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The Colonial Reinvents Itself as a Pittsfield Gem

With a clear plan for the future and some help from its friends, the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield staged a rebirth at the start of this decade, and today continues to grow as the Berkshires’ ‘community theater.’ The story is one of success after a long wait, and audiences are both buying tickets and taking cues from the little venue that could — and did.

From the stage of the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, a performer has a clear view of nearly all of its 800 seats.

That was one thing a local performer of some note liked about the venue. Folk hitmaker James Taylor, a Berkshire County resident, factored the intimacy and the acoustics into his decision last year to record his CD/DVD One Man Band at the theater, which is now in its second year of business following an extensive restoration and rehabilitation project.
In the liner notes, Taylor writes, “the Colonial Theatre in my hometown of Pittsfield just managed to escape the wrecking ball. … People have invested time, money, and themselves resurrecting the old girl. And along the way, they have found a new sense of belonging: a sense of place; a place called home.”

But the events surrounding Taylor’s rare appearance (he usually commands audiences in the thousands) are also an illustration of what’s still in store for patrons of The Colonial. A live performance? No problem. An upscale party or event? They’ve got the space and the staff to pull it off. And a screening of a film, be it a silver-screen classic or One Man Band itself? Bring on the popcorn.

What’s more, David Fleming, executive director of the Colonial Theatre, said those offerings aren’t reserved for summer travelers by any means. Rather, he said the landmark is currently enjoying a new heyday not just as a tourist attraction in the Berkshires, but as the local community’s theater of choice.

“The most important thing I can say about the theater today is that when we opened, there were a lot of skeptics out there who weren’t convinced we were here to serve the Berkshires,” said Fleming. “But we’ve been embraced by the community — to the point where we’re recording some of our biggest audiences in January and February.

“That’s been the most satisfying aspect of our work,” he added. “We’re trying to continue to be responsive to people’s needs and wants, and with everything we do, we try to deliver a message of welcome.”

Road to Restoration

The road from renovation to fully operational venue has been a long one, noted Fleming, which nevertheless has been marked by a number of positives.

The Colonial was a movie theater until 1952, when the owner of a paint and wallpaper store acquired the property through an auction, installing a drop ceiling and using just a portion of the space with the hope that one day, the theater could be restored to its former glory.

That day didn’t come until this decade, but Fleming said his vision and that of the Colonial’s staff and supporters was not far off from its former owner’s.

“We restored the theater to exactly its 1903 condition,” Fleming said of the so-called ‘gilded-age’ theater. “Some people remember when the theater was a movie house, and others only remember it as a paint store. But either way you look at it, this building has a past. Now, it has a future, too.”

Restoration was completed in August of 2006, after a two-year period refurbishing the theater building itself and also retrofitting an adjacent building formerly used as a car dealership. Fleming said the total project cost of $21.5 million included acquisition, hard and soft construction, and design, with $1 million of that total coming from a $10 million economic development fund established for Pittsfield in the 1980s by General Electric, after the company left the region and some staggering unemployment numbers in its wake. The Colonial was the first entity to receive such a large lump sum.

However, Fleming added that the project was identified as eligible for funds through the Save America’s Treasures federal program in 1998, and also received federal and state historic tax credits amounting to $7 million. Another $7 million was collected through government and foundation grants, and the final third of funding was raised through private contributions.

That leaves the Colonial in good shape to move forward, with the bulk of the renovation work now completed and paid for.

“The money to restore the building was not enough to take care of the ongoing shopping list,” he said, “and we’re going to be applying for grants for years. But our focus now is on annual support, and we’re currently operating at a rate of 60% earned revenue. Most theaters with 1,000 seats or fewer operate around 30% or 40%, so we’re ahead of the game there.”

Fleming added that the Colonial requires about $600,000 a year to cover general operations and programming needs, and part of that amount is gleaned through membership drives that collect donations from $50 per patron well into the thousands.

One development Fleming said he’s even more excited about, though, is the success of the venue’s sponsorship and advertising programs.

“In the beginning, we were timid about asking people to buy ad space in our programs, on tickets, and to become sponsors,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we were targeting the right people — the businesses that could really benefit from having their name on our materials — and that we were working well with the community and their needs. But now, we can’t keep up with the requests — people are coming to us and asking for space, and that is just a fantastic feeling. They want their names tied to the Colonial because they see us as a success story.”

Some of these advertisers and show sponsors are retail or hospitality businesses that benefit directly from the exposure, said Fleming, noting, however, that a new group of companies, larger outfits that may not have a storefront or a specific service to offer patrons, still want to be involved.

“Some just want to be a part of what we’re doing,” he said, citing Lyon Aviation Inc., the Commonwealth’s largest private charter operator based at the Pittsfield airport, as a prime example. “This is a large, family-owned company that doesn’t stand to gain a lot of customers from having its name in our brochure, but the owners are fans, and wanted to help.”

The New Song and Dance

Performance-wise, the Colonial is in full swing, offering stage shows, concerts, films, and opportunities to rent the space for a variety of events, ranging from wedding receptions to community fund-raisers.

Fleming said the theater’s first two years in operation were largely experimental, staging a wide variety of options to best gauge what kinds of performances would resonate with local audiences and best use the space.

“Now, we’re beginning to narrow things down,” he said. “Singer-songwriters love the space for its acoustics, and theatrical comedy has been a good fit for our audiences.”

Still, the 2008-09 schedule of performances is nothing if not diverse. It includes that singer-songwriter component (Marc Cohn, Arlo Guthrie, Kate Taylor, and Livingston Taylor) and the theatrical comedy aspect (Jewtopia, Steve Solomon’s My Sister’s an Only Child), but also presentations by Tibetan monks; the Machine, a Pink Floyd tribute band; and the National Acrobats of the China Celtic Crossroads. The theater is also equipped to show films and documentaries, and that programming is in the process of expanding.

The Colonial’s schedule is actually broken into 10 key sections: Great Nights Out, the Singer-Songwriter Series, Just for Laughs, International Discovery, Holiday Cheer, Guest Presentations, Family Time, and Berkshire County Collaborators — performances by the Berkshire Opera Company and Pittsfield City Jazz Youth Orchestra are examples of these — round out the live performances. There’s also a film series and a Sunday opera series, at which broadcasts of performances by the internationally acclaimed La Scala Opera are shown.

Jessie Virgilio, director of public relations and education for the Colonial, said these film offerings are a new foray for the theater and as such constitute a learning experience. But they are bringing in new visitors and more walk-in traffic.

“Film is still relatively new for us, so our challenge now is to really sell it,” she said. “Walk-up sales aren’t something we’ve typically depended on; we’ve always been very pre-sale-oriented. Since this is a whole new animal, we’re looking at new and different ways of advertising.”

Some of these initiatives include partnerships with local eateries to offer ‘dinner-and-a-movie’ specials — Virgilio said the theater is finalizing just such a relationship with Pittsfield favorite Patrick’s Pub. This is an example of making inroads in the community to integrate the Colonial into its landscape, both literally and figuratively, but Virgilio said there are many other projects underway aimed at the same goal.

Setting the Stage

“We’re really focused on education,” she said, noting that her title is one sign of that commitment. “Part of my job is to work with schools and families to create opportunities for children to expand their learning experiences.”

The theater has already worked with upwards of 7,000 children as part of this outreach, Virgilio added, welcoming them either to special performances that fit into their classroom’s curriculum or to performing arts classes, where they can learn the ropes themselves.

“Most of these children are from the Berkshires, but we’re pulling from Vermont and New York, too,” Virgilio said. “The education piece is a good fit for us for a few reasons. For one, many grants tend to give funds to educational efforts. Plus, I’ve learned a lot in the past two years about how small school budgets are and what teachers do to work around that. We work closely with the teachers to match their curriculum because they can’t justify taking their class to a show unless it matches a lesson.”

That said, the International Discovery performances the Colonial hosts often blend well with world history, and a recent circus-arts performance taught some of the basics of physics.

“We’re offering students a chance to take what they’re learning and see it played out for them on a stage,” Virgilio said. “It’s an excellent way to reinforce what they’re learning, while at the same time making theater attainable to them at a young age.”

I Always Thought That

I’d See You Again

These programs all go back to that larger goal of creating a “message of welcome,” as Fleming says. This message has become an integral part of the Colonial’s overall mission to create a community theater, seen in all parts of the venue both large and small.

“A theater becomes a people magnet, and a symbol of something people can be proud of. That alone drives property values and leads to more effective recruitment of residents, and the creation of more high-paying positions in the area,” Fleming said. “A whole chain cascades from something like a successful historical restoration of a theater downtown. Performance centers spark creativity and move themselves forward, but anything can spark the enthusiasm and open-mindedness in a community, whether it’s a facility or a person.”

A person like James Taylor, who returned to his coffeehouse roots somewhat through his recorded performance last year, singing many of his hits and taking his time telling the stories behind them.

“I’ve lived and worked in New York and Los Angeles, London and Paris, Sydney and Rio,” he wrote for the subsequent DVD. “But the Berkshires are home at last. And somehow the Colonial Theatre, that plucky survivor, is at the heart of the place.”

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