Building memories through music

Irvin, left, greets former Executive Director Alan Hagstrom, who returned to Green Lake from Hugo, Minn. to honor his successor.

by Joe Schulz

Whether it’s a first date, performing with the Missoula Children’s Theatre or rocking out to Poco or Jim Messina, the Thrasher Opera House has been helping the Green Lake community build memories for the last 20 years.

Creating musical magic through live entertainment is the Thrasher’s mission.

The person most responsible for carrying that out, Roby Irvin, is set to retire June 1.

Irvin is a bit of a jack of all trades.

He’s an expert woodworker, an avid music buff owning more than 12,000 CDs and records, a gentle soul who can negotiate with agents one minute and fine tune the stage sound the next.

He’s a musical Santa Claus with a ponytail, often dressing in his signature plaid shirt with baseball cap.

Ask him about the Thrasher and watch his eyes light up as he explains it has given him “enough memories to last 1,000 lifetimes.”

Irvin has been involved with the Thrasher since its remodel in the 1990s. Executive Director Maria Dietrich described Irvin getting involved with the Thrasher as the right man in the “right place at the right time.”

He had just moved to the Midwest from California, where he spent years as a community organizer.

At that time, he wasn’t involved in music professionally. Irvin earned his living as a woodworker and boat builder.

In fact, boat building brought him to Green Lake, while the opportunity to be involved with a small community and help build something from the ground up is what made him stay.

Irvin’s involvement with the Thrasher began when real estate broker Ron Hagstrom gave him a small woodworking gig.

“I figured that would lead to other work around the lake,” Irvin said.

He designed a magazine rack whose craftsmanship so impressed Hagstrom that he asked Irvin to help him renovate and restore the Thrasher to make it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

At that time, Irvin described it as a “warehouse,” abandoned and empty.

While spending the summer of 1996 renovating the building, ensuring it was accurate to its original 1910 design, Irvin discovered the lasting power of memories formed at the Thrasher.

He was in the middle of reconstructing the building when “this elderly gentleman appeared, and quite literally with a tear in his eye said, ‘I am so happy to see you guys restoring this building. Because I had my first date there.’’’

It was then that Irvin realized the Thrasher was more than just an old building. It is a place where lifelong memories can form.

During the remodel, Irvin researched the Thrasher before going to Madison to testify in front of the state historical society. It was there where he explained that, “For over 100 years, [the Thrasher] has been a community gathering place.”

After the building was named a historical landmark, Hagstrom kept Irvin around and sent him to a conference to learn what it would take to begin booking artists to perform.

When Irvin got back from the conference, he told Hagstrom that, “the only way this is going to work, from everything I learned at one conference, is to form a non-profit and run it as a non-profit.”

The Thrasher officially became a non-profit in 1999 and in 2001 Irvin was named its first executive director.

Dietrich said that at the time, Irvin had no experience as an executive director and, “certainly didn’t expect to be running a non-profit opera house, because he was a contractor.”

From the start, Irvin has been involved in booking acts. Dietrich said his eye for talent comes from his deep love of music.

“When he was growing up in California, he used to play in a band,” she said. “He’s always had this avid lifelong passion for music.”

Irvin explained that at first booking artists was difficult because the Thrasher can only seat about 200 people, making it a small venue for musicians.

“Our first year, we were lucky if we had six events of our own,” he said. “Last year we had over 35.”

Development Director Rachael Avery said Irvin has been solely responsible for researching and booking talent for the Thrasher since she’s been with the organization.

“Since I’ve known him, he’s always had his eye on the future, and how we can make this place better every chance we get,” Avery said.

Irvin noted he’s always taken a “fiscally conservative” approach to booking talent. Because the Thrasher is a small theater, he said he can’t afford to pay for artists to fly in for a one-night performance, meaning he has to wait until they are touring near Wisconsin.

If a location in Illinois or Minnesota cancels on an artist, it will likely mean the artist has to cancel their Green Lake performance, Irvin said, “so you just go, ‘OK we’ll wait until the next opportunity.’”

He said artists are willing to come to Green Lake for less money because of the welcoming small-town atmosphere.

“They know it’s going to be fun … and meaningful to the people in a small community,” he said.

Irvin noted his first breakthrough in programming came when he booked George Winston in 2001 for a charity concert, in partnership with the Green Lake Food Pantry.

He booked Winston on a Monday night and joked with his co-workers that the worst thing that could happen would be if the Packers played a Monday night game.

When the NFL released its schedule that year, it turned out that the Packers were set to take on the Bears on the same Monday that Winston would be at the Thrasher.

“We did sell it out; the show went really well,” Irvin said.

He noted booking Winston was the first time he realized that the Thrasher was really onto something.

“The thing that impressed me the most was that the agent called me after that show and said, ‘This has never happened before, George is very particular, but he sent me a three-page letter saying how much he enjoyed playing with you guys. He wants to come back and for me to find more places like the Thrasher,’” Irvin recalled.

He added Winston returned to the Thrasher six times after his initial performance in 2001.

Irvin stepped down from being executive director in 2016, and even though he’s retiring, the memories he’s made at the Thrasher will stay with him for the rest of his life.

He probably could tell you about every act he’s ever booked if you asked him.

Irvin said seeing the Thrasher restart from scratch, and to see it thrive and be in a position to stay in the community is all the reward he could ask for.

Avery added the Thrasher has become a part of Irvin because of how long he’s been there. “What I’ve known the most about Roby is that he loves this opera house.”

For Irvin, the patrons making memories has always been the most important thing because the Thrasher has blessed him with so many.

“What’s really been important is the memories that it has created for the patrons,” he said. “Mostly my feelings come from seeing other people moved by the performance and seeing the emotions that you can actually generate through the arts.”