Memory Lane: Foellinger Auditorium Takes the Stage

Lecture hall by day, concert hall by night

Louis Armstrong blowing a trumpet Louis Armstrong, 1956 (Image courtesy of UIAA)
Lecture hall by day, concert hall by night

The first concert at Foellinger Auditorium was right after it opened, as part of its Nov. 5, 1907, dedication program. The headliner was an orchestra led by Theodore Thomas, founder of the Chicago Symphony.

In the decades that followed, thousands of artists, from every genre, played on the auditorium’s stage, ranging from then up-and-comers such as Weezer and Talking Heads to music legends at their peak, including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

A list of Foellinger artists looks like a who’s who of American popular music: Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Tom Waits, R.E.M., Liz Phair, Little Feat, Lil Wayne, Wilco, and on and on, in concerts often sponsored by the student organization, Star Course.

For the legions of Illinois alumni who’ve attended those concerts—shoulder-to-shoulder, hot, sweaty, their ears ringing from the terrible acoustics—there’s always one show that’s burned into their memory.

For Matt Wilson, ’89 LAS, MBA ’13, it was the “living legend” B.B. King in 1988, who wowed blues aficionados and blues newbies alike.

For Thomas Bonk, ’93 ENG, it was a Pixies show in 1989, right after the release of their album, Doolittle. “It seemed like they were on the verge [of becoming really popular],” Bonk recalls. “And it felt like we were the cool kids in on a secret.”

For Pete Wung, ’83 ENG, it was a Ramones concert he didn’t even go to.

Ramones band performing on stage.

Ramones, 1981 (Image courtesy of Illini Media)

“I was studying with friends in the Foreign Languages Building, and it was so loud we couldn’t concentrate,” he says. “So we packed up and sat on the grass outside to listen.”

Ed Hulina, ’91 BUS, recalls another loud show, a 1990 BoDeans concert, where the band rocked so hard, “it looked like it was snowing inside, from the paint peeling off the ceiling while they played.”

Kevin O’Brien, ’87 MEDIA, cites another “great” BoDeans concert from 1993, which was especially notable for its opening act: Sheryl Crow, cigarette in her mouth, only months “before she was a household name.”

Like Hulina and O’Brien, many alumni remember lucking out by getting to see their favorite artists at the venue.

For Bridget Lee-Calfas, ’00 MEDIA, MS ’19 MEDIA, it was They Might Be Giants in 1998. She had been obsessed with them since age 11, when she stole their cassette from her older brother. “Having them on my home turf was particularly memorable,” she recalls.

For Hanna Ahn, ’08 LAS, MSLIS ’09, it was The Decemberists in 2007. “They were the soundtrack for my first three years of college!” she says.

Collage of concert flyers and Harry Chapin strumming a guitar and U2 perfomging on stage

Opened in 1907 and known as Foellinger Auditorium since its 1985 renovation, the historic lecture hall has hosted some of the biggest names in music. Bottom left: Harry Chapin, 1974. Bottom right: U2, 1982.(Images courtesy of UI Archives and Illini Media)

Then there are the thousands of alumni from the ’70s, including Julie Spitz Rock, ’76 AHS, and Kathy Tocci, ’79 ED, who will always remember Harry Chapin, the popular singer-songwriter who played Foellinger several times before dying in a car accident in 1981. “He was the best I ever saw there,” says Chuck Prosise, ’78 ENG.

Other alumni light up talking about the student groups they heard at Foellinger. “The first time I saw The Other Guys perform the ‘Morrow Plots Song,’ I laughed so hard I cried,” says Jorden Brotherton, ’10 ACES. “I was amazed at how one song about a corn field and a library could whip a room full of college kids into a frenzy.”

For more than a century, Illinois alumni and students have been forming concert memories like these: hot, sweaty, ears ringing, rocking out, getting whipped into frenzies—making a night of it at Foellinger Auditorium.