Welsh Going But Shows Will Go On

May 23, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Paul Revere and the Raiders, George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers and Canned Heat played there. So did Ted Nugent, long before he became the Motor City Madman. In the late 1960s, Nugent stood under the bright lights there as a front man for the Amboy Dukes in an all-Michigan rock concert that also featured the MC5.

But come Sunday, the stage lights in the Welsh Auditorium will go dark forever. Once the city’s premier venue for concerts, it will soon become a stack of memories for some and a pile of rubble for others.

The Welsh, known as the Civic Auditorium for much of its 71-year existence, will be razed this summer as part of the third phase of the DeVos Place construction. All of it won’t be dust and ashes, though. The art deco façade and lobby will nostalgically grace the south end of the new convention center and help to create the 40,000-square-foot ballroom that will take over the auditorium’s space.

In its heyday, the Welsh could squeeze in 4,400 for a concert. But for the past 18 months, the building’s capacity was reduced to 3,600 because of construction. Only two shows have played there over the past year and the annual Sweet Adelines competition brought the curtain down on music for the final time on May 10.

So what effect will the loss of the Welsh, which served as a mid-sized option for shows too small for Van Andel Arena and too big for DeVos Performance Hall, have on the local concert business? Especially when concert revenue has become even more vital due to the projected deficit for DeVos Place?

No drama here. The loss will mean little, if anything, for a trade expected to be worth about $1.6 million next year. In fact, since the Van Andel Arena opened almost seven years ago, the music business, like time itself, has passed the building by.

“We have continued to use it as an option, and we have definitely sold it that way. But the reality is, with the activity level in the venue and all the flat shows and conventions, the concert activity at Welsh has been very, very limited,” said Rich MacKeigan, SMG general manager, who oversee daily operations of the arena and Grand Center.

MacKeigan said the activity level at the auditorium has bottomed out for concerts because of a change at the arena. No longer must an act have the potential to fill the Van to book it. Now, the building is being partitioned to accommodate concerts that sell 3,500 to 5,000 tickets — once the exclusive sales territory of the Welsh.

Big Daddy’s Doo Wop Sh’Bop music review is the most recent example of that change. The fundraiser put on by the Convention and Arena Authority and SMG drew roughly 4,000 to the arena on a recent Friday night to hear the greatest hits of past decades. Just a few years ago, that doo-wopping would have echoed throughout the Welsh.

A second reason why the Welsh won’t be missed as a music venue is the new ballroom will be more than just a meeting space and dining room.

“People hear ballroom and all they’re hearing is meal functions. I foresee a very, very diverse programming opportunity in the new ballroom. I can see concerts. I can see comedy shows. I can see boxing events. I can see a lot of things we can do in there. So in my opinion, we are not foregoing many of those opportunities at all,” said MacKeigan.

MacKeigan even said that concertgoers would like the new surroundings of the yet-to-be-named ballroom over the 1920s décor of the Welsh. He also said the technical quality of the ballroom would top the auditorium’s, as newer sound equipment and lighting will be strung throughout the new space.

“The acoustics in the new facility will be exceptionally good. I would argue they would be better than the Welsh Auditorium just because of advancements in materials over the last few years. So I think the acoustics and the sound will be much better,” he said.

Also, look for dinner-and-a-concert events to be offered in the ballroom, which should open by January 2005 — nearly 73 years after the Welsh debuted as a modern auditorium.

History credits city commissioner, city manager and mayor George Welsh as the catalyst behind getting the Civic Auditorium built as a Depression-era project. Welsh passed away in 1973. Shortly after his death, the building was renamed in his honor.

For those who will miss the Welsh, a trip to the arena next month might be in order. Journey plays the Van with Styx and REO on June 11. That night, some might remember that way, way back in 1979, a much younger Journey began its trek to the top of the charts by appearing with Thin Lizzy at the Welsh.           

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