LOCAL COLOR/Staging a comeback
Since 1922, the opulent Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn., has hosted performances ranging from vaudeville and silent movies to rockers such as Queen and Bruce Springsteen. After a $30 million renovation, the nearly 2,700-seat theater now is taking center stage in a $180 million downtown restoration project that is boosting the area economy and civic pride.
The Palace turned off its lights in 1986 when the owner could no longer afford the upkeep. In spite of an 18-year hiatus, the theater that once charged 25 cents for a movie ticket already has brought in $1.4 million in gross ticket sales since reopening in November 2004. “The theater has had an almost immediate impact on the area,” says Frank Tavera, the theater’s manager. “People have an incredible sense of newfound pride in the area, and the economic impact on the restaurants and hotels can already be seen.”
For years, residents and city officials debated what to do with the building, until Waterbury claimed it through eminent domain in 2000. “The city recognized the theater as a cornerstone issue for downtown,” says Mike O’Connor, executive director for the Naugatuck Valley Development Corp., the entity created by the city and state to manage the 110,000-resident town’s redevelopment projects.
Before the renovation began, the Renaissance Revival-style theater was a shell of its former self. During the years when the curtains were drawn, the building suffered water damage from leaks and from a fire in an adjacent facility. A mold problem had developed, and remediation had to take place before workers could enter. The exterior brick and concrete also was repaired. Everything from the proscenium wall to the back of the theater was demolished and rebuilt, along with the dressing and storage areas, to create more room for the needs of modern theater performances. The stage now is 5,000 square feet, measuring 106 feet in height.
Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the restoration was moving a river that ran underneath the theater. In the early 1900s, it was common for theaters to be built on cheap land with such geographic obstacles. The culvert that contained the river was 10 feet wide and 7 feet high, causing a large bump in the orchestra pit, which was not a problem for vaudeville performances and silent movies. Waterbury decided, however, to use the space for more than movies and concerts and asked New Britain, Conn.-based Kaestel Boos Associates, the architect firm hired for the remodel, to devise a way to re-route the culvert to the side of theater, creating more space in the orchestra pit.
The Palace renovation, however, is only one player in the overall downtown revitalization project. The city also constructed a performing arts magnet school next door, a 900-space parking garage, a 200-space parking deck and a University of Connecticut branch across the street. “We looked at trends in economic growth in urban areas and, instead of sports, we went with education,” O’Connor says. “Education was a key concern, and we considered the social values of the theater.” The entire cost of the downtown project was paid for by the state, which currently is reinvesting in its cities, such as Bridgeport, Hartford and New London.
Since opening, residents and visitors have filled the theater’s seats for performances of Tony Bennett, “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Madama Butterfly,” among others. The theater has attracted so many people that restaurants in the downtown area now require reservations on nights of theater events. “At first there was some opposition about whether [the project] was appropriate,” O’Connor says. “Now there’s universal support.”