Friends of Miller Spotlight: Gary Chartrand

Photo og Gary ChartrandGary Chartrand is a professor of mathematics at Western Michigan University, an avid fan of musical theatre, and a Friend of Miller Auditorium. Over the years, he’s seen more than 700 hundred performances on and off Broadway, including a ten day trip to New York to see ten musicals in 1998 chronicled by the Kalamazoo Gazette. Despite his willingness to travel far for the arts, Chartrand has always appreciated the ability to enjoy world-class theatre right here in Kalamazoo.

My main hobby has always been musical theatre.  Although I’m a mathematician and have no formal connection with music, theatre, or musical theatre, this has been an important part of my life for 60 years.  Just as I’ve been interested in where mathematical problems come from and what makes certain topics and problems interesting, I’ve been interested in how musicals came about and in the people who constructed them. In a certain sense, there’s a story involved in each, but the songs add emotion and give you more insight into the characters and the story.

I was named after the movie actor Gary Cooper.  My mother said that they started taking me to the movies when I was three years old, and we would often go to the movies two to three times a week.  My father’s favorite movies were musicals.  After coming home from seeing a musical, my father would often go to the piano and play songs from the movie we just saw.  I always thought it was neat that he remembered the songs. 

At age 13, I moved to Lansing and attended Lansing Sexton High School.  Sometime during that period I became aware of Broadway musicals.  Whenever I had some spare money, I would buy a record containing music from a Broadway musical.   I started learning about composers and lyricists, including Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern—but I had never seen a musical on stage.  In fact, I think I believed that to see one, it was necessary to go to New York City.  I was not even sure what a musical on stage looked like.

One afternoon, in 1954, when I was a senior in high school, I heard music from the auditorium as I walked past.  The door was open and I walked in.  I found out that “South Pacific” was touring (whatever that meant) and would be playing at my high school for a few days.  I bought a ticket and saw it.  That did it.  I was hooked.  Not long ago, I determined that I have now seen over 700 stage productions of musicals.

I came to Kalamazoo in 1964, before there was a Miller Auditorium. I quickly learned that the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre existed and was very pleased about it.  I was already aware of the Barn Theatre in Augusta. 

I decided that I needed to see a musical on Broadway and that I would go to New York City.  I kept looking for a new show and decided on “Holly Golightly” (later changed to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain.  It closed quickly though and I never got to see it.

It was great to hear that Miller Auditorium was going to be built at WMU.  I had gone to a lot of trouble to see musicals elsewhere.  I made so many round trips to the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. 

I really don’t know how many shows I’ve seen at Miller Auditorium, certainly more than 100, perhaps more than 150.  I’ve seen performances of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.  It was great to see composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Sammy Cahn in person.  I’ve seen “Nutcracker” several times and “Gold Company.”  I saw the Christmas shows with Andy Williams at Miller.  I (and many others I’m sure) remember the Andy Williams TV show with the Osmond Brothers.  In fact, Marie Osmond came to Miller Auditorium to star in “The Sound of Music”; I saw that twice.  Before Shaw Theatre, University musicals were performed at Miller Auditorium.  I remember seeing “Oklahoma!”, and in fact, one of my students played the role of Aunt Eller.  Another University musical that played at Miller was “Brigadoon.”  A former neighbor of mine from Sault Ste. Marie was in that show.

One thing that I’ve always been happy about living in Kalamazoo is the interest in and opportunities to see musical theatre.  While it has been especially nice to see high quality professional shows at Miller Auditorium, I have seen musicals put on by WMU, at four high schools, the Farmer’s Alley Theatre, the Barn Theatre, Comstock Center Stage Theatre, Tibbits Opera House in Coldwater, the Wharton Center at MSU, DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids, and the Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw, Indiana.

I’ve never been interested in being an actor but I would have loved to participate in the creation of musicals (if I had had the talent).  Nevertheless, I enjoy not only attending these shows but supporting them in other ways.  I wish I had been introduced to this when I was younger, but I think it’s good if young people are introduced to this form of entertainment and education early in their lives.   Of course, I also think that much of mathematics is interesting, but it probably requires more effort to convince people of this.

Because of patrons like Gary, Miller Auditorium is able to make a difference, entertain, enlighten, and educate thousands of people across the region.