Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

When Phil Strang talks, his speech is natural and reflective. He could be discussing what he ate for lunch and still manage to sound insightful. Yet his appearance couldn’t be more casual. Sitting comfortably in a gray and white Chicago Bulls shirt on the second floor of Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois, Strang is clearly at ease with his identity, despite the variety of occupations he’s pursued throughout life.
Since he moved from New York to Champaign, Ill., at the age of 17, Strang has worked as a record-store owner, musician, artist and, as of 2005, the manager of Foellinger Auditorium.
“It’s fun,” Strang says of his position at Foellinger. “I’m the only full-time person, so what I do, besides hiring and training all the staff, is coordinate the scheduling of events.”
The task may sound simple on paper, but Strang would argue otherwise.
“It’s sort of the same job as a producer,” Strang says. “I’m often on the phone, on the fax, and on e-mail all at the same time, working on three different things at once.”
“Phil always puts in a solid 40-hour week,” says Dan Kovari, general staff manager at Foellinger. “It’s a demanding job because he has to coordinate events during the day and oversee them at night. He always tries to make it out to the events.”
It’s not surprising that Strang ended up working in the auditorium. His passion for working creatively with others is just as rich as his history with the campus. As a junior at the University of Illinois in 1969, Strang opened a record store on Green Street called Record Service.
“The whole place was started for a buck and a quarter,” Strang says. “We bought a Schwann catalog, a notebook, and a pen and started calling in orders. It just started rolling from there. It was like an accident.”
Strang graduated from the university in 1972 with a communications degree in radio and television; the success of Record Service anchored him in Champaign.
“By the time I graduated in ‘72, I already had my own business and was working full time,” Strang says. “That lasted 34 years.”
During those 34 years, Strang also pursued other interests, such as music. In the late ‘60’s he performed as a percussionist and backup singer in a folk-rock group, and by 1979 he was playing original songs with his own band, the Rocking Clones. The group lasted three years.
“I had done all aspects of the music business, and in some ways that was the hardest because just keeping a band together is phenomenally difficult,” Strang says. “It’s like being married to four people at once.”
Strang was forced out of the music business altogether in March 2004 when Record Service closed.
“Four years in a row our business dropped off by 22 percent because all the freshmen coming in didn’t buy music anymore,” Strang says. “They learned in high school to burn or download. When music became free to every college kid, why would they pay for it?”
For the first time in his professional life, Strang was without a job. While applying for openings at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Assembly Hall, and the Illini Student Union, the frustrated entrepreneur turned to another one of his hobbies: painting.
“When I was a freshman, I had a professor who tried to convince me to go into commercial art,” Strang says. “I actually did all the advertising for Record Service, but never spent a lot of time doing my own artwork. It wasn’t until I didn’t have to work that I said, ‘OK, I’m going to paint.’ ”
Although Strang’s artwork has appeared in several art festivals, he insists that it is impossible to make a living as an artist. That is why, after 17 months of unemployment, Strang jumped on the opportunity to work at Foellinger.
“I kept applying for jobs at the university, and I couldn’t get an interview,” Strang says. “When I finally got interviewed for (manager of Foellinger Auditorium), they called me the next day and said, ‘When can you start?’ I said, ‘tomorrow.’ ”
The auditorium celebrated its 100th anniversary last week, and Strang said he was proud to have been part of the historic event.
“The celebration involved six months of planning and work,” Strang says. “The U of I symphony orchestra was the first thing I wanted because this place was designed for them to play in. Once we found a date for them to play, we planned everything else around that as a focal point.”
It’s only fitting for Strang, a man who’s lived most of his life on and for the campus, to coordinate the anniversary of its most iconic landmark. Over the course of its 100-year history, Foellinger Auditorium has hosted an impressive variety of distinguished speakers and performers. Sitting in the theater, one can hear the distant feedback of bands like U2 and R.E.M. and feel the influence of guest speakers such as Spike Lee and Dan Rather.
“Phil is in charge of a building that’s very important to the campus,” Kovari says. “Anyone who has ever gone to school (at the University of Illinois) has some sort of memory involving the auditorium. It’s got to be a bit of a challenge to maintain that sort of legacy.”
These days, Strang is devoted to both his work and his family. After he and his ex-wife divorced 10 years ago, Strang became the sole provider for his two children, Tess, 16, and Joe, 19. Tess is a junior at the Culver Girls Academy in Indiana where she plays softball. Joe attends Parkland College in Champaign.
“My ex-wife left the country when the kids were young,” Strang says. Now I raise them.”
In doing so, Strang hopes to pass on his love for music.
“When my kids were growing up, I got them to listen to country music because there was nothing offensive and it dealt with real life,” Strang says. “I still enjoy music, but I don’t follow it the same way that I used to. After 30 years in the record business, I realized that there aren’t enough hours in a day to listen to all the music that comes out.”
Although his dedication to music has waned over the years, Strang’s love for the campus is unchanging.
“He’s still a kid at heart, and I think that’s why he’s been here at the school for so long,” Kovari says.
Strang has no plans to leave the University of Illinois. Although he never could have foreseen managing Foellinger Auditorium when he was a student 40 years ago, he can’t imagine doing anything more fulfilling at this point in his life.
“I love this job because I get to deal with a lot of different personalities,” Strang said. “I love the educational process combined with the creative process.”

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