Panel discusses future of New Canaan Playhouse
Published 3:18 pm, Wednesday, May 6, 2015
The future of the New Canaan Playhouse was the focus of a recent panel discussion and forum featuring town officials and others trying to figure out the fate of the 93-year-old building. Options included making costly repairs and keeping it as a movie theater, getting more private support, and expanding its role with live performances and other events.
"I like to talk about the art of the possible," First Selectman Robert E. Mallozzi III said.
This discussion "just opens up a whole different spectrum of entertainment options that other towns are getting in on and we're not," he said.
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The fate of the Playhouse became a local focus of discussion after a $2.1 million capital request in the next budget year to bring the near century-old theater into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, including $550,000 to replace a roof and fix other features to meet modern standards.
Mallozzi said the $110,000 rent payments by the theater operator, Bow Tie Cinemas, and three other tenants fall short of covering the annual cost of maintaining the town-owned building.
The town purchased the property for $2.2 million in 2007 from a local private trust.
Mallozzi said the town is facing $90 million in capital projects to maintain town buildings, raising the question of whether the town could possibly pursue getting the wider community to kick in to improve the building and expand its programs.
The model of private donations has worked well for venues in other towns, including the Ridgefield Playhouse, Mallozzi said.
"When we have an issue when our parking lots deteriorate, we can't go back to folks and say, `Fundraise for a parking lot,' " Mallozzi said. "But this is something where private donations can make these playhouses much more exciting and artistic venues than they once were. This is a really unique opportunity to enhance the experience without it being on the backs of the town."
George Maranis, another panelist and former town administrator, said the appeal of the building to an investor was as retail space, making it unlikely anyone would purchase the property with a covenant it be run as playhouse for an extended period.
More than a decade ago, residents lobbied fiercely to keep the Playhouse open, leading to the town buying the property in 2007, Maranis said.
"We were deluged by phone calls and appearances at public meetings begging us to keep the playhouse," Maranis said. "The retailers in town, the restaurateurs in town, begged us to keep the playhouse."
Murphy, who is also executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said the theater is an important anchor to draw business to other downtown merchants and restaurateurs.
"A theater is key to the heart and soul of downtown," Murphy said.
Asked about the high cost of retrofitting the building for ADA compliance, Bill Oestmann, building superintendent for the Department of Public Works, said towns and cities are held to much higher and costly standards than private owners when upgrading older buildings.
While state-granted exemptions to skip certain upgrades could reduce the cost of the overhaul, the town could face lawsuits for discrimination against the disabled, Oestmann said.
"This building presents a huge challenge for accessibility because the theater has a slope grade to where the seats are, and near the emergency exits there are stairs involved," Oestmann said. "Unfortunately, these are not cheap fixes."
Panelist Jeremiah Miller, a New Canaan attorney and Ridgefield resident who is president of the Ridgefield Playhouse, offered the Ridgefield Playhouse and another in Old Saybrook as theaters that made the transition into multipurpose venues for art and entertainment events.
Miller said time for movies at the Ridgefield Playhouse is split with live performances and other events to be self-supporting.
The league also polled audience members about their views, which showed a majority of attendees support keeping the theater running. Thirty five attendees (61 percent) voted in favor of the town partnering with a private organization to pursue options for the theater. A dozen respondents, or 21 percent, voted in favor of the town fixing the building out of town funds, and 10 voters, or 18 percent, said either option would work fine.
Edward Vollmer, a town resident for 32 years, told the group he questioned the idea of adding other activities in the building like Ridgefield has done, and suggested the theater might be more successful by showing a different mix of films that are less widely available.
"It is an iconic building and part of the downtown and a reason that people come to live here," Vollmer said. "I do wonder about the idea of trying to emulate the Ridgefield Playhouse. I think we should be showing different films, art films; it would bring a whole new group to New Canaan."