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Cure for what ails the 'arts' is standing right at 615 Main Street

  • Published in Letters

To The Daily Sun,

The Arts in New Hampshire would be nothing without the summer playhouses (i.e. Winnipesaukee, Streetcar Company), live performance centers and film theaters that once dotted the landscape in the Granite State in their heyday. Fortunately for us, the Lakes Regions' towns and New Hampshire in general have many performing arts theaters, some of which remain today, thanks to kind-hearted owners/ donors, philanthropists and "patron lovers of the arts." One merely needs to look at the town history in Plymouth, Lebanon, Keene, Manchester, Concord, Franklin, Portsmouth and Bethlehem for starters. They have taken the initiative and follow-through to restore the historic structures of old that once fostered the performing arts in the earliest days of New Hampshire's grandeur and socialization. 

I will revisit my hometown of Pittsfield, Mass in November for a performance of Gordon Lightfoot at the newly renovated Colonial Theatre that was for decades an uncomely faux-fronted art and painters supply store called Miller's. My children and I attend the shows in Keene, Lebanon, Plymouth and Concord, N.H., these days, where one cannot help but look up at the chandeliers in each one and admire the elaborate and intricate ceiling art and brilliant colors before the performances begin. The "full house lighting" entices you to focus on and appreciate the ambiance of the magnificence Capitol Center as if it was being dedicated for the first time each time one visited for the St. Paul's School Nutcracker performances of the past. 

There are various "Colonial Theaters" around the country, many of which remain dormant and dark to this day. They are ubiquitous. They were not merely "theaters" as we think of in cinema, but stage performance venues for live shows with noted acts. In Franklin, N.H., the efforts of many advocates have resulted in a magnificent hall that harbors an array of musical performances from folk to dance to plays and fundraiser/0benefit shows. I have had the privilege of performing there (guitar/vocal) in the past for a local annual talent show designed to raise money to replace the balcony seats and an egress to meet the local safety codes. Volunteers did it. They accomplished that based on a show I just attended there in 2013. I must say that the acoustics of the room were the best offerings I had ever played in, in years. But the little city of Franklin did it! Yes, Franklin!

Today, that same Franklin Opera House (FOH) thrives with local support and has attracted, with renewed vigor, a downtown crowd and an "local lakes area patron following". Once harboring the police station's needs in the "green room", the newly renovated facility now resounds with music, applause and laughter with comfortable seating and sellout crowds. Kudos to a caring Franklin, N.H. Local restaurants grew and thrive around the theater, especially on performance nights, pre and post shows. Even Tilton's eateries benefit.

In Laconia, on Main Street, there is a "Colonial history" as well, its marquee and interior longing for the name and the sounds of live music, theatrical plays, summer-stock "On Golden Pond" performances, an opera or a Hal Holbrook "Mark Twain Tonight" impersonation. The same level of performers at the Flying Monkey (and at the Silver Center) in Plymouth could be at The Colonial — economy boosters. Congrats to Alex Ray for his insight and success to date in Plymouth with The Flying Monkey – a gamble that paid off for a noted restaurateur who was hesitant about going for live shows! He succeeded.

 The Colonial Theater is more than a memory; it's a building asking for compassion, love and revitalization. It begs to be the next Capitol Center for the Arts and downtown Laconia needs to embrace it to survive financially and culturally. With historic theater restorations come supportive restaurants, cafes, bars and nightlife. That alone fosters new patrons and revenue for downtown merchants and the city, like spokes radiating from the hub of a wheel or a symbiotic relationship like ants on a peony plant. The peony may never flower without the ant that helps the bloom. We are the ants and the theater is the flower!

The Laconia Colonial Theater was once referred to, in 1915, as "one of handsomest play-houses in New England." Benjamin Piscopo built the theater in 1913-1914 and it accommodated 1,400 people in comfortable seats of a renaissance era. Main Street and Canal Street stores did not flourish until the theater was opened, a feat that could happen again if desired and supported by the masses. Canal Street was merely a conduit between Beacon and Main back then. The famed Perley Canal (#10) runs beneath part of the famed theater, for back then it was a planned aqueous diversion from the Winnipesaukee River to the Laconia Street Car Co. buildings, now a vibrant condo complex that ultimately saved those historic structures and bricks from the wrecking ball.

 One historical reference cites that the stage at The Colonial was used for recitals, meetings, high school graduations and cooking classes. It operated for 86 years, fostering entertainment in center city. It harbored movies, vaudeville shows, the music of John Phillip Sousa and most notably, the "world premiere" of the movie, "Return to Peyton Place" in 1961, based on the novel by a local author, Grace Metalious. The world premiere, not just the U.S. premiere. Circus performances traversed the stage as well. Elephants they say!

 In 1952, The Colonial Theater was host to the premiere of the Greater Laconia Home Cooking School series. Miss Madeline D. Linehan, a Julia Child or Rachel Ray of sorts (because of her apparent captivating personality), taught the virtues of homemaking and cooking that attracted a dedicated following of ladies to the auspicious stage venue.

 From 1980 to 2000 we know that the theater operated as a movie theater, finally subdivided into five removable sections like a Cinema 8 appealing to the diversity of films offered and moviegoers' desires to have a cinema selection for both adults and children locally. In 2003, a New Durham couple tried valiantly to revive it as a movie theater/pizzeria. (I moved to the Lakes Region in 1999).
That moment in 2003 was inspiring to all of us, especially when the marquee was re-lit, as if on Broadway. The lights dimmed and died shortly thereafter for movies alone could not sustain it. "Live shows" were needed! And still are!

 Sadly, that was probably not what the theater cried out for ... it probably "screamed in silence" for live performances, the same shows that we attended each year for the Frates Creative Arts Center annual dance recitals for my daughter, but relegated to a Gilford Middle School auditorium venue. Broadway North's dance recitals/performances were placed in Gilford as well when if fact they both might have been "Colonial potential" and held "in Laconia" along with high school concerts/choral presentations by Debbie Gibson. Frates's studios are on Canal St., a few steps away — advocates of the live arts to this day.

What resulted from the segmented cinema renovation was the partial elimination of the Colonial's historic interior, plush seating and the ability to stage live stage shows with noted acts of interest, both national and local acts. Live performances (on stage) died in the 1960s, history tells us. One theater patron remembers beautiful, glowing purple nightlights, and another friend of mine remembers, as a child, a "Raggedy Ann and Andy" performance with live, over-sized, costumed actors who accompanied a cinematic film presentation with the same characters. The stage engaged the patrons and the elegant lobby beckoned you in!

Long hidden or gone today in the theater are the cranberry-colored drapes/curtains and gold-leaf stage front moldings and the "stage right and left" balcony seating for side views of live shows, never mind the warmth and "ambiance" as depicted in a 1914 colored postcard I found that made me wanderlust back to the days of Laconia's passion for the "live" arts.

With the passing of the Laconia opera houses, the Colonial remains one of the last bastions of the "arts" that can still be saved to this day. If Franklin, N.H., could achieve it, Laconia can take pride in knowing that this city can do the same with a larger population of residents, some 17,000. 

The last revitalization of the downtown was in the mid-to-late 1960s; the same urban renewal project that razed critical historic buildings that older residents and I personally wished were still preserved today for posterity. Ancient postcards on a Weirs Website don't suffice and historic photos in a Warren Huse history book don't appease us. Community action does! 

The Colonial art deco marquee now hangs(ominously and threateningly over people) in desperation, with missing or burned out bulbs. Delivery trucks uncaringly park nearby or occasionally brush the ornate edges, causing the hand-tooled metal filigree and molding to tear open in ragged fashion unbecoming and insulting to its rich heritage. A haphazard aluminum shield, poorly constructed, covers the ornate art.

How sad is it that no one will champion the efforts to save the Colonial! No specific plan seems to be in order even after consultants were hired and meetings were held with residents passionate in saving her — some 200 at the first meeting. Don't tell me it is not feasible — 8 to 9 other towns did it!

Rhetoric rains prevalent (something must be done you say!), but actions are nonexistent, yet the downtown cries out for business and patrons — the patrons a "new Colonial" would foster and grow. In the next 2013 mayoral or official election in November, pick the person(s) who supports her renovation. Ask them what they will do to save the theater and revitalize the downtown. If they say nothing positive, don't vote for them! Hold them and the City Council accountable. Apathy is a disease and it's rampant.

 It is "music and the arts" that attract the locals and Lakes Region visitors (year-round); those desiring a vibrant nightlife and community atmosphere in summer and winter. With few exceptions, there is little of either in the city's heart today. The cure to what ails the "arts" is standing right before our eyes at 615 Main. Save the Colonial and light the marquee brightly before it can no longer be saved and lit. It is Lakes Region history and relegated to limbo, but should be the priority and responsibility of all of us and this city's management to resurrect its soul before the heartbeat subsides. A transfusion is needed. Think about what "you" can do personally to help save her, and the downtown.

Jack Polidoro