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Dramatic Effect

the Colonial Theatre was reopened in 2006

Following a $21 million renovation, the Colonial Theatre was reopened in 2006 after more than 50 years of inactivity.

Kate Maguire was out shopping recently, wearing a shirt that proudly celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge.

“The young girl at the register — she was probably 18 — was stunned. She said, ‘that theater is 90 years old? I had no idea!’ For her, it was ancient history. But she made me realize that, yes, 90 years of theater is a long time.”

As artistic director and CEO of the Berkshire Theatre Group, which puts on performances at venues in Stockbridge and Pittsfield, Maguire has witnessed quite a bit of that history first-hand since joining the organization 25 years ago.

“The facilities represent two iconic sites,” she said. “The Colonial Theatre is the center of Pittsfield — the center of the county.” As for the playhouse in Stockbridge, also known as the Fitzpatrick Main Stage, “considering that culture is the heart of the community in the Berkshires, that is as iconic a structure as any in Berkshire County.”

But while the buildings themselves are iconic, more importantly, each campus has brought countless people to see some of the most remarkable names in the history of American theater, as well as up-and-coming talent, Maguire noted. “It has created a sort of cultural destination for artists and audiences. That’s what the buildings represent.”

They’re also an economic driver, she added, currently drawing about 75,000 visitors a year and contributing almost $4 million to the local economy annually — as well as employing some 600 people in some capacity each year.

Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) was created in 2010 by the merger of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, housed at the main stage in Stockbridge, and the Colonial Theatre, built in 1903 in Pittsfield. One of the largest arts organizations in the region, BTG oversees the development, production, and presentation of theatre, music, and various other performing arts.

Kate Maguire says involving hundreds of children in productions each year is key to securing BTG’s future.

Kate Maguire says involving hundreds of children in productions each year is key to securing BTG’s future.

The Stockbridge campus presents work at two venues. The 314-seat Fitzpatrick Main Stage, designed by famed architect Stanford White, is a summer-only venue where classical theatre and world premieres are produced. Meanwhile, the 122-seat Unicorn Theatre, open year-round, is home for new and emerging artists, and a space where more experimental, provocative works often finds a receptive audience.

Meanwhile, in Pittsfield, the 780-seat Colonial Theatre — built in 1903 and re-opened in 2006 following a $21 million restoration — hosts family entertainment, comedy, live music, and other events year-round.

Located in the lobby of the Colonial is the Garage, a name that pays homage to its former owner, Berkshire Auto Co. This newest BTG venue, complete with a stage, lights, and sound system, is a dedicated space for local and regional music, comedy performers, and more.

In short, Maguire said, there’s something for everyone.

“I want people to know they’re welcome here,” she told BusinessWest. “They can listen to acoustic musicians or hear a really funny comedian in the Garage, sit with friends, have a drink, then go into the majestic Colonial Theatre and have a completely different experience. Or they might see a rock band on stage, and the following week see an opera performed. It’s a space where people come together from all strata and all walks of life.”

Rich History

The Colonial Theatre opened its doors on Sept. 28, 1903. Built in five and a half months, it boasted pristine acoustics and classic Gilded Age architecture. As was sometimes the custom in that day, the exterior of the theater was designed by a respected local architect, Joseph McArthur Vance, who also designed Pittsfield’s Masonic Temple, the Christian Science building, the superstructure of the Wahconah Park Stadium, Mount Greylock’s Bascom Lodge, and the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington.

“I want people to know they’re welcome here. They can listen to acoustic musicians or hear a really funny comedian in the Garage, sit with friends, have a drink, then go into the majestic Colonial Theatre and have a completely different experience. Or they might see a rock band on stage, and the following week see an opera performed. It’s a space where people come together from all strata and all walks of life.”

From its early days, the space played host to some of the most notable lights in theater, including Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, Eubie Blake, Billie Burke, George Cohan, Irene Dunne, Grace George, William Gillette, Walter Hampden, Helen Hayes, Al Jolson, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Julia Marlow and E.H. Sothern, Will Rogers, Lillian Russell, Ted Shawn, Noble Sissell, Ruth St. Denis, Laurette Taylor, and Ed Wynn.

the Colonial Theatre

Following a $21 million renovation, the Colonial Theatre was reopened in 2006 after more than 50 years of inactivity.

To the south in Stockbridge, the Berkshire Playhouse was founded in 1928 when Mabel Choate sold the Stockbridge Casino to financier Walter Clark. An organization called the Three Arts Society remodeled the casino’s interior by adding a stage and seating for 450 people, and christened the new theatre the Berkshire Playhouse.

In 1937, the Colonial was renovated with a new marquee, projection room, and two retail stores added to the front of the building. With cinema on the rise, the venue operated primarily for the next decade and a half as a movie theater, although some community performances continued. In 1951, the Colonial closed due to the rise of TV and the decline of touring theatrical companies — and would remain closed for more than a half-century.

Down in Stockbridge, the Berkshire Playhouse was reorganized as a nonprofit organization in 1964 and renamed the Berkshire Theatre Festival. In 1976, the playhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1996, the Unicorn Theatre was reopened after a lengthy renovation and became BTG’s official second stage.

To the north, meanwhile, efforts to restore and reopen the Colonial were picking up in the 1990s. And organization called Friends of the Colonial Theatre Restoration was formed in 1994, and public tours in 1997 led to increased community awareness of the venue’s potential. A $2.5 million appropriation in state funding followed, and designation of the facility in 1998 as a National Historic Treasure by the Save America’s Treasures Program of the National Park Service only increased the momentum.

After years of design, planning, and community fundraising, the rehabilitation of the historic theater — and the extensive renovation of the adjacent Berkshire Auto Garage — were undertaken. In 2006, the $21 million restoration was complete, and the theater reopened. The 22-month construction process preserved and reinstalled all historically significant architectural and design features — from the vaulted, gilded entrance to the elaborately decorated boxes and balcony to the custom plasterwork — while creating a modern performance center.

“I feel it’s very important to make sure that the community recognizes the theater as their own,” Maguire told BusinessWest. “The doors were closed for 50 years, and the community got together and put in a lot of hard work and money renovate that theater.”

In a year when the Berkshire Theatre Festival marked its 90th summer season and the Colonial Theatre celebrated its 115th birthday, the community continues to show its support, she added. “We’ve been successful in fund-raising, and certainly a lot of people coming to our shows — we’re very grateful for the attendance.”

Kid Stuff

Maguire might be even more proud, though, of the way BTG engages with children, reaching about 13,000 students with cultural programs each year and putting many of them on stage in any given year; this past summer, about 100 Berkshire-area youth performed in Tarzan of the Apes at the Colonial.

“Imagine how many other kids are coming to these productions,” she said. “We are ensuring the vitality of the future of these buildings. Those 100 kids in Tarzan in the summertime — those kids are going to remember that experience, and make sure that building is here for the next generation.”

She believes that because it’s her own story. Growing up in Lowell, she used to attend performances of Boston Children’s Theatre.

“I was amazed at the quality of work, and it looked like an army of kids were working on these produtions,” she recalled. “Little did I know that, many years later, I’d have the opportunity to create such programming in the community I live in now. Every single doorway I’m walked through has been opened because of theater.”

Maguire wants to open those doors for others today — not just children who might feel a spark to follow a passion for theater, but area residents and Berkshires visitors who become part of a long, rich history every time they buy a ticket.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years, an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies, and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms

* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

To encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]