Story by John Murray
There is a feeling of optimism in the air in Waterbury, a refreshing change from the usual doom and gloom that has hovered over the Brass City these past few decades. Waterbury citizens are excited about the massive downtown revitalization project, and absolutely giddy about the re-opening of their beloved Palace Theatre this November.
In fact the re-emergence of the Palace Theatre was voted The Best Thing To Happen in Waterbury This Past Year in the Observers annual readers poll. The executive director of the Palace Theatre, Frank Tavara, was delighted when he found out the Palace resonated so deeply with Observer readers. Tavara sat down with the Observer in early June for an interview.
The building has been closed for 18 yheyears and we are getting ready for a new line of business, Tavara said. We were a little nervous about our first Broadway series, but the response has been tremendous.
The goal for subscribers for the Broadway series was 2000 for the first year and Tavara said they sold 1000 in the first week. I am incredibly pleased and surprised, Tavara said. And the response from Waterbury proper has been fantastic.
And when greater Waterbury saw some of the shows that were coming to the Palace in the next year – Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof, Smoky Joes Cafe, Lord of the Dance and Chicago – their was an audible gasp heard for miles around.
Here? Those Broadway shows are playing here in Waterbury? The news seemed to infuse a little extra oomph in the collective psyche of Waterbury. The electric response to the offering has eased Tavaras mind. I let out a huge sigh of relief, he said. Now I dont have to walk up and down East Main Street wearing a sandwich board trying to sell tickets.
Despite the response, Tavara is quick to point out that the success of the Palace Theatre will take time. The measure of success is not if we sell out Tony Bennett on opening night, because we will, Tavara said. The real measure of success is if we are able to change the culture of the city. When people are talking about the changes in downtown and people are walking on the streets at night.
Tavara said it will take a good three years to realistically gauge the success of the theatre. The first year is going to be a honeymoon with lots of people checking us out because they are curious, Tavara said. But we have to capitalize on the first year and give the customers quality so they will be repeat customers. We dont one their theatre experience to be a one shot deal.
And Tavara is willing to help sell downtown to businesses interested in cracking the Waterbury market. He said he has already met with three prospective businesses to let them know there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Tavara is high octane, with enough energy bursting beneath his skin to fire up a nuclear generator. He could probably give UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun a scare in the fastest talker in Connecticut contest. But Tavara has relied on his abundance of energy to keep tasking after the thousands of details that go into opening the Palace Theatre.
The most difficult part of Tavaras job so far, he said, has been dealing with the reality of the Waterbury landscape. When I was first hired I didnt fully understand the communitys involvement, he said. I was focused on operating the theatre and didnt realize the nature of politics that were going to come into play. Signing the lease agreement with the board of aldermen and the city was a long process, but it was worth the wait.
Tavara is in the process of hiring a full time staff of six and said there should be 25 part time positions available. Later on in the summer Tavara said he will be looking for 100 to 150 volunteers who will act as ushers, who will also get to see the shows for free.
And within a matter of weeks a Palace Theatre box office will open on East Main Street and customers can purchase single tickets to any show. In addition to the Broadway series Tavara said he plans to book shows that celebrate the history of the Palace Theatre. He said he plans to book some classic rock acts, but chuckled and said there will be no mosh pit at the theatre.
He talked of having a Sunday matinee the first weekend the theatre opens and showing a classic black and white film for 25 cents a ticket. He hopes to have Big Band Shows, comedy acts, and said there will be additional Broadway shows announced in the near future.
After nearly twenty years of trying to get the Palace Theatre re-opened, the moment is nearly upon us. And as the Observer readers said, its the Best Thing to Happen in Waterbury in the Past year.
Our readers were also delighted with the new UConn campus in downtown Waterbury and with the re-election of Mayor Michael Jarjura. Other items touted by our readers were the litter and blight clean-up effort, the emergence of the Independent Party in Waterbury politics, the professional bike race in Waterbury,, the magnet arts school being built on East Main Street, the disappearance of the Republican aldermen, the re-opening of Bunker Hill Park, the real estate boom in Waterbury and lower taxes.
The winner of the Worst Thing To Happen in Waterbury This Past Year was the ethical problems of Governor John Rowland, a Waterbury native. (See Observations on page 30 for more details). Other nominees for the worst thing to happen in the city were – two water main pipes bursting, the $1.4 billion school building plan, the loss of 300 experienced teachers, the smoking ban in bars and restaurants, the emergence of the Independent party in Waterbury, the lack of funding for parks and recreation programs, cuts in the fire department, parking in downtown Waterbury and the firing of the tax collector.
For the second year in a row Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura was voted the Person of the Year. Jarjura was also voted the Most Powerful Man in Waterbury and the Most Honest Politician.
There is a buzz in Waterbury now, Jarjura said. The worst of our problems are coming to an end and people are really getting excited about the Palace Theatre, people are just dying to get in there and see the renovations.
Jarjura said Waterbury has worked hard to pull itself up by its bootstraps and the city is turning a corner. We have had modest surpluses and we are getting our financial house in order, Jarjura said. We have survived natural disasters and political disasters together, the people of Waterbury are resilient and we will continue to move forward.
After two and half years in office Jarjura said the job hasnt gotten easier, he has just grown more accustomed to the role. The issues arent any easier, he said, but Ive always had a high tolerance to stress.
Which is good, because as the Mayor was being interviewed a group of Waterbury fire fighters were picketing outside city hall against the mayor. Some of their placards read Jarjura is a Liar and they marched past a giant inflatable rat they used to demonstrate their feelings about the Mayor.
When asked how it felt to be depicted as a 15 foot inflatable rat, Jarjura chuckled. You have to have a pretty thick skin to sit in this chair and make some tough decisions, he said. They are out there fighting for their interests and I dont blame them. Its democracy in action.
But Jarjura was quick to say that if his predecessors had made the right decisions during the past 20 years there wouldnt be such a high burden on the taxpayers, and the firemen wouldnt be facing tough concessions.
Everybody is going to bleed, Jarjura said. Those who pay and those who provide services. Its the only way we can get this house in order.
Coming in second to Jarjura as Person of the Year, was Funny Cide, the gelding race horse that won took the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003. The horse was locally owned by a consortium of friends, including David Mahan. Mel Gibson received a slew of votes for making The Passion of the Christ, and Reverend Bevins from the Immaculate Conception Church snared votes for taking a vocal stance against the way people young people dressed in church.
Coming in second to Jarjura as the Most Honest Politician was state rep Selim Noujaim, followed by alderman Laurie Singer Russo and alderman Laura Nesta.
Coming in second to Jarjura as the Most Powerful Man in Waterbury was Webster Bank CEO Jim Smith, followed by Garret Casey (Jarjuras Chief of Staff), Bill Pape (publisher of the Republican-American newspaper) and Marc Ryan (state budget director and head of the Waterbury Oversight Board.
State Senator Joan Hartley was voted the Most Powerful Woman in Waterbury, followed by alderman Laurie Singer Russo and community activist Kathy McNamara. J. Paul Vance Jr. was voted Favorite Alderman, followed by Laurie Singer Russo and Laura Nesta.
Independent John Theriault, from the Board of Education, was voted the Best Political Newcomer. After years as a principal in the Waterbury School system, it seems Observer readers were delighted to have a voice of experience and reason on the board of education. Wolcott Mayor Tom Dunn came in second in the category, followed by Cicero Booker, an Independent alderman in Waterbury.
For the third year in a row Kathy McNamara, an influential member of the neighborhood associations, was tabbed as the Best Community Activist in Waterbury. Observer columnist Jim Szynkiewicz came in a close second, followed by Andy Michaud, Bob Dorr, Reverend Mallory and Ron Capaldo.
In the Best Kept Secret category there were a wide range of responses, including The Connecticut Store, the Lakewood Social Club, St. Marys School, west end housing, downtown restaurants and Governor Rowlands first wife.
Observer readers also gave a potential casino in Waterbury the thumbs down by a 57 to 43% margin.
WATR radio thumped the competition in the Best Radio Station category, clearly routing WWCO, WFAN and the River. The Best AM Radio Personality was a shoot-out again between WATRs Ed Flynn and Tom Chute, with Chute narrowly retaining his title. Both Chute and Flynn enjoyed a considerable gap between themselves and Brad Davis at WWCO.
Do Dat was voted Best Cable Access Show and The Waterbury Observer was again voted the Best Local Newspaper, beating the Republican-American and The Hartford Courant.
All of the above categories are from the People and Places Section of the readers poll. The following winners are from Goods and Services, Eating Out, Nightlife, Auto, and Health and Beauty. And when you boil the entire Best of Waterbury competition down to its marrow, its really a celebration of small businesses in greater Waterbury. Almost all the winners are small businesses trying to maintain their balance in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Few of these businesses offer the lowest price on any specific item, what they offer is service, knowledge and excellence. Its what sets them apart.
While most issues of the Observer pivot on editorial excellence, the Best of Waterbury issue is a celebration of business.
Waterbury over the last year!
Here are the winners…
Best Banquet Facility
Linens and Things
Best Bike Shop
The Bike Rack
Best Bridal Registry
Best Butcher Shop
Best Body Piercing & Tatoo
Best Candy Shop
Best Carpet Store
Best Craft Shop
DAMELIOS ITALIAN EATERY
Best Bridal Salon
DELIANNES, WOLCOTT ROAD, WATERBURY
Best Department Store
WALMART, WOLCOTT ROAD, WATERBURY
BANK STREET DENTAL
Best Dry Cleaner
MAR VIC CLEANERS & TAILORS
Best Eye Doctor
Best Fish/Aquarium Shop
BILL WILDMAN FLOORING
Best Frame Shop
THE FRAME SHOP
Best Fresh Produce Market
Best Fruit Basket
COREYS FRUIT BASKETS
Best Fuel Service Company
Best Furniture Store
RAYMOUR AND FLANNIGAN
Best Gift Shop
Best Carpet Store
Best Gardening Center
SCHMIDTS AND SERAFINES
Best Gift Basket
THE GROTTO AND MRS. G.
ST. MARYS HOSPITAL
Best Healthcare Facility
STAYWELL HEALTH CENTER
COURTYARD BY MARRIOTT
Best Insurance Agency
MARTIN AND ROWLAND, INC.
Best Jewelry Store
Best Mens Clothing
Best Martial Arts
CHEEZIC TANG SOO DO
Best Grocery Store Selection
Best Grocery Store Prices
Best New Store
LEMON TREE FARM MARKET
Best Neighborhood Market
TOWN PLOT SUPERMARKET
Best Pawn Shop
T.C. SUPER PAWN
Best Party Supply Shop
Best Photo Studio
JOEL ROSARIO, A HOME CONNECTION
Best Printing Shop
SPACE AGE COPY
Best Travel Agency
Best Tuxedo Rental Shop
TUXEDOS BY DANA
Best Liquor Store, Best Wine Shop and Best Beer Selection
THE SPIRIT SHOP
Best Store Prices
Best Steak, Best Seafood and Best Restaurant
Best All You Can Eat Restaurant
Best Bread Bakery
Best Chinese Restaurant, Golden Palace and Best Chinese Buffet
SUN HING BUFFET
Best Deli and Best Sandwich Shop
Best Family Restaurant
Best Food at Best Price
Best Italian Pastry Shop and Best Place For A Taste of Italy
Best Hot Dogs and Best Burgers
BIG DADDYS RIB SHACK
Best Ice Cream
Best Italian Restaurant
Best Lunch In Downtown Waterbury
Best Mexican Restaurant, Best Margarita and Best Nachos
Best New Restaurant
Best Thick Crust Pizza and Best Pizza Overall
Best Thin Crust Pizza
Most Unique Pizza
WHOOSTER PIZZA & PASTA
Best Pizza By The Slice
Best Place For Pasta
Best Gift Basket
Best Portuguese Restaurant
Best Health Food Store
NEW MORNING, WOODBURY
Best Italian Take-out Menu
Best bakery For Loaf of Bread
Best Power Lunch
Most Romantic Restaurant
Best Radio Station
WATR 1320 AM
Best AM Radio Personality
TOM CHUTE, WATR 1320
Best Local Newspaper
Best Cable Access Show
Best Thing To Happen In Waterbury In The Past Year
PALACE THEATRE RENOVATION
Worst Thing To Happen In Waterbury In The Past Year
GOVERNOR ROWLANDS PROBLEMS IN HARTFORD
Best Political Newcomer
JOHN THERIAULT, WATERBURY BOARD OF EDUCATION
Best Community Activist
J. PAUL VANCE JR.
Most Powerful Man in Waterbury, Person of the Year and Most Honest Politician
MAYOR MICHAEL JARJURA
Do You Want A Casino in Waterbury
Should Governor Rowland Resign?
Best Bar, Best Neighborhood Bar and Best Beer Selection
OLD CORNER CAFE
Best Place For Live Music
LILLY LAKE INN
Best Local Musician
Best Cell Phone Store and Best Car Alarm Shop
KARTELE CELLULAR PHONES
Best Car Stereo Shop
Best Car Wash
Best Domestic Car Dealer and Best Truck Dealer
Best Foreign Car Dealer
Best Used Car Dealer
EXECUTIVE AUTO SALES
Best Muffler Repair Shop
Best Service Station
MIKE & IKE
Best Auto Body Shop
Jakes Auto Body
Best Brake Shop
Best Tire Shop
Best Transmission Shop
Best Hair Salon and Best Massage
WILD STRAWBERRY DAY SPA
Best Nail Salon
Best Health Club
YMCA IN WATERBURY
Best Tanning Salon