When James Garner took the stage at Hutchins Street Square, he looked out in the audience and saw his family, some co-workers and long-time friends as well as strangers.
But when Garner and the rest of his band, who make up Tribute to Johnny Cash, started playing “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire,” everyone was thrilled to hear the classics of the American icon.
“The crowd was rambunctious,” he said. “The vast majority were first-time people, so it’s neat because it’s a new experience for them.”
Garner, who lives in Galt, enjoys playing at the Square because of the acoustics in the theater and the ability for the crowd to participate.
“It’s a home base, but even if it wasn’t that, the place is great,” said Garner, who during their last sound check tried out different seats around the theater. “I wanted to see what it looked like and to hear it. There’s no bad view anywhere in that room.”
Hutchins Street Square has become a center of community life in Lodi. It frequently hosts live performances, both national acts and local groups.
Upcoming performances include “Menopause the Musical,” which sold out two shows last year; Howard Hewett, an R&B singer; the Glenn Miller Orchestra; and more local events like “Don Quixote: The Ballet,” a performance by the Lodi Youth Ballet.
Finding a balance between local shows and bigger name acts is always a balance, said Jeff Hood, the city of Lodi’s director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services. Often, performers want to return, including Garner, Scot Bruce, a musician and actor w ho performs Elvis tributes, and Franc D’Ambrosio, who played the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “The Phantom of the Opera” in San Francisco.
“People who have come here before have had a good community response,” Hood said. “We are trying to create a seasons of shows.”
After decades of construction, Hutchins Street Square was completed in 1998 with the dedication of the Charlene Powers Lange Performing Arts Theater.
The Square, which was once Lodi’s high school, now offers meeting rooms, Kirst Hall that holds up to 800 people, a swimming pool kept at 88 degrees for seniors, a senior day care facility and art, cooking and exercise classes for all ages.
Classes for this summer include wire wrap jewelry, making marshmallows from scratch, fused art glass jewelry in a kiln, cartoon drawing, creative painting, belly dancing, children and adult ballet classes, tai chi and yoga.
The Square also offers summer camps for kids, including IntelliBricks Lego Engineers and Robotics Camp, which allows kids to build special robots, learn about solar energy and design a working machine with Legos.
For visitors, the main attraction is the 789-seat theater with a new sound system. It is all one level with a gradual rise in seats, selling points for performers and audience members alike.
The city works to balance bringing in high-end acts with keeping ticket prices low, Hood said. Theater performances usually range from $20 to $40.
“We try to find the sweet spot with tickets, especially with big names and the number of seats,” he said.
For D’Ambrosio, his favorite thing about the Square is the response he gets from Lodi crowds.
“The audiences of Lodi are very sophisticated, and they are the type of welcoming audience that I like to spend time with,” he said.
He appreciates the acoustics while playing in the theater. Plus, his pianists enjoy the Mason-Hamlin piano.
“It’s always a bonus when the acoustics of a theater are as good as Lodi,” D’Ambrosio said. “With electronic amplification you can make anything work, but nothing can truly mimic the acoustics of a good house.”
While Garner and his band obviously enjoy playing their hometown crowd, they also like the feel of Lodi in general.
“A big part of the equation is having a good place to do that and have a good crowd,” he said. “People come here to taste like they do in Napa Valley. And then they stop by Lodi because it’s a great place to see a show.”