Senator Edward M. Kennedy speaks to a crowd of 300 inside the Colonial Theatre, as Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto, center and U.S. Rep. John Olver look on. (Photo By Bill Sample)
PITTSFIELD — The massive Colonial Theatre restoration project, already benefiting from substantial public funds, can look to at least three federal “budget areas” for additional funding opportunities, U.S. Rep. John W. Olver. D-Amherst, told a crowd of over 300 well-wishers at the official groundbreaking ceremony Monday.
After the official opening of the Joseph Scelsi Intermodal Transportation Center in the morning and a luncheon headlined by U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., at the Crowne Plaza hotel, members and dignitaries gathered in the ornately decorated and slightly destitute national historic treasure to celebrate recent federal, state and city grants that have elevated the money raised to date for the project to $11 million mark. The total cost for the restoration project, slated to be completed by spring of 2006, will be $16 million, according to official estimates.
Speaking from the podium, Kennedy, who received a standing ovation after being introduced by Olver, turned to him and said, “It was very nice of you to say that you could think of where some pots of money are and then look over at me.”
The crowd responded with thunderous laughter. Kennedy is the senior Democrat on the federal appropriations authorization committee.
“I’ll do the best I can, cross my heart, I really hope to. I’m glad to pitch in,” chuckled Kennedy, eliciting another round of laughter.
Colonial Theatre Board President Howell M. Palmer said, “We have been working on this for five years, and it’s awesome to be at this point today. I still remember the first time I walked in here. I came here and I looked around and it was magical — and it will be magical again. Frankly, five years ago, most people probably thought we were out of our minds, that this couldn’t possibly be done. We had a tiny bit of money, no building, no plan and no staff, but we had an idea. I have always believed that if you believe you can do something, you can do it, and what you’re seeing here is a community that is really, finally believing in itself.”
The Colonial was designated as a National Historic Treasure in 1998 after a visit by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, during her “Save Americas Treasures” initiative. It is a surviving example of the rare architectural splendor seen in America’s turn-of-the-century playhouses. The rich plasterwork and elaborate balconies and cornices are extremely ornate, and the acoustic properties of the theater are astounding. A solo trumpet fanfare performed by Jeffery Stevens to open the ceremony resonated with incredible clarity as the crowd remained silent, enjoying the unique auditory experience
In 2002, the auditorium and theater-production areas were revealed after the removal of false ceilings and partitions that had hidden the ornate bones of the theater from public view for over 50 years. The building had been converted to a movie house in 1937 and reconverted to an art supply store by the Miller family in 1952. The sale of theater from the Miller family to the Colonial Theatre Association was completed in August 2001.
Olver told the crowd, “I can fairly say that we will look for ways to be helpful at the federal level. Clearly you are going to get this done. I am very excited to see what the potential is for doing this. There may be a time when things look bleak, when you have come to a grinding halt, and maybe there will be a time when we’ll be able to provide some very significant additional help for you.”
He had high words of praise for the staff and board members of the Colonial Theatre Association, saying, “I can begin to see what it was that made everybody so excited about bringing this theater back to life, back to what it was in an earlier time. It was some years ago that one could not find the kind of unity that we now have for this project. That unity is shown by the board, by people who have worked on this a long time, and by people who are new to the project.”
Kennedy, who walked with his staff from the Crowne Plaza, where he had addressed a crowd of over 500 people after dedicating the new transportation center on North Street, said, “We had a great opportunity to dedicate the new transportation center earlier today, and that would not have happened without Congressman Olver. The difference that that is going to make for the city of Pittsfield, for workers, senior citizens and children is tremendous. The energy that it is going to provide for downtown Pittsfield will be enormously important.”
Turning to Mayor James Ruberto, he said, “We have a good opportunity as members of Congress to know those mayors that are really in touch with their community, and understand the needs of the community. Every time this good mayor has talked to me or Congressman Olver or John Kerry, we realized here is a person who really knows his community, this city and is doing an extraordinary job. I have enjoyed working with him on many occasions.”
Kennedy added that the Colonial Theater restoration would take its rightful place among other Berkshire County cultural icons, such as Tanglewood, Edith Wharton’s The Mount, Shakespeare & Company, Hancock Shaker Village and the Williamstown Theater Festival.
“This is an extraordinary tribute to the understanding that people in this community have for the arts and for the difference and values that the arts make in the lives of families that can come here, see a show and be inspired. The difference this is going to make in the quality of life for this community, for the Berkshires, and for the Northeast is going to be immeasurable.” Kennedy said.
He had delivered good news over the weekend to North Adams Mayor John Barrett III, who also was in attendance, noting that $200,000 in federal funds has been earmarked for the historic Mohawk Theatre on that city’s Main Street. According to Barrett, North Adams has about $1 million in total funds for its renovation and hopes to complete it within three years.
Information on how to donate funds to the Colonial Theatre project and for upcoming events: www.thecolonialtheatre.org or 448-8084.
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