Inside, a different sort of dramatic spectacle unfolds: A maelstrom of light, color, and sound envelops the cavernous main room. Blue and yellow spotlights swirl, LEDs flicker, and a pulsating cannonade of electronic beats rains down on a sea of bodies in motion.
In the middle of this scene is DJ/producer Nox Vahn, who’s performing in front of Kalliope, a double-decker mobile party stage and 70,000-watt sound system adorned in lights. When the house track he’s bumping builds to a massive beat drop, banks of lasers start firing from atop the stage, strobe lights erupt, and the letters spelling out Kalliope‘s name begin flashing.
The crowd roars. Flow artists spin their glowing poi and hula-hoops harder. A dude-bro with a plastic hand on a pole gives out high-fives.
This electronic dance music rager isn’t the only activity unfolding at Walter Studios. Elsewhere, drinkers sip craft cocktails or eat Funky Fries at the Honey Bar. Others linger in the adjacent lounge decorated with large-scale photos of scenes from Burning Man and futuristic metal sculptures by local artist Sean T French.
Unique vehicles, EDM shenanigans, artwork with a Burning Man twist — it’s all part of the scene at the 16,000-square-foot venue, gallery, restaurant, recording studio self-described as an “evolving community concept [and] house of fun.” It’s the latest creation of Phoenix-based immersive experience company Walter Productions, which has launched an array of cultural projects across the Valley over the last 13 years.
In addition to Walter Studios, which opened in late June, their creative empire includes a gallery and makerspace in Scottsdale (The Walterdome), an arty brewery (Walter Station), an event venue (Walter Where?House), and a nonprofit art and educational outreach for kids and teens (The Walter Hive).
At the center of this cultural conglomeration is Kirk Strawn, a retired local physician, creative entrepreneur, and founder of Walter Productions. The company’s projects are “multidimensional concepts,” he tells Phoenix New Times in a phone interview while traveling to this year’s Burning Man music and arts festival in Nevada. The festival runs through Monday, September 5.
“We’ve created all these spaces where people can come and gather, but they’re more than just one thing,” Strawn says. “They’re not just a gallery or a venue, they’re an entire experience, a safe space, and a platform for artists. We want people to come there, to be themselves, get inspired, watch a DJ, or see the art cars.”
Walter Productions’ art cars are certainly the company’s best-known creations. Each is a custom-built, oversized spectacle brimming with eye-catching lighting and special effects. The fleet includes a gigantic Volkswagen Baja Bug called Big Red; Mona Lisa, a cone-shaped wheeled tank inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci drawing; and a flame-spewing horned truck dubbed Heathen.
The centerpiece of the collection is Walter the Bus, the company’s first creation and namesake. A replica of a vintage Volkswagen Westfalia Camper van writ extra large, the 13-foot-tall vehicle is outfitted with two levels, a sound system, laser effects, 10,000 LEDs, and a VIP room.
Walter Productions’ art cars have been a hit at the various events they’ve appeared at, ranging from downtown Phoenix’s First Friday art walk and Crescent Ballroom’s New Year’s Eve block parties to high-profile festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas and Beyond Wonderland in California. The company has brought them to corporate shindigs for SpaceX, Google, and Twitter. They’ve also been regulars at Burning Man, much like Strawn and many others behind the scenes.
Burning Man looms large in Walter Productions’ history. The origins of the company and many of its creations are tied to the annual music and arts festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Strawn and others have put on Camp Walter at the event since 2009 and have “gotten so much inspiration” from the event, he says, including adopting its principles of radical self-expression, inclusiveness, shared experiences, and collaborative efforts.
“The thing about Walter as a community, is it’s always been about collaboration,” Strawn says. “Every one of [our projects] are not only born of ideas, but they’re also the actual product of people working together.”
Walter Productions has also been a gateway to and from Burning Man. Festival virgins have been introduced to its culture and ethos through Walter. Longtime Burners found platforms for their work or a safe space through the company.
And there are a lot of people in the Walter crew. There are around two dozen employees, as well as a legion of fans, followers, and fellow Burners who attend its events and hang out at Camp Walter.
When the Walter faithful show up at Burning Man this week, though, they’ll notice a change.
Walter Productions only took three of its art cars to this year’s festival, the first since the pandemic. Strawn says the company is changing directions, scaling back its “touring roadshow” at festivals, and focusing more on “putting down roots in Phoenix” and supporting its own venues.
“In this phase, we’re really building our platforms and it has to be sustainable and be able to thrive going forward,” Strawn says, “But we haven’t forgotten about Burning Man.”
After all, it’s where it all began for Walter Productions.
The Origins of Walter the Bus
Strawn first attended Burning Man in 2007 with his wife, Mary, and their two daughters after learning about the event years before. What they encountered at the festival — from gorgeous large-scale art pieces and roaming art cars called “mutant vehicles” to the vibrantly costumed characters occupying the Black Rock Desert playa — inspired them.
“We were all just blown away by the scale of everything and the amazing art there,” he says. “We had this wild experience of taking our kids to Burning Man, and that planted the seed that we were going to go back.” And he wanted to create a mutant vehicle to bring with them.
Art cars are nothing new. Mobile art pieces have been a staple of the festival since the ’90s. Outside of the playa, the practice of turning a car into a drivable canvas goes back to the 1960s, when hippies painted their rides or Latinos created lowrider culture. Locally, you could see art cars at First Friday, including the Burner-owned Bunny Van — a vintage pickup resembling a giant rabbit’s head.
True to the Burner principle of participating rather than spectating, Strawn wanted to create a gigantic mutant vehicle of his own. He already knew where to get the chassis.
Years prior, he’d stumbled upon a 1963 Walter Motor Truck Company airport crash truck at a heavy machinery graveyard inside the Gold King Mine in Jerome while attending a gathering of Volkswagen bus enthusiasts. It was used at Luke Air Force Base decades ago and had seen better days, but Strawn thought it was the perfect raw material.
“It was old, broken down, left for dead, but it was a monster. Just this huge thing,” he says. “It had a lot of potential to become a mutant vehicle.”
Strawn traded his 1979 Volkswagen Westfalia Camper with the crash truck’s owner for the 30-foot-long rescue vehicle and eventually had it moved to the Valley. He recruited longtime friend Rob Larson, a vehicle engineering safety consultant, to build what became Walter the Bus. The two assembled a motley crew of friends, mechanics, artists, and fabricators to work on the project over the next year and a half.
“It was all these people, some professionals, some just friends who knew how to fabricate or knew sound, knew lighting, knew electronics. And if they didn’t know how to do something, they learned as we went along,” Strawn says. “We all just started hanging out together and creating this thing.”
The art car debuted at Burning Man in 2009 with a crew of 15 to 20 people at the first version of Camp Walter. Strawn says the bus was a “work in progress” that looked “more like a single-cab pickup.”
“We built it as far as we could [and] assembled some of the final pieces on playa,” he says. “People loved it and we just had a blast driving him around. I think it really solidified the commitment of that very small core team to make him better.”
They kept making improvements, adding a full roof, more LEDs, and bamboo flooring by 2010. Walter the Bus started making appearances throughout Arizona, including the APS Electric Light Parade along Central Avenue and the Buses by the Bridge event in Lake Havasu City.
Strawn and the Walter crew were bit by the art car bug, and created Big Red in 2012. It was also a hit.
Ruvi Wijesuriya, an ambassador for Walter Productions and a longtime Burner, remembers being impressed by the art cars.
“I saw these giant vehicles out on the playa and had no idea they originated in Phoenix,” he says. “It was just incredible. The fact it was done by ordinary people like me with day jobs and who were building this stuff as a creative outlet was amazing.”
Wijesuriya became part of the Walter crew and helped create their next two art cars, projects that became game-changers for the team.
The Coming of Kalliope and Heathen
By 2013, Strawn and the Walter crew had grander plans for their next art car. Ryan Tucknott, general manager for Walter Productions, says they wanted to add fire elements and a better sound system. They’d also acquired two more crash trucks, including one in good enough condition to dismantle.
“At the time, we had the concept to create an artistic DJ sound stage that also shot a ton of fire,” he says. “But we quickly realized that everything we wanted to do to this fire truck, which was in great shape and still had a working engine, would’ve basically meant having to destroy it to fit everything. One of our community members in our brainstorming sessions just said, ‘Let’s get a trailer and let’s have it towed behind the truck.’ It was genius.”
The result was the fire-breathing truck Heathen and mobile sound stage Kalliope.
Since the Walter crew didn’t have any experience with pyrotechnics, Rob Larson collaborated with the Purdue University School of Aeronautics and Astronautics to build a “combustible vortex ring generator,” a propane-fueled fire cannon that shot huge columns of flames skyward.
“Rob worked with them on this class project to build a flame effect to shoot off at Burning Man,” Strawn says. “It’s just a wild collaboration. There’s all these grad students, future rocket scientists, we’ve worked with them to come up with something that we ultimately ended up executing on playa.”
Kalliope, which Strawn says was “envisioned as a Gypsy wagon or circus wagon,” was built from a 1969 Fruehauf semi-trailer and outfitted with a 40,000-watt sound system, massive speakers, and giant letters equipped with incandescent light bulbs that spell out its name. Tucknott says crowds can hang out on either of its levels and even get close-up views of a DJ in action.
“One of the things that Kalliope does is that it breaks down these barriers. It’s inclusive, and recognizes that we are all participating together. It’s not spectators in the audience or [a DJ] on stage,” he says.
Local DJ Sean Watson says performing on Kalliope is “a total trip.”
“As a DJ, normally there’s a separation between you and the crowd, but not on Kalliope. You’re up on there and people are dancing everywhere, causing it to rock back and forth, looking over your shoulder, patting you on the back,” he says, laughing. “It’s a different experience.”
Strawn says Kalliope got a lot of attention after it debuted at Burning Man in 2013.
“Everything really changed because Burning Man has these areas that are more ‘sound camps’ and suddenly we were one of those,” he says. “Suddenly, we were getting more attention.”
That includes attention from concert and event promoters who were at Burning Man, including employees of New York-based marketing and event company Superfly, the creators of Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee. They’d been wanting to book an art car for the event, and Kalliope fit the bill.
Bonnaroo and Beyond
In June 2014, the mobile stage and Big Red traveled to Bonnaroo. Watson, who performed on Kalliope at the festival, says it was an “unbelievable experience.”
“We had a parade with Big Red driving around Bonnaroo and it brought this whole crowd [to Kalliope] like a Pied Piper,” he says. “I believe we had 9,000 to 11,000 people at the stage on the Friday and Saturday night when the other stages started closing. It ended being only us running at night and we’d play until 8 in the morning. We became the sixth stage at Bonnaroo.”
It was during one of those sunrise sets when Valley native Amber Giles, who DJs as Mija, got the biggest break of her career. Watson says she was originally scheduled to play a nighttime slot on the Friday of the festival, but got bumped to early Saturday morning. It ended up being a boon for Giles, as dubstep superstar Skrillex teamed up with her for an impromptu back-to-back deep-house set as the sun came up.
“It was the craziest night, everybody was late, and all the sets were getting moved around. [Skrillex] knew her already from the time in 2011 when she promoted one of his shows,” Watson says. “They saw each other at Bonnaroo and when she got up to perform, he came and immediately plugged in with her and played. We had a field full of people with the sun coming up and Skrillex playing house music with Mija. It was amazing. She absolutely slayed it.”
Videos of the set blew up on social media and Giles became an overnight sensation. Within weeks, she moved to L.A. and signed with Skrillex’s label, OWSLA.
She wasn’t the only one to benefit. Strawn says they were inundated with offers to bring the Walter art cars to events across the U.S. As a result, they decided to fully incorporate Walter Productions.
“When we started, we were doing just Burning Man and a lot of community service stuff with parades and such,” he says. “But by the time we were going to Bonnaroo, it just made sense to create Walter Productions as its own entity.”
They were making other moves, too, including buying a former recording studio for Arizona label Canyon Records located at Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt Street, which later became Walter Studios.
“We came in and it had audio recording and editing bays, a large soundstage, and one of the bigger [cyclorama] walls in the Valley,” Strawn says. “We thought, ‘We could really do something here,’ and create a unique space.”
Walter Productions was also adding new people to its crew, including Valley resident Lonna Olson, who first encountered Big Red at the Grand Avenue Festival in 2015. A friend was working at the event as a Walter ambassador, a greeter who informs the public about the art cars. Olson wound up filling in for her briefly and ended up volunteering with Walter full-time. She’s now a veteran Burner who goes by the playa nickname Gizmo and a part-time employee who has the company’s logo tattooed on her arm.
“Walter believes everyone gets a second chance. I was out of work, on disability, and not doing anything with my life,” Kelly says. “After I started with them, I thought, ‘This is unbelievable. How did I get to do all this? How did I get this alter ego, which is bigger than I could ever imagine?’ And I get to meet people, make them smile and laugh.”
Tucknott says Walter has been a gateway to Burning Man culture for those unfamiliar with the event or its culture.
“We’ve sometimes been a bridge between what we call the Default World and the Burning Man world for somebody that’s never experienced it or had much exposure to it,” he says. “We also provide an ability to connect deeper into that community and culture and get exposed to it in a very safe way. As they say, the rabbit hole is as deep as you want to go into it.”
The Rise and Fall of Lost Lake
In 2017, Walter Productions teamed up with Superfly and local concert promoter Stateside Presents to put on the three-day Lost Lake Music Festival at Steele Indian School Park. Headlined by Run the Jewels, Chance The Rapper, The Roots, Pixies, and The Killers, it attracted more than 45,000 people to the park and its art cars.
The company also debuted a fire attraction called Floatus, which consisted of a dozen pyrotechnic jets shaped like lotus plants that floated on water and shot a series of flames choreographed to a rock music soundtrack.
Jeremy Watson, Walter’s vice president of creative development, says it was originally designed to be a larger art display that didn’t pan out.
“We discovered it days before the festival. So in a very short instance of time, we became aware we needed to pivot and do something else. It became a late-night napkin sketch turned into a CAD file turned into a prototyping and full-scale fabrication in the span of a few days. And it became one of the hits of that show. A lot of projects with Walter have endured challenges along the way, and it’s those challenges that lead us into an even better result beyond what we’d originally envisioned.”
Despite the large turnout, Superfly canceled a second edition of Lost Lake in 2018 due to a lack of ticket sales.
Strawn is diplomatic about the cancellation, saying they still gained experience from working on the festival.
“We certainly got to experience the festival development and execution, naming the festival, working with the city, and the massive undertaking of putting on the festival, especially one as complex as Lost Lake,” he says. “We would’ve loved to have had it go on, but Superfly decided they weren’t going to do it. So we had no choice.”
Another bright spot: Floatus has become one of Walter’s most popular art pieces and has appeared Canal Convergence in Scottsdale and events in California, Texas, and Florida.
New Venues, New Direction
In 2018, the company debuted two new ventures: Walter Station Brewery, which was created inside a former fire station at 40th and Washington streets, and an art and event space, Walter Where?House, on 21st Avenue north of McDowell Road.
Tucknott says brewing beer has been a thing with the Walter crew since the days of creating their first art car.
“The first facility we had, the Walterdome in Scottsdale, was where all of our vehicles were built. Kalliope was built there. And a part of that space in the back has a brewery co-op with a small brew system. So a bunch of people would get together and they basically would brew beer on Wednesdays and then drink it on Fridays. So, out of that brew co-op, that really is largely a social kind of club, if you will, grew our brewing company.”
Walter Where?House is located in a onetime paper factory and is the company’s biggest venue. The 24,000-square-foot space functions as an art gallery, performance venue, and storage space for Walter’s art cars.
“We really wanted to have a home for [the art cars], not only for storage, but to showcase them and be able to use them, just as we have in the outdoor environment, but use them under our own roof and in our own control,” Tucknott says.
Jeremy Watson calls it a way to showcase the art cars. “They’re not behind velvet ropes; they’re there for everyone to climb on and into and explore and interact with,” he says.
Like other local music and cultural spots, Walter Where?House shut down over the pandemic. When it reopened in October 2021, the company hosted performances by EDM artists every weekend.
Peter Blick, a longtime promoter and talent buyer who’s now working for Walter Productions, says the company wanted to make better use of its venues.
“The Where?House was originally doing more big, themed events quarterly. And those all did really well, but after opening back up, we decided to program pretty much every Friday and Saturday,” he says. “We have the spaces, and that’s going to make it more of a sustainable business model.”
Booking artists has been “challenging” while competing with larger EDM promoters, including LiveNation and local concert company Relentless Beats in the Phoenix market, Blick says. Walter is attempting to carve out its own niche with more independent and underground artists.
“It’s a lot of work, especially trying to do things on the cool and underground side,” he says. “There’s a pretty wide variety of artists out there who like to play independent venues for independent promoters, and I think that’s where we fit in with our role in the community.”
Tucknott says Walter Productions has also scaled back taking its “touring roadshow” of art cars outside of the Valley or to events they’re not promoting. They want to better support their own venues, he adds.
“We were touring for five years or so after Kalliope was built. We realized it wasn’t really what we were going to be doing for the rest of our lives. We’d rather put our roofs down in Phoenix,” he says. “We have so many balls in the air. We’re running a nonprofit, a brewery, hosting the Frida Kahlo [immersive experience], and just opened our new restaurant and event space. We had our time of having 15 semi-loads of everything going to Burning Man and there was a time we could spend three months getting everyone and everything there. We’re a completely different animal now.”