My 92-year-old grandmother and I took dance lessons from the same man, a “Mr. George,” whose person and given name are lost to time. My end-of- year recital was held in a school auditorium somewhere near my hometown of Meredith, New Hampshire—a big, bland hall in a big, bland building designed for the no-fuss presentation of performances, graduations and other forms of civic ceremony. My grandmother’s recitals were in the Colonial Theatre, a 1,400-seat “Greek” vaudeville theatre/movie house in nearby Laconia, NH. The red velvet curtains that framed the plaster and gold-accented stage matched the soft upholstered seats that, by my grandmother’s account, were always full.
Laconia, “City on the Lakes,” is the seat of Belknap County. Lumber and textile mills and the Laconia Car Company, a manufacturer of subway and rail cars, provided a mid-19th century infusion of capital, and by the early 20th century, Laconia was a smart little town with a handful of sturdy civic structures. One of these, the Colonial Theatre, was built in 1913 by a real estate developer, Benjamin Piscopo. Like the other pre Movie Palace theaters of the teens, the architecture is an oddball mix of American Renaissance, neo-French Baroque and regional quirks. A canal runs under part of the building.
The Colonial’s 100-year history is common among its peers: ten years as a vaudeville and movie house, a few decades as a single-screen cinema, a few more as a hacked-up cineplex and then closure. Today, the shuttered Colonial is for sale for $1.5 million. The city has the first option to buy it; arts advocates are mobilizing to raise funds and commission feasibility reports. They believe that Laconia, with its population just shy of 17,000 (2007 census) and its ghost town-like downtown core, will benefit from an operating arts center and all its perceived economic benefits. But when you are a small town with a limited arts audience, and you’re up against Hollywood (and her team of influential mass market comrades), your prospects, they aren’t good.
Around 1953, movies changed from a square to a rectangular format and the older theaters had to adapt. The velvet curtains were the first things to go. Next the proscenium would be cut away, the new-format screen tacked to the upstage wall. As movie-making became more competitive and several popular features were in circulation at once, it made good business sense to always show two or more movies on two or more screens. My aunt recalls seeing first-run movies at the Colonial. Me too, because the theater did not close until after I moved away; but the spaces I remember were cones, a fifth of the original theater—on one side the original wall with the ornamental plaster intact and on the other side a smooth, unremarkable c.1980 bulwark that extended floor to ceiling, the architectural equivalent of an adjustable IKEA shelf.
When Piscopo built the Colonial, live performance was one of the only modes of popular entertainment, and the old theater, operating as a vaudeville house, was a successful commercial enterprise. But as soon as motion pictures trumped performance in popularity (and revenue), they trumped performance in availability, too. Through the years, the operators of the Colonial and its peer theaters did what they needed to do to keep their businesses in the black—until they couldn’t, at which point they stopped. In cities, venues like these can operate as art-house cinemas—Seattle’s Landmark chain is an eclectic array of semimodernized, charming and largely un-ideal venues—but in small towns, these obsolete theaters were frequently shut down, demolished.
If the Colonial Theatre reopens now, it will run as a nonprofit, requiring the usual buffet of subsidies: government, corporate and private funds, volunteer man hours. And it will be competing for these with nearly 2,000 US nonprofit theaters (double the 1992 count—All America’s a Stage: Growth and Challenges in Nonprofit Theater. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2008.). The Capitol Center for the Arts is a 30-minute drive from Laconia (and already has a hold on the smaller-scale touring acts). Add to this national theater audience trends that are flat or in decline, and the logic of spending millions of dollars to buy, renovate and operate a crumbling vaudeville house is suspect.
Community theater, civic marching bands and local dance schools should not be marginalized—they are (like them or not) important expressions of uniquely American art forms. But for a small town to channel resources into an elaborate building to support what could be staged in the existing high school auditorium, will never have an audience greater than can be accommodated in that auditorium and will never turn the kind of profit that should logically remove it from that auditorium—that’s just bad business. And while I’ll never know if Mr. George missed the Colonial’s velvet curtains, as I was being nudged onto the auditorium stage – five-years old, tap-shoed and satin-clad – I know my grandmother only saw me.