AKRON, Iowa | The people of Akron, Iowa, support more than just high school sports teams. According to Amy Linder, the community also embraces the arts.
“Akron is a really unique town and community,” she said. “They are very supportive of athletics. And they are very supportive of the arts. It’s really cool that they can support both of those things, because sometimes in small towns it’s one or the other.”
Linder has experienced the support firsthand. As the owner and executive director of Birdie & Carol Harris School of Performing Arts, she gives music lessons to students as young as 6 and as old as 70. The school also plays host to dinner theater and musical shows.
The Birdie & Carol Harris School of Performing Arts has been in service since October 2015, finding refuge in an old church on the corner of Iowa and Fifth Streets. Linder and her husband Kevin are the proprietors of the school, which she named after her late grandmother and late mother -- their framed portraits hang on the wall just outside the entrance to nave.
The building once known as the First Church of Christ is familiar to Linder, who grew up in Akron. In high school she used to fill in as a substitute for the church’s organist every so often.
“I knew the building – kind of,” she said. “When I’d drive past here, I’d think, ‘That would make a really cool school! It looks like a school.’ I thought it would be kind of neat to start a performing arts school.”
Its unique space came equipped with assets that come into good use. The pews, for instance, make easy seating for concerts. A very old and very heavy piano remains intact and somewhat in-tune; Linder danced her fingertips along the instrument’s smiling grin of keys, only a few of which were cracked; it sounded like a parlor piano that some fancy quartet member might play.
Linder gave me a tour around the school. The upstairs area sports an apartment-style living space complete with an old refrigerator and a tube TV. Not much use had been made of the upstairs, but the empty space meant endless possibilities for Linder. The main floor, behind the sanctuary, housed mostly storage rooms. The basement was renovated with a stage and new light fixtures for dinner theater, while remnants of a previous play’s set was tucked away in a corner.
Linder works with school instructors in the area to bring students to the Birdie & Carol Harris School of Performing Arts to learn more and participate in music and drama. With all that space, Linder would like to see other avenues like visual arts make its way into the school.
“We’d love to have all that stuff going on,” she said.
The area that likely sees the most use is the nave; the main room with the stage and pews facing toward a bevy of different instruments. Amps and speakers surround pianos, a drum kit, guitars and an electric keyboard, among other things.
“This is a space for band-type stuff,” said Linder. “We’ve got lessons that happen up here, too. I do guitar and voice and piano lessons.”
With a population of less than 1,500 people, Akron is fairly small. Even so, Linder estimated she has about 30 students seeking an interest in the arts via music lessons, acting or other areas in Akron’s only performing arts school.
It’s not too difficult to understand why a community would support the Birdie & Carol Harris School of Performing Arts when buildings like the Akron Opera House -- built in 1905 -- still operate and organize events. Linder said she doesn’t want to “take away anything” from the Opera House or local school music programs.
“We want to supplement,” said Linder, who has 27 years’ worth of teaching experience. “With tightening school budgets, teachers are being asked to do more and more. Even in Akron they’re being asked to teach K-12. Instead of focusing on their strengths, they’re spread thin. We can help by going in a couple hours a day to volunteer, and in turn they send kids here for extra lessons. Help each other out.”
The Birdie & Carol Harris School of Performing Arts also aims to benefit the community in more ways than teaching kids and adults how to play piano. On Saturday (Aug. 26), the school is providing family entertainment with the Rock, Blues & BBQ Music Festival at Akron Park.
Featured performers include Bob & Rich Brown, Angie Mae & Shawn Blomberg, the Erickson Brothers Band, Amy Ellsworth, Prairie Cats and Top Down, of which Linder is a part of. Food will be provided by Smokin’ Clams BBQ. Kids 12 and under enter the festival free of charge. The adult entry fee is $5. All proceeds will be donated to the Birdie & Carol Harris School of Performing Arts.
The school is important to Linder. As a result, she spends a great deal of time there -- every day, in fact; even weekends. But she feels at home.
“It’s where I should be,” said Linder. “It doesn’t feel like going to work. It feels so good to be here.”