A look at Illinois State University’s Braden Auditorium shortly after it opened in 1974. (Photo courtesy of Dr. JoAnn Rayfield Archives)
Braden Auditorium holds an autograph collection that reads like a roll call of the biggest pop stars of the last half century. It just happens to be hidden away in a couple of small, backstage rooms.
Many of the hundreds of stars who have performed at the 38-year-old concert venue have marked their appearances by signing the cinder-block walls inside the star dressing rooms. The graffiti are as diverse as the acts. A large drawing of a red chili pepper, courtesy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, shares space on the same walls that feature the classic tags of Bob Hope and Johnny Cash and the brash cursive of a pre-Purple Rain Prince.
The practice is not unique—it’s common for stars to sign their dressing rooms—but the names are a testament to the auditorium’s rich history.
“When it opened they were really booking top of the line entertainment,” said Bone Student Center Associate Director Barb Dallinger ’81, M.S. ’01.
As Braden Auditorium’s booking coordinator from 2003 to 2007 and from January 2012 to the present, Dallinger has rubbed elbows with her fair share of stars, including Whoopi Goldberg, B.B. King, and Jeff Foxworthy. But her point is well taken.
Before the days of the U.S. Cellular Coliseum and the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, Braden Auditorium was the only game in town for major acts crossing the Illinois prairie, notwithstanding the occasional show at Horton Field House, or later at Redbird Arena.
“If you wanted to go to an event, you had to go to Braden,” Dallinger said.
Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, Barry Manilow, a Rush/Kiss double bill, and Muddy Waters were among the early visitors to what was then called Union Auditorium. Peter Gabriel, the British rock star, even recorded some of the music for his 1982 live album, Plays Live, inside Braden Auditorium.
The beat kept going through the 1990s and early 2000s when the venue hosted young acts in their prime—Pearl Jam in ’91, Cypress Hill with Rage Against the Machine in ’93, Beck in ’97, Brad Paisley in ’05—and legends, such as Bob Dylan in ’90, Aretha Franklin in ’95, Bruce Springsteen in ’96, and George Jones in ’05.
Braden Auditorium has also pulled in cultural heavyweights such as composer Marvin Hamlisch and the State Ballet Theatre of Russia. And a long list of musicals have taken advantage of the venue’s stage, which at 72 feet wide with 38-foot-wide wings can accommodate the largest Broadway shows.
“You name it. We can do it,” Dallinger said.
Despite the big stage and the 3,457-seat capacity, the venue is surprisingly intimate; instead of expanding far outward, its three seating levels seemingly rise to the ceiling, putting the balcony closer to the stage than one would expect in such a large auditorium.
“We are very blessed with an amazing venue,” Dallinger said. “They walk in in that back door, and you can see their mouths drop.”
On tap this fall at Braden Auditorium are concerts by alternative rockers The All-American Rejects and Boys Like Girls on October 12 and Australian-born singer/songwriter Rick Springfield of “Jessie’s Girl” fame on November 3. The Twin Cities Ballet will perform The Nutcracker on December 1 and 2.
Tickets can be purchased at the Braden Box Office or www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, call the Braden Box Office at (309) 438-5444 or visit the Bone Student Center website.
Q & A: Friendly stars and unusual requests
Five more questions for Barb Dallinger:
Why has Braden Auditorium’s schedule been so light the last few years?
Competition with other venues and economics have been the main factors, according to Dallinger. Nowadays, lesser-known acts expect $12,000-$20,000 and the big boys demand upward of a half a million dollars for a couple of hours of entertainment. “That’s why the tickets are pricey to go see some of these people,” Dallinger said.
What performers do people most want you to book?
In the past, students have requested pop star John Mayer and Maroon 5. Twin City natives want more Broadway and Barry Manilow, who first appeared at Braden Auditorium in 1975. And Dallinger, a fan of Broadway shows, would like to bring The Lion King.
What have been a few of the more unusual riders that performers have requested?
Dallinger refused to name names, but one starlet asked for six new sleeveless T-shirts and six pairs of new socks. The requests were denied. Another asked for a brand of water that is sold only in Colorado. When she received Evian instead, she threw the bottles out of her dressing one at a time while saying, “This is not the water I asked for.”
Who have been the friendliest stars you have met?
While most of the performers have been very nice, B.B. King, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Foxworthy, and Larry the Cable Guy hold special places in Dallinger’s memory. Once Goldberg gave her $100 to buy beer and pizza for a group of students who had to stand in the rain all day watching her tour bus. When Dallinger said she couldn’t buy beer for students, Goldberg replied, “Just give them the money. They’ll know what to do with it.”
What’s planned for the future?
Braden Auditorium is turning 40 next school year, and staff is gathering archival materials and planning events to mark the anniversary. What would be an appropriate birthday present for the venerable concert hall? “It needs some love and a checkbook,” Dallinger said.
Writer’s note: I first visited Normal in 1997 for a Beck concert during his Odelay tour. I don’t remember much about the trip other than eating my first head-sized burrito at La Bamba’s before the show and being mesmerized when Beck, alone on stage, wailed on harmonica during the blues foot-stomper “One Foot in the Grave.”
So what was your favorite concert at Braden Auditorium? Share your memories in the Comments below.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.