Colonial Theatre project achieves a milestone

By Anthony FydenPrint Story | Email Story
Supporters of a restored Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield are optimistic about its prospects. Here, Mackenzie Joseph of the Colonial Theatre Association stands on one of the theatre's ornate balconies
PITTSFIELD — The Colonial Theatre restoration project hit a milestone this past week with fundraising topping $8.3 million – more than halfway to the estimated $16 million needed to bring the historic performing arts venue back to life. Colonial Theatre advocates are by no means taking the view that passing the halfway point means fundraising is over the hump and on a glide path, but they said they were heartened by the response of individuals and organizations that appear to be more optimistic about the restoration than ever before. The latest major donation came this past week, with Legacy Banks chipping in $150,000, the largest contribution of its type the bank has made. Other financial institutions, including Berkshire Life Insurance Co. of America and Berkshire Bank, have also supported the project. “Initially, I was a skeptic,” said J. William Dunleavy, chairman and CEO of Legacy Banks. “However, now that we can walk into the theater today and see it in its entirety, it is stunning, and I know it is incumbent on those of use here today to be stewards of this rare performing arts treasure.” Susan Sperber, executive director for the Colonial Theatre Association, the nonprofit organization overseeing the redevelopment, touted the fund-raising milestone. “Thanks to Bill Dunleavy and others like him in our community, we are over halfway to our goal,” she said. “The success of a project of this magnitude will require the support and passion of the entire community.” Berkshire Life America announced on March 1 that it has made a multi-year pledge of $150,000 — the largest gift the national insurance company has ever presented to an institution. “As a company situated at the southern gateway of Pittsfield, Berkshire Life is deeply interested in the revitalization of downtown,” said James W. Zilinski, chairman, president and chief executive officer. “A fully operative, year-round performing arts venue in the heart of the historic district will be a strategic driver for economic growth and renewed vitality.” Sperber suggested Dunleavy’s remark about shedding skepticism was telling. More and more people, she said, are beginning to believe that the restoration will actually happen. “One of the things that we've been anxious to accomplish and are finally accomplishing is that we've been able to overcome the skepticism that this project has been confronted with, easily for over a number of decades,” she said. Some of that skepticism was warranted, she acknowledged. After all, a Colonial Theatre restoration concept has been around almost since the site closed as a movie and performing arts venue in the 1950s. In fact, she noted, the restoration was first proposed to the Pittsfield City Council in 1961. More than 40 years later, she believes, the right combination of vision and funding are in line to make the project a reality. “I think the time is right,” Sperber said. “This is a project whose time has come.” In another sign of possibly growing momentum, the Colonial Theatre Association on Friday added seven new members, including Mayor James M. Ruberto, who will serve in an ex-officio capacity. The other new appointments include Gray Ellrodt, director of medicine at Berkshire Medical Center; Michael Tweed-Kent, vice president and general manager of General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems; William M. Hines Sr., president and CEO of Interprint Inc.; John L. Bissell, vice president of marketing and administration at Greylock Federal Credit Union; Basil Michaels, owner of Berkshire Cosmetic and Reconstructive Surgery Center, and Joseph K. Handler, board member of the Berkshire Center for Families and Children. Sperber called the additional board members “another credibility builder,” for the project. "We knew that we would have to wait until the project had gained enough momentum and visibility to attract the magnitude of the community leaders that we've been able to attract," she said. Mackenzie Joseph, director of development for the theater association, noted that fundraising has taken place over a number of years, including “seed funding” and grants from the federal government. She said she was encouraged by the reaction by local business leaders and individuals, particularly over the last 10 months, when nearly $1.6 million has been raised. “What we had to do was just go out into the community and really make the case for the Colonial Theatre,” Joseph said. “So far, people have been really impressed by this project.” As the fund-raising total continues to mount, supporters hope to build momentum, looking toward raising the full $16 million by June 2006 and then launching full-scale reconstruction. “I think [passing the halfway point] helps people who are still skeptical take more belief in the project,” Joseph said. The casual observer will notice little change at the South Street site since former building owner Stephen Miller sold it to the city, under the auspices of the Colonial Theatre Association, for $1.1 million in August 2001. Some preliminary demolition has taken place, including the removal of a large false ceiling, which has helped reveal the hidden beauty of the building. The theater was built in 1903 at a cost of $70,000. On opening night, on Sept. 28, 1903, The Bostonians Opera Co. performed “Robin Hood.” Over the years, the Colonial gained a reputation because of its fine acoustics and grand style. The venue hosted some of the finest performers in its day, including John and Ethel Barrymore, Maude Adams and Sarah Bernhardt. Musicians such as Max Fiedler and John Philip Sousa played on the Colonial’s stage. President William Howard Taft spoke there on Jan. 16, 1917 (as president of the League to Enforce Peace). Times changed, and the Colonial closed as a regular playhouse in 1934, only to reopen as a retail and movie house a few years later, occasionally still hosting plays. In 1952, the Miller family purchased the site, with owner George Miller vowing to preserve the theater, while opening an arts supply store there. The concept of reviving the site was touted by many over the years, in particular by local theater legend Robert Boland, who advocated for the restoration for years, and who remains a driving force in the project The restoration effort got a big boost in 1998, when former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the site as part of her “Restore America’s Treasures” tour. Clinton called the theater a “rare jewel of architecture.” “Imagine what it was like to sit there and hear John Delacusa or Rachmaninoff,” Clinton said, “or think of hearing the improvisational jazz of Eubie Blake or John and Ethel Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, even some of my favorites, the Three Stooges.” The First Lady’s visit sparked a renewal of interest in the restoration. Many residents saw it as an opportunity for Pittsfield to tap into the cultural appeal that draws thousands to the Berkshire every year. The five years since Clinton’s visit have seen steady growth in fundraising, but some lurches in the leadership effort, including a battle by two rival groups – the Colonial Theatre Association and the Friends of the Colonial Theatre – over which would oversee the reconstruction. The two groups eventually made peace and are now working together to move the effort forward. Last year, the association began taking a more high-profile approach, sponsoring a production of “Damn Yankees” at Wahconah Park. The association is also a co-sponsor of an upcoming performance of The Blind Boys of Alabama, which will take place on March 26 at the United Methodist Church on Fenn St. Joseph said the group will broaden its fund-raising and marketing effort once construction actually begins, letting local residents know more about how the theater could play a role in the city’s cultural future. Advocates envision a performing arts venue for opera, dance, music, theater and other events. Care will be taken to maintain the impressive architecture, murals and grand balconies that lend charm to the venue. Even now, with restoration barely underway, the site offers a glimpse into a rich past, when black-tied gentlemen and ladies in stunning gowns attended the theater to enjoy some of the finest performers in the world. Sperber added that plans call for the Colonial to “strengthen the region’s image as a cultural destination by providing year-round local, regional and national productions, offering local students school-to-work opportunities with hands-on training for job placement in summer professional performing arts venues and welcoming the community for events, meetings, celebrations and gatherings.”
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Berkshire County Arc Golf Event Raises $45K

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire County Arc raised $45,000 at its 29th annual Golf Classic held this summer at Berkshire Hills Country Club. 
 
The funds raised from the event go directly to individuals with disabilities for activities such as art classes, medical equipment, wheelchair swings, concerts, assistive technology, and dream trips to places like Disney, Celtics games, and deep-sea fishing.
 
The money also goes to scholarships to area high school students planning to pursue human service careers.
 
The lead supporters of the event this year were Berkshire Bank, Health New England, Greylock Federal Credit Union, The Notch Insurance Group, Synagex Modern IT, and Advance Manufacturing.
 
BCArc serves around 1,000 individuals with disabilities through a range of programs that include residential services, employment support, day programs, and support for families at their homes.
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