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If you were at the bar on Saturday, you know that I introduced David and Cheryl to the Palace Theater. Of course, I saved some of the pictures I took for today. I also saved a little bit of the story.
The Palace Theater was a successful venue for movies, bands and stage productions for 65 years, but in 1987, it was forced to close. Part of the reason for the closure was the failing economics of the venue, and part was a fire in the building next door that caused extensive water damage to the Palace. As you might expect in any major city in America, the plan going forward from 1987 was mired with financial problems and political drama. I am not going to explore the drama, no pun intended, of the theater’s closing, renovation and eventual reopening. Nor will I delve into the current controversies regarding the theater’s financial ties to wealthy suburban subscription holders, the union of stage workers and the whims of Broadway. In attempting to research those topics, I found many blogs and dozens of newspaper articles.
One fact is clear. The Palace Theater closed in 1987. In the late 1990s, an effort was spearheaded by the Governor of Connecticut (a Waterbury native son) and $300,000,000 was used to bankroll a downtown renewal project that included relocating a suburban campus of the University of Connecticut to downtown Waterbury, the establishment of a Magnet School for the Performing Arts and a $30,000,000 renovation of the Palace. The theater reopened in 2004. Most of you know me well enough to know where I’m going to go if the choice is politics or renovation.
Renovating the Palace wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t cheap. There are two significant reasons. One, the Palace Theater is listed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings, and that complicates renovation. You can’t gut a 75-yer-old Renaissance Revival style building, hang sheetrock and spray the ceiling with acoustic foam. You have to repair what was there or replace it with modern versions of period material.
The grand lobby of the theater appears to be marble. It’s not. That’s a faux finish created with plaster and paint. The large parabolic domes in the ceiling of the orchestra area of the theater and in the main lobby, are plated with gold leaf. The carpet, the chairs, the 1,000 lb (453.6 kg) hand-painted main stage curtain, the boxes and even the non-functional pipe organ decorations had to be preserved.
The original theater did not have an orchestra pit. The plan was for the theater to be able to host Broadway traveling productions, so they needed a pit. However, the Mad River runs under the theater. At the time, it ran (through a conduit) straight down the center. They removed all the seating, broke through the floor and installed two new sections of conduit to divert the river under the aisles and around the sides of the stage. When the pit is not necessary, three rows of seating AA, BB, and CC are installed over the orchestra area.
During the renovation, plaster casts were made of many of the decorative elements that had survived the fire/flood. Those casts were used to mold elements in the frieze, balusters, and portions of the decorative edging of the parabolic domes. They also used a plaster cast to reproduce my favorite doors, the ones on poster frames. The last several rows of seating were removed from the orchestra level in order to add a bar, and likewise, a bar was added just outside the seats on the mezzanine level. The restrooms were greatly expanded, including (I’m told) a Ladies room with so many stalls they assign an usher there during sold-out performances.
The theater is magnificent. Most of the reviews I found (88%) were excellent, and only one was negative – there’s always one guy. I hope the theater can survive the pandemic closure and wrestle with the problems that face an inner-city theater in 2021. I don’t think they could have done a better job.
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