Illinois State Armory: One-time host for national acts sits silently on 2nd street


Joe Brittin

Blue Öyster Cult played the Illinois State Armory in 1978 (not pictured: cowbell)

Richard Bailey, Editor

The Illinois State Capitol building is an architectural highlight of the city, appearing on numerous postcards, murals, and tourist photos. The zinc-covered dome has played host to numerous political greats, but Springfield has also been the site of some music and entertainment legends, too, inside the nearby Illinois State Armory.

Long-time Springfield residents Whitney Devine and  Megan Alexander were walking downtown on the Capitol lawn in search of the location of the now-removed statue of Stephen Douglas.

“I had no idea that so much took place in Springfield. I don’t usually think of this place as a stop for many national acts,” Devine said.

Megan, an Auburn native but current Springfield resident, said that she heard stories of old concerts that took place in Springfield, but she couldn’t be sure if they were true or not.

When asked to elaborate, Megan said, “I wasn’t sure if it was an old wise tale by my uncle. Springfield? Part of a national concert scene?”

“As funny as it sounds, it was one time true,” said Brent Smith of Jerome. “There was a production company that brought a lot of bands through town in the 70’s and 80’s.”

The Illinois State Armory was the site for many of those concerts. The now-decaying building, built in 1937, has hosted a variety of political rallies, rock concerts, and even a 1978 appearance by Muhammed Ali. The 200,000-square-foot structure holds a 6,000-seat auditorium and was once the headquarters of the Illinois State Police. It sits along Second Street across Monroe Street from the Capitol grounds.

Len Trumper, who started his company ‘Whatever Productions’ in 1971 would arrange for acts to come through Springfield because the city was a nice midway point between Chicago and St. Louis.

After returning from a tour in Vietnam,  the young entrepreneur wasted no time bringing a string of national acts to play in Springfield. Blue Oyster Cult, AC/DC, and The Eagles all made appearances at shows that didn’t make a lot of money for the hard-working promoter, but it gave the community something to do – and that was something that Trumper is proud of.

“Some of these bands played for $500 back then,” said Trumper, who was kind enough to give me a few minutes on the phone had to say about the events,

Trumper said that he picked up the phone and called agents for bands that were touring through the region and convinced them to bring talent to Springfield. The formula worked well, and for years the city was host to a series of concerts from future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Those in attendance would pay the ticket price with no exorbitant fees. Tickets were sold as “festival-style” admittance, which means there was no section access by ticket price. There was also no team of security guards to hire – a move that cuts even further expenses.

“You could never do that today,” Trumper said about security at events. “It was different back then. Things have changed quite a bit.”

One of the most memorable events took place in July of 1979 when Van Halen played the Illinois State Armory. Riding high on a successful album and headlining their first World Tour, the band was on top of the world – and on top of the catering table. David Lee Roth would literally walk all over the provided refreshments and the band would later set a small fire inside of the venue after being dissatisfied by the service they received.

While leaving town, the band’s tour bus was stopped and turned around by the Illinois State Police who would make the band go back to the venue to answer for their actions. Shortly after, the Prairie Capital Convention Center opened, and the Illinois State Armory became old news.

Trumper is nearly finished with writing a book about his time promoting shows at the Illinois State Armory and other venues in the area. The book will feature behind the scenes photos and stories about the would-be rock legends that came to Springfield because he put in the effort and hard work needed to bring them to a local stage.

The Illinois State Armory, designed by C. Herrick Hammond, was built in 1937. The building has sat unused since 2008 when the Illinois State Police moved their headquarters to the former Franklin Life building. The aging building has been the victim of bad wiring, leaky roofs, growing mold. It is now being used as a storage facility for the state.

After years of unuse, $122 million was set aside as part of a $45 billion capital plan, but it is unknown at this time if the plan is still in effect after the Coronavirus pandemic. The renovation of the facility would provide a much-needed boost of revenue to the local economy and add to the lore of the building while giving another generation a new collection of Springfield stories to pass along.