Work of Arts

Bing Restoration Project Takes a Major Step Forward
Work of Arts

Brian Hale says great strides have been made to breathe new life into the old Bing Theater.

Brian Hale remembers a time when a rainy Saturday would have packed all 900 seats in the Bing Theater on Sumner Avenue, near the city’s X.

“My friend and I came to see Day of the Triffids and Fun in Acapulco, with Elvis, and it was so crowded we couldn’t get seats even near each other,” he said. It might not have been those two movies that led them back to the defunct theater years later, but both men are now board members of The X Main Street Corp. (XMSC), which owns the rechristened Bing Arts Center.

With the sounds of hammers and saws punctuating the conversation, Hale told the story of how the 1930s gas station known as Cossaboom’s Service Station on Sumner Avenue was transformed into Forest Park’s portal to Tinseltown, and became the place to be for the postwar Baby Boomer generation. The future of the Bing Arts Center, he said, has just as an important a role for arts and culture in the city.

The big theater space out back is still far from a return to celluloid spectacles, but for now, the front section of the building is completely refurbished and has been slowly but steadily hosting arts-education classes, movie screenings, and, very soon, its inaugural arts show.

With a soft opening planned for June 5, Hale, board president of the XMSC, plans to introduce the community to what the XMSC calls “a place which will enable our citizens of all ages, ethnic groups, genders, orientation, and economic status to gather, experience, and build the unifying bonds of civilization and community that active participation in the arts can and will provide.

“I live a couple miles away from the Bing, and almost every time my wife and I drive to go to see a show somewhere, we drive right by the Bing,” he added. “We are not alone in thinking how important it is to have something to keep people here.”

Hale took BusinessWest on a tour of the Bing and, with opening day just a short while away, projected his plans and hopes for the future of art and culture not only for Forest Park, but for Springfield and the surrounding area.

X Marks the Spot

In the freshly-painted room destined to be an arts classroom, Hale described the early history of the Bing. “They turned the front of the building into two storefronts, built the theater on the back, and named it after Bing Crosby. It showed films from 1950 through 1999, opening with Samson and Delilah, and ending with the remake of Psycho. How’s that for a programming arc?” he said with a smile.

After 50 years, the city took over the property for non-payment of taxes, and the neighborhood theater’s house lights dimmed for the last time. Suffering from neglect and lax security, the building was fortunately spared the fate of many other defunct urban theaters.

“Honestly, though, I think the city would have torn it down if it had the money,” Hale said.

However, Springfield put forth an RFP for redevelopment of the site, and one interested party intended to transform the theater into an arts center, but the scope of the project was just too great.

In 2002, the XMSC took control of the project. A nonprofit entity that Hale described as one of many Main Street-type redevelopment organizations around the country, the group immediately saw the importance of the history, location, and potential of the Bing Theater.

“The X used to be a fantastic urban retail district,” native son Hale explained. “More than 26,000 people live in Forest Park alone, with another 4,000 to 5,000 in East Forest Park. If you draw a five-mile radius around the Bing, I don’t even know … it’s probably 60,000 people. And completely diverse, too — from Section 8 to millionaires, all ethnic groups.

“We knew that, to have a true community arts center in Springfield,” he continued, “this is the place.”

And so the XMSC “sunk its teeth” into the project, he said, and in true community fashion with help from residents of that neighborhood.

One of those people, who happened to be painting the interior that day with his crew, was Mark Checkwicz, owner of a high-end commercial painting and restoration company in the city. He is one of the many people generously donating his time, resources, and manpower to see the BAC open on time.

“He lives just down the street,” Hale said, “and has been involved with the project from the beginning.”

Which was a project of titanic proportions.

“The first winter we took the building,” Hale said, “literally the lobby floor was covered in ice, and there was a frozen waterfall cascading from the ceiling, which encased the electric panel. In order to make handicapped-accessible bathrooms in the front, we had to jackhammer out the slab floor.”

After installing entirely new HVAC and electrical systems, gut-framing and re-insulating the front section of the building, and assessing the non-structural damage to the large theater in back, Hale joked that his day job owning and operating Design Workshop in Indian Orchard might be supplanted by his role as de facto general contractor for the Bing.

Getting the front section of the BAC in shape is what he calls ‘phase one,’ allowing for gallery space, art-education classrooms, and a modest performance space that will ultimately serve as the lobby for phase two, the larger theater.

The first exhibit, with work from three well-known area artists, is titled “Upcycled: Transforming the Unused into the Inspirational.” Featuring found-object sculptures, Hale said it is definitely fitting for the first show.

Some concerts have been staged in the lobby/entryway area, and that space is destined to be the ad hoc theater showing first-run arthouse films some time after the June opening.

Walking around the finished gallery and front section of the Bing, Hale said, “I’d say that the scope of the project has exceeded my expectations by a factor of three.

“Previously, I had been thinking, maybe $100,000 could get the front open,” he continued. “But then again, we were going to try to reuse a lot of the systems — the heating and such.

“Then I had a conversation with Dave Panagore,” he continued, referring to then-chief financial officer of the Springfield control board, “and he said, ‘you’re just not going to get there if you don’t do it right. People will recognize the difference.’”

Altogether, the BAC renovation has come to just under $300,000, and Hale said, “I think we’ve done very well with that.”

Go Ahead, Make My Day

Hale doesn’t mince words when he assesses the importance of a cultural center for the neighborhood. “Arts education really is pathetic right now,” he said.

While the theater component to phase two is important, providing a venue for film and performance that will easily compete for first-rate offerings, Hale is most thrilled by the possibility for art and culture to come to the city’s newest generations.

“We’ve started a collaborative partnership with the White Street School, two blocks down, which had no art programs for the kids,” he explained. “So we started two classes, a movie-production class, and an art-through-many-cultures program on Saturdays.

“Some people go, ‘well, until you get the theater open, who cares?’” he continued. “Regularly, though, there will be art on the walls, there will be all-ages educational programming going on, performance programming, neighborhood groups can use the space for meetings. We want to support the neighborhood economically with this presence.”

Citing an untapped cultural presence in the city, Hale said that there’s “no ‘scene’ per se; there’s no hub for people to make contacts. I know some amazing visual artists here in the city, some musicians also. But they are low-profile because they go to Boston, or New York.”

The benefits from an arts center transcend the immediate function of movies and a gallery, he said.

“It’s the creative economy that is our best hope as a city,” he explained, “and it doesn’t require a great deal of money to make it happen. We’re not going to get big retail in this neighborhood; we’re not going to get large-scale manufacturing in the city.

“I’ve often referred to this as the ‘cool neighborhood program,’” he continued. “If you make this area culturally attractive, then you’ll get people who want to come here, spend money here, and live here.”

The Show Must Go On

While phase one opens the doors this month, the theater out back will have to wait a bit.

“People keep asking about the big room in the rear,” Hale said, “because everyone is just dying to know when we’ll get that open.”

Like a seasoned GC, Hale added, “I tell people, it’s not when, it’s how much. It’s all about the dollars. If we had the money, we could have it open in about a year, but we’re working on the actual plans, thanks to the pro bono work of a well-known local architect. Hopefully by summer we can have those finished so we can put a budget to it.”

The XMSC hired a fund-development firm, the Hedgepeth Group, to assist with that capital campaign. Word will soon be out on the target figure for that project.

Hale estimates that the total bill will be anywhere from $3 million to $5 million, but that is a turnkey look at the theater, programming, and all expenses necessary to get the show back on the screen and on the stage.

For the more immediate future, the BAC is up and beginning to fill that expressed void as a catalyst for an increased art presence in the city.

“It’s a missing piece here in the city,” Hale said proudly, “but it’s finally falling into place.”

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