Boston’s Colonial Theatre gets new (40 year) lease on life

Boston's Colonial Theatre

Boston’s Colonial Theatre

Ambassador Theatre Group to sign 40 year lease with Emerson College
to book the 117 year old theatre

by Larry Murray

Rescued from the brink of becoming another fast food hall for Emerson College, Boston’s historic Colonial Theatre is in the final stages of being leased to the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) as their premiere New England venue. Together with Emerson College the gilt and velvet jewelbox will be refurbished and reopened early in 2018. Emerson’s President Lee Pelton indicated that the facility will be made available to both national touring companies, out of town tryouts and locally based cultural organizations such as the Lyric Opera which has long sought a local venue as its home base.

For those of us in the Berkshires, the Colonial in Boston is very similar to the Colonial in Pittsfield, a splendid example of the theatre architect’s craft. Boston’s Colonial was designed by Clarence Blackall, while the Pittsfield theatre was designed by the noted firm of theater architects, J. B. McElfatrick and Son. The Berkshire’s Colonial was restored and reopened in 2006 after decades of being idle.

The Boston Colonial has had at least several facelifts over the years and will soon get another spruce-up.

“This announcement comes after a long and thoughtful process, which was driven by clear objectives—to create a partnership that would ensure the long-term viability of the Emerson Colonial Theatre as a performing arts space, while meeting the needs of our campus community along with those of Boston’s performing arts organizations,” Pelton wrote in his annoouncement.

The agreement with ATG, the world’s largest theatre company, and Emerson, establishes a partnership to program, renovate, and preserve the historic theater, provide fellowships and internship opportunities for Emerson students, underwrite theater arts programs for local youth, and support Boston’s arts community. Additionally, it includes actively exploring the availability of performance space for local arts organizations, including the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO).

“As we aspire to be the global hub for arts, communication, and liberal arts education, our new partnership with ATG will greatly enhance the experience and education of Emerson students in ways that are real, measureable, and long-lasting,” wrote Pelton.

Emerson and ATG will create an advisory board to guide the development of programming and business strategies for the theatre. The agreement will also establish an endowment to provide experiential learning and internship opportunities for Emerson students through four annual fellowships, which will also fund student participation in the Edinburgh International Festival, and an Ambassador Award program, which will provide an ATG mentorship program to two Emerson students annually.

The process to review proposals and identify a partnership to reanimate the Colonial was guided by the Emerson Colonial Steering Committee members: Jeff Greenhawt, chairman of the Board of Trustees; Steve Samuels, developer and trustee; Robert Friend, cultural arts technology marketing and sales consultant and trustee; Maureen Murphy, vice president for Administration and Finance; David Dower, vice president, Office of the Arts, and executive director, ArtsEmerson; and Anne Shaughnessy, assistant vice president, Office of the President and Board of Trustees. Christine Hughes, vice president and general counsel, offered additional insights, and Professor Melia Bensussen, chair of Emerson’s Performing Arts Department, advised on how the reopening the theatre could benefit Emerson faculty and students.

Pelton expressed his gratitude to the committee for their insight and counsel, as well as the performing arts communities for their ideas, perspectives, and encouragement, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and his team for their continuous support and counsel throughout the process.

Emerson is widely recognized for reviving Boston’s once-dormant Theatre District and the adjacent downtown corridor, while preserving and reopening some of Boston’s most historically important buildings, creating a vibrant, inviting neighborhood within the city’s cultural landscape.

In the email, Pelton highlighted current projects underway including the College’s new residence hall at 2 Boylston Place and multipurpose Student Dining Center on Boylston Street, scheduled to open in Fall 2017, and repairs and renovations of the Little Building residence hall, scheduled to begin at the end of the spring semester, to be completed by Fall 2019.

Describing the benefits of this important partnership, Pelton wrote, “The reanimation of the Colonial Theatre, a beloved historic landmark, further adds to the vitality of our campus and the City of Boston.”

Built in 1900, The Colonial Theatre is the oldest operating theatre in Boston. The creation of this jewel sparked a theatre building boom, which included the construction of the Majestic in 1903, the Shubert in 1910, the Wilbur in 1914 and the Metropolitan (now the Wang Theatre) in 1925. The Colonial, designed by Clarence Blackall, the most experienced and celebrated theatre architect of his era, is ideal for both musical and dramatic productions.

The Colonial opened on December 20, 1900 with the heroic melodrama, Ben-Hur, featuring a cast of 350 and a chariot race using 8 live horses! The theatre has hosted many world premieres and pre-Broadway productions including Porgy And Bess; Oklahoma!; Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant Of Yonkers (the inspiration for Hello, Dolly!); Born Yesterday; Carousel; La Cage Aux Folles; Grand Hotel; and Prince and Sondheim’s Follies and A Little Night Music.

To create the rich, florid interior, Blackall borrowed freely from the art of Pompeii, Florence, Rome and Venice, with occasional French accents like the Louis XV ladies room. He collaborated with architect H.B. Pennell on a series of murals unique in Boston theatres, including 3 lobby paintings after Boucher by Newton Wells, a series of landscapes over the doorheads by Victor Durando, a mural over the ladies room door by Marian Peabody, ladies room ceiling panels by B. Tojetti, and a great frieze in the auditorium dome by Herman Schladermundt, who did the mosaic vaults at the Library of Congress.

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