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The Ark readies year-long celebration of 50th anniversary
As it turns 50 this year, it's tempting to say The Ark in Ann Arbor was built to last, just like the folk music it champions.
But while the intimate venue has stood the test of time, it wasn't always on solid footing.
"There was a time, a long time, when it was pretty tenuous," recalls Dave Siglin, who was The Ark's manager from 1969-2008 and, along with his wife Linda, is widely credited for establishing it as one of A-list music rooms in the nation. "For the first 10 years we were there, 15 years, until 1984 practically, we were taking very little salary and just getting it through each year to the next year.
"We were basically just tenacious, and it paid off."
That's an understatement. Over the course of its 50 years, three locations and more than 10,000, The Ark enjoys a reputation as a vital, prestigious performance space whose 300 events per year include shows by an international array of artists ranging from acoustic troubadours and rowdy electric blues and rock bands to shape note singers and storytellers. Its who's-who roster of performers over the years, including at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival and fundraiser The Ark has hosted since 1965, -- has included Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, David Bromberg, Taj Mahal and more contemporary favorites such as Ingrid Michaelson and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
No matter who's playing, however, the 400-seat upstairs space at the current location on South Main Street is marked by an intimacy that appeals as much to the artists as it does to the crowd.
"The Ark audience is as appreciative, attentive and knowledgeable as anywhere in the country," says Jeff Daniels, the Emmy Award-winning actor and singer-songwriter from Chelsea, Mich., who's performed several times at The Ark and is serving as the honorary chairman of the 50th anniversary celebration. "If you've written something...the words are not so much heard as absorbed. They're in the walls, and you can feel it. It's the kind of place you want to have played and played well."
Ferndale-based Jill Jack, who plays an annual birthday show at The Ark, adds that, "To be able to land a show at The Ark took years. The venue has such history. So many artist that I respect have graced that stage, and I wanted to add my name to the list." Furthermore, Jack says, "People come to The Ark expecting to see a great show; as an artist you feel that expectation when you walk up on that stage. It's always one of the highlights of our year of shows."
That reputation is shared well beyond Ann Arbor and Michigan. During his Ark appearance in December British pop auteur Nick Lowe jokingly welcomed the crowd "to my 950th Ark show" and, prior to the show, said that, "It's one of my favorite places in the world. It's a gem, that place." And Jim Fleming, whose Ann Arbor-based Fleming Artists agency books 50 or more shows at The Ark in some years, acknowledges that it's "one of the key places on 'the circuit.' There are (performers) who feel like it's a hallowed place. It's like playing Carnegie Hall for some of them. It really is held that much reverence by people."
The Ark was not founded with such lofty intents. The original space was established during April of 1965 as a coffee house by four Ann Arbor churches in the First Presbyterian Church's Hill House. It wasn't designed to be a religious institution but rather a home for a free and "safe" exchange of ideas and culture -- albeit without alcohol or drugs.
"We've thought of it as an open-ended family...of volunteers and performers and audience members," Siglin says. "It felt like a place where everyone was in it together, very comfortable. It's the most completely altruistic organization I've ever been involved in."
Early Ark programming not only included music -- pops singer Larry Henkel played the first ticketed music show -- but also Thursday Night Forums on a wide range of topics, movies and Sunday evening non-sectarian worship services and pot-luck dinners, as well as Thanksgiving parties for the community. There were Wednesday evening Open Stage hootenannies, and The Ark's Saturday night shows often stretched well into the wee hours of Sunday morning as artists playing at other venues wandered in and joined their compatriots on stage.
"One person would sing and the others would fall asleep for seven or eight minutes until it was their turn again," Siglin recalls. "The only rule was if there was more than one minute of silence between songs, it was over."
Among the many who performed at The Ark during its early years were comic Gilda Radner during her student days, a young James Osterberg (aka Iggy Pop) as the drummer in a band called the Prime Movers and Will Greer, who was part of the first Tribute To Woody Guthrie in America and later became Grandpa Walton on TV. Siglin remembers booking the Parrish Gurvitz Band from England, which arrived with a 40-foot semi-truck full of equipment and played so loud that it shook the plaster from the ceiling and patrons chose to listen from across the street, through The Ark's open doors and windows.
"The music was so incredible, and it was so exhilarating," recalls Siglin, who's currently working with the University of Michigan and former Library of Congress folk archivist Phil Hickerson to digitize recordings and other memorabilia he has from his days at The Ark. "The way we booked, we would have musicians who played there who we liked, who we respected, who we felt should play The Ark -- not could play, but SHOULD play. And they would recommend to other people they felt should play there to give us a call."
The church money disappeared during the early 70s, which forced Siglin and company to scramble to keep the Ark alive, and in 1984 the venue relocated to what Siglin calls Ark II, above the South Main Market (now the Neutral Zone) during September of 1984. Acquiring a liquor license and also incorporating funds from the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival that began in 1977 helped The Ark become solvent, and the venue took on a whiff of professionalism in place of the previously organic, folksy flavor.
"The community concept kind of broke down at that point," Siglin notes. "I mean, we lived at (Hill House). Some of the volunteers lived on the same street. Some of the artists would stay at the house. But that changed.
"When you close one door you open another. I'm not saying it's not as good now as it was then. It's different than it was then. But it's still great. The music is phenomenal, and there's much, much more variety."
THE NEXT 50...AND BEYOND
The Ark today tries to hold true to the venue's original values, according to Executive Director Marianne James.
"There's a sense of community that has really gathered around this organization that came from grass roots and has kept to those roots in a lot of ways," says James, who's been with The Ark since 1997 and took over when Siglin retired. The values of the people who founded The Ark back as a coffeehouse...has stayed with The Ark, a sense of a safe and welcoming place, a sense of community with an underlying belief that music has the power to enrich the human spirit.
"Even though we've changed and grown, we still think that's the foundation of what The Ark is."
In addition to a wider array of musical styles ("We have a pretty broad definition of folk," James acknowledges), The Ark -- which was once a partner of Ypsilanti's Frog Island Festival -- continues to expand its reach outside its own walls to present shows at larger venues such as the Michigan Theater and U-M's Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor and the Royal Oak Music Theatre. Another priority this year, according to James, is a capital campaign to pay off the mortgage. "After that," she says, "we'll be turning to the community to ask, 'What does the community need The Ark to be doing besides 300 days of (shows) and the Folk Festival?' That to me is the most important way to take The Ark into its next stage of evolution."
James and company -- a corps of 400 volunteers and 4,000 annual members -- will be trying a few of those things during the 50th anniversary celebration, which begins with this year's Folk Festival Jan. 30-31 at Hill Auditorium and stretches through the 2016 edition. Jeff Daniels will perform a benefit concert, and a series of special in-the-round shows, dubbed "flings," will take place during July. The Ark is also considering a film series, possibly in conjunction with the Michigan Theater, and more hootenanny-type jam sessions are also on the docket, James says.
The agenda is ambitious, but The Ark has certainly shown during the past 50 years that it knows how to realize ambitions both great and small.
"The Ark moving forward is great," says Siglin. "I marvel at some of the stuff they've done. We needed younger blood booking it, and a fresh look period, and they're doing great. I look for it to be there for 50 more years, frankly. It's solid as a rock."
The 38th Ann Arbor Folk Festival
6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 30-31
Performers include Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Yonder Mountain String Band, Baskery, Bahamas, Mandolin Orange, Billy Strings & Don Julin and emcee Steve Poltz (Friday); Amos Lee, Ani DiFranco, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Holly Williams, the Dustbowl Revival, Noah Gunderson, Laith Al-Saadi (Saturday) and emcee Cheryl Wheeler.
Tickets are $37.50-$500.
Call 734-761-1818 or visit www.theark.org.
THE ARK BY THE NUMBERS
Total shows: 10,183 (estimated)
Most performances: RFD Boys, more than 420
Members: 4,000 annually
Total volunteer hours per year: 21,500
Average volunteers working per show: 13
Total cups of coffee served per year: 3,000
Total Michigan craft beers poured per year: 10,100
Pounds of locally grown popcorn served per year: 1,675 pounds
Tubs of locally grown popcorn eaten per year: 13,400
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