After 17 Years Of Silence, The Palace Theatre Springs Back To Life, November 12

    Like supplementary pieces in an urban renewal puzzle, you can now find the looming faade of a new downtown UConn campus and adjacent parking garage on East Main, along with the back of an equally brand new arts magnet school and a street comprised of shiny pavers. And like supplementary pieces, they act as hints, leading the viewer to envision the centerpiece. For how can you have a renewal, or more specifically a revival of downtown Waterbury, unless something symbolic and meaningful is brought back to life? And that special something to any native with deep roots in the city harkens back to Waterbury in its heyday. To that heady period following World War I, to what was perceived as the jewel in the crown and main attraction – the Palace Theatre.

    Stories still abound about the legendary impresario Sylvester Poli and the construction in 1920 of a grand theater designed in a Renaissance Revival style (there are those words again – “Renaissance,” “revival”) boasting grand lobby spaces, ornate dome ceilings in a palatial setting: the premier performance venue in the northeast intended for the thriving city of Waterbury (or so the story goes.).

    Grown seedy and shabby by 1987, it closed its doors with a performance by the ever popular Tony Bennett. There has been much talk ever since of opening these doors again in a way befitting a grand revival. And somehow, like Topsy, although unseen by any passersby, something has “just grown” to the point where early in the morning around 4:30 on Monday, September 27, people began standing in line to get to the window of a modern box office area where the old Palace Hotel used to stand. By twelve o’clock noon, all 2,639 seats had been sold to the Tony Bennett gala opening night performance for Friday, November 12.

    Like “book ends to the dark days” in the words of executive director Frank Tavera, Tony Bennett closed and will now reopen the theater. “The long wait is finally over,” Tavara said. “With a great sense of excitement we will unveil the entertaining new possibilities awaiting you.”

    With the box office open and the front doors still enticingly closed, clues and answers to key questions like What is really going on here? and What’s behind the words “entertaining new possibilities?” can only come from the enterprise’s chief spokesperson, Tavera himself, from behind these selfsame closed doors.

    One key concern is the risk and cost to the taxpayer which then leads to questions of programming and funding. It’s promising to learn that the stage space has been expanded from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet, the largest in the state. It’s also promising to hear of the addition of an orchestra pit in its proper location, a gaggle of dressing rooms and the capacity to bring in any Broadway-sized show like the ones on this season’s bill (Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Lord of the Dance). But, again, what happens to the taxpayer if this outsized venture fails? How does it work?

    In response, Tavera is quick to reveal that there is no risk to the taxpayer whatsoever. The cost of $30 million to restore and renovate the structure has already been paid for, in a sense, by all the citizens of the state. There is no money that needs to be reimbursed by the city. If the Palace venture doesn’t work out, the citizens of Waterbury stand to lose nothing. City taxes do not support the operation; the city is protected 100% from any losses. The enterprise is self-contained as a profit and not-for-profit corporation. Citizens can participate by buying tickets or engaging in fund raising activities and/or by becoming patrons. But, by and large, the operating expenses are underwritten by local financial institutions like the Bank of America, Webster Bank, Naugatuck Savings Bank and Saint Mary’s Hospital.

    As might be expected, in its initial year testing the market, the Palace can’t afford to take on an operation of this magnitude all by itself. Not as a new market with not even one audience member at the outset. Without going into a long story, suffice it to say that Tavera went into a relationship with the Providence Performing Arts Center which, as it happens, also operates theaters in Florida, Colorado and Illinois and books star attractions. Tavera induced the Providence group to act as a partner and take a 50/50 risk and share of the profits. “In this way,” Tavera said, “we’ve got buying power right out of the gate. Building our brand in the market while lowering our financial risk.” As an example, Tavera pointed out that the Palace landed Lord of the Dance through the prospect of three performances in Providence and five more in Waterbury making for a full week. No other venue could offer that kind of consecutive run.

    But in a sense, all of this is secondary. Tavera and his board of directors aren’t as much interested in questions like Did Phantom come to the Palace and how did it do? but rather “we want to be judged as to whether or not we had a positive impact on the city? Are more tenants coming into the area? Are there more and higher quality restaurants? Have we helped create a vibrant culture and artistic life? If three years down the road we’ve accomplished that, we’ve accomplished our mission. If there’s a positive economic spin-off for the downtown area and people everywhere are saying, ‘I’m going downtown because of the transformation’ [it’s a success]. If there’s a demand for new services that succeed. It’s not the programming that’s the main target, but mainly snapshots. What does East Main look like today? What does it look like tomorrow? Three years and five years down the road?”

    All of this altruism is well and good but, then again, Tavera can’t help but return to the building and the venue and his immediate concerns. He can’t resist saying “I want people to fall back in love with this building, people who have fantastic memories of this space.” And, back to his slogan of “entertaining new possibilities,” he can’t refrain from asking his potential audiences who are needed to consistently fill those over 2,600 seats, “When is the last time since a Broadway show played here? And when is the last time you had programming geared to families over the weekend? ‘Entertaining new possibilities’ is cute, it’s entertaining, it’s a play on words. After years of saying it’s never going to happen, we’re asking people to trust us. The words mean be optimistic with us. Join us.”

    To draw these thousands at a time, security has increased. With that factor and the promise of “quality entertainment in a fantastic venue,” Tavera foresees an immediate change in clientele along with the disappearance of pawn shops, undesirable elements and, for want of a better word, the riffraff.

    At the same time, to draw in thousands at a time, Tavera feels he has to offer entertainment that has instant recognition and proven commercial viability. “People have to have a comfort level. They need to say, I’ve seen it, I know it, I’m comfortable with it. What we have to offer are recognizable, consumable, easily palatable, consumer pieces. It’s the standard classical audience we’re going to appeal to. Fifty-five-year-old theatergoers who know Tony Bennett. We have to go with the tried and true. People have to get comfortable with the program venue and coming downtown. In time we may want to test a little bit.”

    In veering a step from the tried and true to attract the thousands, Tavera has included the tried and true for the younger set in his comedy series. In other words, in addition to Tim Conway and Harvey Korman of Carol Burnett Show fame in April and Bill Cosby in May, Tavera has booked Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood of the hit TV show “Who’s Line is it Anyway” in January, Rob Becker’s one-man show Defending the Caveman which has a track record of entertaining sold-out audiences since 1991 across the country and on Broadway for a date in February, and Capitol Steps, a musical revue and troupe of political satirists with a loyal cult following for a stint in February.

   It was only on the subject of straight plays and edgy pieces that weren’t safe and predictable, ones that challenged and had the potential to jar audience expectations, threaten their assumptions and cause people to think, that was met with a less than positive response. Tavera pointed to his experience at Hartford’s Bushnell theater with productions of plays like Chess and An Inspector Calls. “Twelve-hundred people might have thought the plays were fantastic but 800 to 900 were disappointed. They wanted to see dancing girls. They wanted to sit back and watch dancing girls sing a song or watch the Phantom do something. They came for an escape. Besides, it looks horrible if there are only 300 people sitting in our space that houses over 2,600. And listening to a play with not much movement like Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard could be vacuous. But if there’s a huge demand, we could definitely do it. Thinking is a dangerous place to be. How do you get them there? It’s an educational process.”

    Which isn’t exactly good news for those who are educated and for the sophisticated and discriminating theatergoers who frequent places like the Williamstown Theater and Shakespeare and Company and Jacob’s Pillow in the summer and travel to the Longwharf, Yale Rep and Hartford Stage during the fall and winter season. In point of fact, it’s ironic that only recently the Williamstown Theater featured a revival of The Cherry Orchard, Tina Packer’s Shakespeare and Company did a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage featuring Ms. Packer herself, and the Paul Taylor dance ensemble presented a premiere of a new work. What is even more ironic is the fact that the Chekov play underscored the threat of real estate development to the romance and idylls of the past, Shaffer’s play proposes a boycott of all modern architectural development and urban renewal as a danger to the past and the inner spirit and Taylor’s work, through movement depicts the joys and camaraderie the riffraff and unemployed enjoyed during the Great Depression cavorting and expressing their longings amid the empty, unoccupied streets.

    But be this as it may, and although he turned down a disturbing opera by Anton Coppola (nephew of Frances Ford Coppola), focusing on the same 1920s era as the birth of the Palace and the heart-rendering plight, trial and execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Tavera did book two performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Presented in February, this venerable work will be under the baton of the selfsame Anton Coppola. According to Tavera “the Sacco Vanzetti piece is a great opera and had a great debut in Tampa, but it has no name recognition. We have to go with what is known. But I want to develop opera here because of the Italian Hertitage and because of this opulent venue.”

    Speaking of the opulence, as another irony, the interior space may, in a sense, compete with the stage offerings and might even overpower them on occasion as a never-ending, visually captivating experience. Once inside, beginning with the marbleized staircases, cut-glass hanging chandeliers, sconces and ornate dome ceilings of the grand foyer, the theater seemingly never quits. Just when you think it’s a throwback to the orientalism craze of the turn of the twentieth century and a whimsical escape into the land of Sabu and the flying carpet, your eye comes across Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Federalist American motifs. Walking inside the theater proper, you’re greeted with an expanse of deep red plush carpet under foot and three dimensional golden facades of pipe organs overhead, eight private suspended circular box seats flanking the stage and a proscenium arch like a sacred temple or homage to the sultan topped by, of all things, a huge pendant suggesting the muse of literature bracketed by a brace of Egyptian sphinx-like dogs. If you turn around, the ongoing carnival of images includes a huge domed ceiling above the balcony featuring a gilded and ivory frieze of figures from Greek mythology. And on and on it goes: myriads of raised plaster molds in bas relief, American eagles, re-gilded and repainted, taking you to different eras and different worlds originally intended to resonate with the diverse heritages of the immigrant experience.

    As Frank Tavera puts it, “You want people to be blown away and I think people will be blown away.”

    Coming back full circle to the quasi religious theme of rebirth that prompted this inquiry, Tavera asks only that everyone in the city and the “burys” (Middlebury, Woodbury, etc.) and beyond trusts this endeavor and is more than willing to take a leap of faith.