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Rock the Plaza has become one of the most popular events every summer, with a weekly slate of top-notch musical talent taking the stage on the Allen County Public Library plaza each Saturday evening. With four acts each week, there’s always a little something for everybody, but for many it’s just a great way to get out, enjoy summer and catch some great tunes. All free of charge. Since the event has been going on for over a decade now, it’s easy to feel like it’s always been part of our local offerings, always been part of downtown. But of course, like everything else, it started somewhere. And it didn’t start with the good folks at ACPL. It started with one enterprising musician who had something less grand, less permanent in mind.
“It was selfish, in all honesty,” says Kyle Haller, who describes Rock the Plaza as “my baby.”
“I was driving by the library when they were renovating it and saw that stage. I loved that stage and just wanted to play on it.”
Haller, who was born in Albion but spent most of his youth in Fort Wayne, says he’s been playing in bands as long as he’s been old enough to play. His band Phil’s Family Lizard is well known to the Fort Wayne music community, and when Haller says he just wanted a chance for his band to take the library plaza by storm, he’s admitting that he had no idea what he started.
“I just started begging library people until eventually I talked to Steven Fortriede who no longer works there but at the time was second in command. I went in and talked to him and told him I really wanted my band to play there. He listened but told me that they really don’t do one-time deals like that, that they prefer doing a series of events. So I told him, ‘Hey we can do a summer series of concerts!’ Then he was interested. He just said ‘Really?’”
Having now piqued the interest of ACPL to serve as hosts for the series, it was up to Haller to make it happen. When Fortriede asked him how many people might attend such a thing, Haller estimated 50, which sounded good to ACPL. It turns out Haller was off by a bit.
“That first show we got 200, and the library was thrilled. The first year we did seven shows, every other week, and people loved it. So the next year we decided to do it every week. The library has been really happy with it because it does well with little kids and adults, but during the teen years the library tends to lose them a bit. So this became a way for them to reach the teens, but the shows themselves draw from all ages. You’ll see a grandma sitting next to a punk kid.”
Having now gone through the process of planning and booking Rock the Plaza for 11 years, Haller has it down to a science of sorts, and the three months when all the action is taking place and the shows are actually happening are his down time.
“Really, when Rock the Plaza is happening is when I do the least,” says Haller. “I start in September to get a lot of things going – sponsorships, getting the logistics in order – and work on that until the end of the year. Then March and April is when I really start booking the bands.”
Deciding who will play in each summer series is the nuts and bolts of what he does, but it’s also right up his alley. He looks at who has played in recent years, happy to bring back a popular act but unwilling to bring back the same lineup each year. Then he starts checking out new bands, attending shows as much as he can. And some bands reach out to him as Rock the Plaza gains more attention with each year.
“There are some tried and true acts that come back all the time. The Sunny Taylor Band plays about every year because she’s just so popular. But I also like to give a new band a chance. I try to balance the big names with the up and coming so those new acts can get some exposure. There are some very, very good bands that I’d like to book, but I just don’t have the slots or we can’t make the dates work.”
And while Haller tries to keep it local, sometimes he ventures outside of Fort Wayne to bring in a band he really thinks will appeal to the Rock the Plaza audiences.
“I had a band from Texas get in touch with me once, so we get interest from outside the area. Usually when they find out that it’s not a paying gig, that’s the end of that. But I’m still willing to talk to some bands that aren’t necessarily from here, and if a band is from Warsaw or Wabash or something, then it’s still this general area.”
One other consideration and annual threat at Rock the Plaza is weather. Last year moved along pretty smoothly, but Haller admits that weather is always a concern.
“Two years ago half of the shows were rained out. It was a huge headache. We have no rain dates, so if a show is rained out, it’s just rained out. So when I’m planning shows the next year, I give first consideration to a band that missed out because of a rain-out. They get top priority. But the weather situation is always a tough call. One time there was a threat of rain so we canceled and then – nothing. The guy who does our sound does a fantastic job, and I usually let him make the final call because he’s out there with $10,000 worth of equipment that doesn’t react well to water. We’ve played a few times in light rain, but if there’s lightning, then we’re done.”
Haller loves being part of all the changes downtown and even enjoys a few of the distractions that can come up during the performances.
“I love that the TinCaps have fireworks after every game and love seeing people leaving the game walking through the plaza during a show. I think anything that happens downtown benefits us all. All these events just feed off each other and makes every other thing a bigger draw.”
Although often encouraged to have theme nights at Rock the Plaza, Haller prefers his blend of everything, which means every show has something for everyone. And now drawing anywhere from 500-2500 people each week during the hot summer months, Haller just enjoys seeing the pleasure people get from Rock the Plaza.
“I love seeing the people and so many familiar faces each week. I like to talk to everybody, and I love seeing teenagers skateboarding nearby. It’s just a great sense of camaraderie and a great sense of community. My motto is ‘This is our town. Let’s rock it.’”