I t was built as a state-of-the-art vaudeville theater in 1924, but over the next 97 years, the Colonial Theatre in Keene saw the lights come up — and go out — several times.
Fads changed, interests shifted and economies seesawed, but somehow — often with the help of a rallying Monadnock Region community — the show did go on.
So when entertainment venues across the country started going dark last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rebranded Colonial Performing Arts Center made a bold choice. It would fast-track plans for a $12.5 million project that includes overhauling the 900-seat Main Street landmark as well as purchasing and transforming an adjacent 1900s building on Commercial Street into a second, smaller “Showroom.”
And all of this would take place in just under a year’s time.
“It’s about an 11-month construction project,” Doyle said. “The Showroom is done, and we hope to open the main stage in the spring of 2022.”
It’s welcome news to Jane and Les Pitts, who discovered the Colonial shortly after moving to Keene 25 years ago. At first, the couple went for the film series, since many were independent or art house works they didn’t expect to find in rural New Hampshire.
Then came the concerts and theater shows.
“For us, the most memorable have been the ones where the performers have made a great connection with the audience and with the historical building itself. Some of our favorite performers were Diana Krall performing right after her big Grammy wins, (humorist and author) David Sedaris, Post Modern Jukebox, Blues Traveler and a powerhouse performance from Pat Benatar,” the pair said in a joint email. “In addition, annual events like the ‘Nutcracker,’ Warren Miller (ski film series) and Lions Club production are beloved traditions for many of us.”
A daunting prospect
About 150 local residents, foundations and businesses already have donated or pledged 70% of the project’s price tag to create a more contemporary arts campus. A fundraising campaign for the remaining $3.75 million is underway.
It’s a daunting prospect but crucial in order to compete in today’s entertainment market, which is as much about the amenities and services as the show itself.
Top touring shows often won’t book shows at venues without high-tech stage setups and roomy green rooms, and crowds won’t buy tickets if there are bottlenecks to navigate at ticket counters, restrooms and the concessions stand.
Weller & Michal Architects did the design work for the main theater’s upgrade, and the Keene office of DEW Construction is handling ongoing demolition and reconstruction.
Overall, the project will create better flow through the building for artists, patrons and staff — everything from a bigger stage, tech upgrades and a new green room and dressing area for performers to a ticket lobby, lounge and a dedicated concessions area for patrons.
The hope is that the changes will not only attract a more diverse slate of artists, but have a ripple effect on fellow downtown businesses — the restaurants, shops and hotels that usually benefit when people are in town for a show, but were hard-hit in the past year by pandemic-related closures or reduced numbers of customers.
A Main Street ‘magnet’ It’s hard to miss the Colonial, with its glittering marquee. It sits along the city’s wide boulevard, and the new Showroom is tucked right behind it.
“It’s a magnet,” Doyle said.
Originally, the Colonial Theatre was meant to screen films and stage smaller touring shows.
“These weren’t Broadway-type shows. They were easily moved in and out and then thrown back into the truck or train car and moved on,” Doyle said.
For trivia buffs, the Colonial Theatre screened the film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” starring Lon Chaney, on its opening night on Jan. 29, 1924.
Other early-day highlights include playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder reading from “The Woman of Argo” in 1929 and Amelia Earhart sharing thoughts about trans-Atlantic air travel in 1932.
It worked back then, but the outdated layout, both on and off stage, has hindered the venue in recent decades.
The front of the house had charm, but it wasn’t constructed to handle big crowds and there were often traffic jams in the lobby as people shuffled in and around lines for tickets, restrooms and snacks.
In the theater itself, the old hemp rigging system couldn’t handle the thousands of pounds of lighting and sets that today’s shows require, so many big music acts, dance companies and Broadway shows that use circus-type aerial rigging simply couldn’t play here.
Plus, the stage was only 22 feet deep, when the standard today is 30 feet, and the backstage area for performers was cramped and unwieldy.
The revamped building will change all that.
‘Fixture on Main Street’
John Round, who lives and works in Keene, has been coming to this “fixture on Main Street” for more than 20 years.
The draw is more than the many theater shows, concerts and movies he’s seen at the Colonial, which was named to the New Hampshire Register of Historic Places in 2004.
It’s the way an event sets off excited chatter that spills out of nearby eateries and drifts down the sidewalks.
Round, who works for The Richard Group, a firm that handles insurance, employee benefits and financial services, served for six years on the Colonial’s board, three as chairman. But it’s another role — that of crowd greeter — that sticks with him.
“One of my favorite things to do on show night was serve as doorman. I’d stand outside the front doors, with the marquee lit up and the lights flashing, and feel that energy as people started streaming in. I’d welcome them, thank them for coming and tell them to enjoy the show.”
Main Street buzzed on those occasions, the crowds a mix of locals and folks from neighboring towns and states.
“There were nights when I knew nobody and nights I seemingly knew every other person,” Round said. “They always have that sense of anticipation, that excitement.”
Bill and Peggy Heyman became members of the Colonial in 1993, when a citizen effort, The Colonial Theatre Group Inc., purchased the site and launched it as a nonprofit organization.
“We’ve been loyal members and participants since then,” said Bill Heyman, whose also served a half dozen years on the board of directors, three as chairman. “My favorite live shows have been Kathy Mattea, Arlo Guthrie and Natalie McMaster.”
The long list of artists who have played there also includes Michael McDonald, Peter Frampton, Eddie Money and Art Garfunkel.
The future is now
Doyle said the performance center needs to be relevant for the next generation, too.
The completed Showroom, designed by Daniel V. Scully/Architects of Keene, is geared in part toward pulling in younger audiences with educational programming and shows by emerging artists and local performers.
The contemporary Showroom, with monochrome color schemes, is a buffed-up take on an industrial space. Though it most recently had been used as a fitness center, the building originally housed an automobile company that produced vehicles from 1915 to 1935.
“The second floor is supported by massive steel girders because cars would drive up onto the second floor on a big ramp. (We) pulled out a lot of the second floor to create greater height in the performance area,” Doyle said.
There are 150 padded seats, including those wrapping around a balcony and others on risers downstairs, where a push of a button retracts them for general admission events of up to 300 standing audience members.
For more information or to donate to the Colonial Performing Arts Center’s fundraising campaign, visit thecolonial.org.