A Johnny Cash tribute band will play at 'as-is' Mohawk Theater in September in a joint benefit for the theater restoration and the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Mohawk Theater will open its doors for the first time in more than two decades with the return of Johnny Cash — at least in spirit — this September.
The Harold Ford & the Cash Band's performance, "The Spirit of Johnny Cash," on Saturday, Sept. 29, from 8 to 10 will offer residents a look inside the theater while raising funds to continue the planning for its future. It's also likely to be a one-time event because of the safety issues related to the theater's condition.
"It's the 75th anniversary of the Mohawk Theater so we think that's very, very important to have a show to recognize that event," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, standing in front of the theater's bare-bones stage on Monday morning. "We are using this as an effort to raise money to continue our efforts as we move forward with a solid sustainable plan to reopen the theater in conjunction with our friends at MCLA."
Residents are invited to share their memories of the Mohawk on Wednesday during the Downtown Celebration on Thursday, Aug. 16. Representatives from Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will be recording video in front of the theater that will be used to create a short documentary to be shown prior to the performance.
The project has been in the planning for months since the mayor was approached Josiah Low III, of Williamstown, about the idea for a Cash concert. Low, who has sponsored similar events at Mass MoCA, is also a Johnny Cash fan.
MoCA had been considered as a venue, Alcombright said, but the anniversary of the theater and the resonance of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash having been one of the last live performances there in 1988, led to the decision to move it to the Mohawk.
MoCA will produce the event, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will provide the talent for the opening band and volunteers, and the proceeds will be split between the Mohawk Theater Restoration Project and the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation (Low is a supporter of the foundation and his wife, Penelope, sits on its board).
The performance will be in the raw, so to speak. The theater has been stripped down to its essentials over the years as work has been done to shore up and stabilize the structure. The art deco walls are gone, the bathrooms gutted, and parts of the ceiling exposed.
"What you see is what you get with respect to amenities here," said Alcombright. "We will be in this theater as it is, hopefully, a little less dusty."
That means portable toilets outside, and the exit doors open for safety reasons. No food or alcohol will be allowed inside and balcony won't be open.
The mayor is hoping that those attending the concert will fill in the exposed framework with nostalgia — and the event will get the community excited about bringing the Mohawk back to life.
City workers will be clearing out the theater's floor and doing some electrical and other work to prepare for the concert. The old ticket booth, now in storage, may make a return appearance depending on its condition.
The former E.L. Loew's theater opened Nov. 5, 1938, and had a capacity of 1,200. It's unlikely to be completely restored to its former glory because of the prohibitive cost, but the city has been in talks with MCLA for 18 months on collaborative uses and has hired consultants to put together a plan. The concert will benefit that work.
"Those numbers are really starting to work out," said Alcombright. "I have been uncomfortable in really getting into it with the media and the general public until we really have a plan that says we're moving forward."
Moving forward may hinge on obtaining funding through the New Markets Tax Credit Program, in addition to federal and state grants. Once a plan and design have been settled, then more serious fund raising can begin.
"We want folks to really know and understand what this looks like, the work that's been done," said Alcombright. "This building is actually ready to go ... It's 100 percent ready to roll."
Only 600 tickets will be available through the MoCA box office (413-662-2111) beginning Sept. 5. VIP tickets will be $75 and include center seating, a gift bag and reception at Desperados next door; the details are still be worked out.
Regular admission is $29; standing room, $19, and student standing room, $12.
"This is most importantly to get the community excited about the theater again," said Alcombright. "We really think the Johnny Cash performance will resonate well with the community."
Editor's Note: One of our faithful readers notified us that our reporting of Johnny Cash being the last live performance at the Mohawk was wrong. We don't know how many other concerts there were but rock band NRBQ played there on Saturday, Oct. 20, 1990, two years after Cash. Our reader, who attended the concert, even sent a scan of The Eagle's review that described the band as staging "one of its typically wacky and energetic shows before an eager crowd."
We thank him for the information and encourage anyone else who remembers attending performances at the Mohawk to share with us below.
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I actually booked and produced that NRBQ show as part of a series of concerts in 1990 for the Northern Berkshire Council of the Arts.
Also included in the series was an 18-year-old Alison Krauss and her band Union Station w/special guest Alison Brown who coincidentally plays the Fresh Grass Festival later this month.