Dellora A. Norris Cultural Arts Center: A St. Charles Gift for Nearly 50 Years

Five decades after this venue was gifted to the community, it’s still a vibrant hub for entertainment, with live theater, music and a revamped lineup in this new season.

Musician and storyteller Lee Murdock’s annual “Christmas Ship” concert is one of many performances that has brought together the Norris Cultural Arts Center in St. Charles with at the Baker Community Center downtown. (Norris Cultural Arts Center photos)

The Dellora A. Norris Cultural Arts Center is a gift that keeps on giving.

The 1,000-seat performing arts center was established in 1978 as a gift from St. Charles philanthropists Dellora and Lester Norris. Nearly 50 years later, the cultural arts center, situated on the campus of St. Charles East High School, serves as a place for area families and friends to come together for fellowship, listen to great music and explore wonderful art in a place that’s truly a gift for the St. Charles community.

And despite the pandemic, this community gem continues to grow and find new ways to reinvent itself.

“No seat in the theater is more than 60 feet away from the front of the stage,” says Mark Smith, vice president of the board of directors. “For a high school theater, it’s very, very well equipped. It’s a really nice experience to attend a concert at the Norris.”

In 1972, Dellora and Lester Norris donated 70 acres of land where St. Charles East High School was built. That includes the attached cultural arts center, the John B. Norris Recreation Center, the Lester J. Norris Sports Complex and Norris Stadium. The Norris Family is still thriving to this day, as James L. Collins, president of the board of directors, is the couple’s grandson.

“The Norris and Collins families have provided leadership since day one, and Jim continues the family legacy of stewardship for the Norris Center,” Smith says.

The performing arts center has a rich history of bringing top-notch entertainment to grace the stage in all genres, including live theater, comedy, dance and several forms of music, including blues, big band, classical and opera.

In addition to the theater, there’s also a 5,000-square-foot art gallery, which accommodates even the largest shows. They’re on display from two to 12 weeks, depending on the event.

Smith says the art gallery provides an intimate setting for both exhibits and performances.

“We do about five public art exhibits a year and show the work of about 300 to 400 artists,” Smith says. “It’s among the largest art galleries in the Chicago area in terms of artists who get their work on display.”

The Norris Center’s work isn’t limited only to the high school campus.

In 2019, the Norris Cultural Arts Center made an agreement with the St. Charles Park District to improve and enhance Collins Auditorium at the Baker Community Center, in downtown St. Charles. The partnership brought professional-level lighting and sound systems to the Baker Center’s auditorium stage. Funds for the project came from a Norris account designated for capital improvements.

“The Baker Center is a beautiful, historic landmark in downtown St. Charles,” Smith says. “The auditorium can accommodate about 150 people. We used it for a fundraiser in 2018 and had good success there. Adding professional-grade lighting and sound systems enabled us to produce events there starting in early 2020.”

Their timing was serendipitous in some ways, because soon after the first shows, the pandemic shut down Norris Center for several months. Because of their partnership with the Baker Community Center, the Norris staff got back on their feet by September.

“If that hadn’t been available, we wouldn’t have been able to use the Norris Center at the school until probably 2022, because the school district was observing strict usage limitations,” Smith says. “Because of the need for social distancing, they wanted to move some of their study halls into the art gallery because it gave them a chance to spread out the desks and observe social distancing requirements.”

With the help of a fortunate relationship with the park district, the team at Norris continued hosting shows, including the novel Baker’s Dozen Holiday Festival.

“When the pandemic was ongoing, local performers didn’t have a performing opportunity because venues were closed, so we used the Baker Center to record 13 performances that we shared online through our website and YouTube channel,” Smith says. “It’s a take on the 12 Days of Christmas, but we added the 13th day because of a baker’s dozen and with the Baker Center being involved, it was an interesting play on words.”

The Norris Center’s facility includes a 1,000-seat auditorium and an art gallery where musicians occasionally perform.

In addition to the Baker’s Dozen Holiday Festival, which recently wrapped up its fourth installment, the Norris Cultural Arts Center has featured nearly 50 performers and ensembles, representing a wide range of genres and styles including jazz, folk, classical, instrumental, vocal, spoken word and dance. The bell choir from Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Charles also held a performance.

Now that the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, Smith and the Norris team are looking forward to an exciting year with some major events at their home venue.

On Feb. 16, the University of Wisconsin Varsity Badger Band performs. The band plays music from the 1990s, along with pop-Latin music and classic Disney tunes. They’ll also play traditional songs like “On, Wisconsin,” and “If You Want to Be a Badger.”

“The UW Badger Band played a big concert here four years ago,” Smith says. “The pandemic came along and postponed their return, but they’re finally coming back.”

Another concert is the Ides of March, a legendary rock band from Chicago celebrating its 60th anniversary on March 15, the actual Ides of March.

“The Ides of March will be performing with a full orchestra, the only such performance of their 60th anniversary season,” Smith says.

The cultural center also hosts the Fox Valley Concert Band, who present five concerts a year in the theater.

“They’ve essentially been our house band since 2011, and we enjoy a close relationship with them,” Smith says. “Their concerts are presented free of charge, which is a wonderful service to the community.”

The Norris Cultural Arts Center persevered during the pandemic, and its leaders are determined to keep it going just as it has over the past 50 years.

“I think people enjoy the variety that we have with the concerts, the art gallery, the theater and the events at the Baker Community Center,” Smith says. “We want to continue showing people that what we do is very high-quality and very accessible.”