Suomi and start developing my plans.

But, first things first. I needed to tell my employers about my plan to produce and direct the Sound of Music at the Calumet Theatre in December. My announcement nearly brought on some heart failures, but fortunately I had brought a lot of P.R. material with me describing my previous productions.

It took a while to convince the administration before they gave their blessing. This was going to be something new and big for Suomi, and the school’s administration realized it’s P.R. value for the school.

I contacted Earl Gagnon, the senior editor of the Daily Mining Gazette, and he almost had a stroke. He was so excited, and he asked me to come over to his office right away so he could do a story about my idea. We set up a time, and my dream project was on its way. The next day the entire Copper Country knew of my plan. Earl was a good man to know.

My students were equally excited. This was not something they had expected when they chose to come to Suomi. My choir, I had named it “The Suomi Singers,” began to grow. Students with a variety of theatre backgrounds contacted me and offered their expertise. We were on our way.

My first interview with Gagnon, proved to be the beginning of a long relationship. He loved theatre and loved the Calumet Theatre. For him, it was a dream come true. The Calumet Theatre was coming to life again. Our relationship was such that I had to be careful in what I said to him. Any idea that I discussed with him was sure to be in the Daily Mining Gazette the next day.

On one of my trips to the Calumet Theatre I saw a train, a couple of freight cars and an engine, slowly moving towards Calumet. It gave me an idea! How about reliving the past, when folks could take the train from Houghton and Hancock to Calumet? We could do a Theatre Train, complete with refreshments, tickets to “The Sound of Music” and maybe have Shuttie’s Bar, right next to the theatre, provide refreshments during the intermission! After the show the theatre goers could take the train back to Hancock and Houghton. We could ask people to dress in period costumes! I could hardly wait to get back to my office to call my new friend, Earl. Needless to say, he almost went ballistic! He gave me the name and phone number of a person who operated a small sightseeing train near Copper Harbor. I called him, we had a nice conversation, and he asked me if he could come and see me. We arranged for a time, and a couple of days later Clint Jones, President of the Keweenaw Central Railroad, came to my office. He was a delightful man, and a fountain of information about the history of railroads in the U.P. He admired my enthusiasm, and listened to my plan to have a Theatre Train from Houghton to Hancock and then on to Calumet. He then began to explain why my plan, as much as he would like to see it come to fruition, was not possible for the following reasons:

1.) At the turn of the century we would have had to deal with just one railroad company, the Mineral Range. Today it would involve crossing right of ways of the Keweenaw Central, the Soo Line and possibly other companies. Even though those lines no longer operated trains in the U. P. they still owned the land on which the tracks were built.

2.) The coaches of the Keweenaw Railroad that were still operating for tourist sightseeing rides, only operated in the summer, and were not capable of being heated during the cold U. P. winters.

3.) The insurance costs would make the entire venture cost prohibitive.

Well, so much for that idea! Disappointed? Of course, but there was no time for sadness. I had “Sound of Music” scripts and theatre backdrops to order. There were tryout dates to put on the calendar and tapes of the solo parts to order so that the potential cast members could practice at home. A million things to do, but oh, what a goal to work towards. Of course, in the meantime I had my classes to teach, organ students to work with, plus I had to do my own choir and organ practice at Trinity Episcopal to get ready for my first Sunday service. I soon realized that “free time” was an illusionary thing.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.

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