Leonard Felson
Jun 19, 2018

Turning On the Lights Downtown; More Cities Are Banking on Live Theater (and Places to Eat) Being the Switch


Edited: Sep 10, 2018

As Connecticut's cities search for ways to recapture the luster they once possessed, theaters and performing arts centers are increasingly playing a supporting role in those urban revitalization dramas.

In June, The Bushnell in Hartford will break ground on an 88,000-square-foot $30 million addition, giving the 69-year-old 2,800-seat landmark a modern 950-seat auditorium for smaller productions.

In New Haven, an extensive renovation of the Shubert Performing Arts Center two years ago has allowed the 85-year-old theater to return to its roots as a showcase for pre-Broadway tryouts and other world premieres. And in Stamford, modernization of the Palace Theater, built in 1927 as a vaudeville and movie house, has already enabled the theater to bring major Broadway productions to the city.

In all three cities, the expansion and renovation work has been accomplished with financial help from private donors, corporations and the state, which has approved millions of dollars in aid. Beyond the obvious benefit to the theaters, city, state and corporate leaders have supported the projects because they believe the arts can serve as an economic catalyst to bring new life to urban centers.

''The arts enrich our communities, and they are helping to create tourism and entertainment districts in many of our urban areas,'' said Gov. John G. Rowland. ''Community theaters, museums and galleries all help bring people downtown. And the arts are helping to spur economic development by enhancing the quality of life in cities and towns throughout Connecticut.''


In return, theater operators say many restoration projects would not have occurred without support from Hartford. ''We're delighted we have a governor and legislature who both recognize the value of cultural assets to economic development,'' said John Hiddlestone, operations director for the Stamford Center for the Arts, and the man in charge of the Palace Theater improvement project.

Indeed, other cities across the state also have theater renovation projects, most with state financial support. Among them are the following.

* The Garde Arts Center in New London is in the midst of a $15.7 million renovation that not only includes the former movie theater (built in 1926) but also two blocks on State Street, designed to redefine the downtown area and connect people to the heart of the city.

* The Warner Theater in Torrington is restoring the Art Deco theater (built in 1931). The $12 million public/private partnership aims to create an anchor downtown as well as a cultural and entertainment draw for northwestern Connecticut.

* In Bridgeport, the Polka Dot Playhouse, with a $2 million grant from the State Bond Commission, is converting a former bank building into its new home. The Klein Auditorium, also in Bridgeport, is using a $2.5 million grant to renovate.

* The former Colonial Theater in Hartford received $5 million in state aid to help redevelop the theater and create new retail space in the city's West End.

Though officials of most of the theaters being renovated say work needs to be done to modernize bathrooms, enlarge lobbies and update electrical, heating and cooling systems, the work will also open the theaters to many more groups, whether community companies or touring shows. That in turn translates into opportunities to draw more and varied audiences, which also means more activity on the streets of the state's cities.


''Just look at the newest performing arts center to come on line in Newark,'' said Arnold C. Greenberg, president of The Bushnell's board of directors. ''It's created crowds and energy. It brings people downtown, which is good for the city's image and for restaurants.''

Renovating or expanding performing arts centers is more than good for the arts organizations and theaters across the state, he said. Economically, for example, The Bushnell's addition will create 150 to 200 construction jobs, and once built, 100 new theater employees will be hired.

More importantly, said Mr. Greenberg, the sight of construction cranes ought to provide a psychological boost to Hartford, which for most of the 90's has seen few new construction projects get off the drawing boards. The new theater is scheduled to open in the fall of 2001.

When open, Mr. Greenberg said, he expects increased activity at restaurants near The Bushnell, including new ones that may open as a result of the added venue, and he said it is possible that a vibrant street life of eateries, cafes and boutiques could develop along Capitol Avenue between The Bushnell and downtown Main Street. In fact, with plans to create new housing developments on surface parking lots near The Bushnell, coupled with plans to create a $1.3 billion riverfront development known as Adriaen's Landing, Mr. Greenberg said, ''it's not fanciful to imagine a marvelous boulevard from the State Capitol to the Connecticut River -- and The Bushnell will spark the new activity.''

The renovation of the Shubert in New Haven, which helped turn it into a pre-Broadway house again, has similarly boosted economic activity in that city. The recent pre-Broadway production of ''The Civil War,'' for example, brought 28,000 people downtown to see the show.

''For two months, 150 to 200 people from the show lived in our hotels, bought three meals a day, and left a lot of money in the city,'' said Caroline Werth, the Shubert's president and chief executive officer.

Besides attracting producers, actors and theatergoers from New York, the new Shubert is also drawing 30 percent of its audience from Fairfield County, Ms. Werth said, many of whom had never been to the theater before. ''They're discovering that it's the same ride from Greenwich to New Haven as it is to Manhattan,'' she said, ''except it's much less expensive.''

At the Long Wharf Theater, not far away in New Haven, the managing director, Michael Ross, agreed that the theater could have a strong impact on a city's economic impact. ''We've run the numbers on what we bring to the community,'' he said. ''On any given night if both our venues at the Long Wharf are operating'' -- a capacity of 700 people -- ''63 percent of the people go to a restaurant in the area, and 89 percent go to a restaurant in New Haven. On average they spend $25 to $35 per person.''

Though the Long Wharf, built in 1965, isn't being renovated, it expects to benefit from a proposed shopping mall next door, a 1.3-million square-foot complex called the New Haven Galleria at Long Wharf. The mall, which still has several legal and permit hurdles to overcome, is anticipated to draw one million shoppers a year. Mr. Ross said the mall developers have already agreed to work with the theater and the arts community to promote events.


Officials say the arts have played a key role in Stamford's effort to recapture a vibrancy downtown. Among the improvements to the 1,584-seat Palace, bought in 1989 by the Stamford Center of the Arts, was the enlargement of the stage and the addition of dressing rooms to accommodate large-scale productions. Improvements continue, including the construction of a new lobby and a 195-seat basement auditorium, but since the Palace reopened for large-scale musicals, Stamford has witnessed a burst of night life.

''This was a city in which the streets went totally dead at 6 o'clock,'' said Mr. Hiddlestone. ''Gradually that's changed. Now there are nightclubs, bars and lots of restaurants, and though the theaters aren't the only cause of that change, they certainly help bring people out on the street,'' he added.

The ability to present Broadway productions in Connecticut theaters has also contributed to what economists call ''reverse tourism,'' the environment that allows the state to keep residents' spending power within the state.

''A growing number of people can see entertainment in Stamford that they used to have to go to New York for,'' said Mr. Hiddlestone. ''Obviously, it's a different experience than being in New York, but at least it's here on the doorstep,'' he said, noting the recent production of ''Peter Pan'' at the Palace, which went on to Broadway. ''It was the same cast, the same production,'' he said.

Farther northeast along the shoreline, in New London, the Garde may be the model of how smaller cities can leverage the arts to rebuild a sense of community. ''Our strategic vision is all about that reconnection,'' said Steve Segal, the theater's managing director.

''The programming is not necessarily about what happens on stage,'' he said. ''In an urban setting, you have to also look outside the perimeters of the theater.'' Toward that goal, the Garde has bought key pieces of the State Street block to help lure people downtown and to ease their fears that the city is a dangerous place, Mr. Segal said.

''We like to think of ourselves as the grand lobby of the heart and soul of the city marketplace,'' Mr. Segal said. ''Out of those interactions, other things happen. The waterfront gets developed. New restaurants open. And new partnerships -- educational, cultural or residential -- can start to bloom.''





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  • Leonard Felson
    Jun 19, 2018

    WHEN Richard and Doris Sugarman arrived in Hartford in 1989 the region's economy was spiraling downward. They had come from Richmond, Va., home for both of them, because Mr. Sugarman's employer, Advest Inc., had asked him to run its Connecticut division. As Advest's division manager, part of Mr. Sugarman's job was to learn about the community. And what he saw worried him. ''It looked like a community struggling in a lot of respects,'' he said. ''It appeared not to have a sense of community.'' There was a sense of futility, of addressing problems that many people perceived as too big to tackle, Mr. Sugarman recalled. As newcomers, the Sugarmans wondered if they could help. So began what came to be known as the Connecticut Forum, a series of discussions on important issues of the day featuring speakers ranging from Henry Kissinger to Bill Cosby to Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Now in its fourth season, the forum, held at The Bushnell Memorial Hall in downtown Hartford, draws a crowd not only from the Hartford region, but also from parts of Massachusetts and New York. Just last month, the weekend before Election Day, the first session of the current season featured ''A Spoof on Presidential Politics'' with Rob Bartlett, the comic whose work is best known on the ''Imus in the Morning'' radio show; Al Franken, the political satirist who has been a regular on ''Saturday Night Live''; Jeff Greenfield, the ABC News political and media analyst, and Bob Englehart, political cartoonist for The Hartford Courant. Like all the other forums, it resembled less a performance than a living room chat, in this case, a group of friends getting together for some laughs. An earlier forum, ''Heroes Among Us'' was scheduled for October, but the Sugarmans agreed to reschedule it until March 18, so that the first Presidential debate could be held at The Bushnell that night. In addition, over the years, the Sugarmans have helped create community outreach programs that have attempted to put into action forum-generated ideas. ''There was a feeling of bridge building and bringing together various elements of the community from day one,'' said Drew Beja, a Boston investment manager and former Advest analyst who worked with the Sugarmans when the Connecticut Forum was still just an idea. The idea of a forum was one the Sugarmans brought with them from Richmond, which had created the Richmond Forum about 20 years ago in the midst of a school desegregation ruling that had divided the city. Mrs. Sugarman saw Richmond and Hartford as two very similar cities, but, like her husband, one of the first things she noticed, she said, was how disconnected the different towns that make up greater Hartford were. The Sugarmans, for instance, settled in Avon, which Mrs. Sugarman discovered was isolated from neighboring Canton. Although the Sugarmans like the small-town feeling of New England, they said they saw how it got in the way of what Mr. Sugarman called ''a greater sense of community.'' They decided to see if there was support for a forum in Connecticut. Mr. Sugarman asked and won support from Advest. Then the couple went to The Hartford Courant and to Connecticut Public Television and Radio. There too they won a commitment. They went to about 25 businesses, seeking financial support. ''The response was an enthusiastic 'yes' with a big 'but,' '' recalled Mr. Sugarman. ''We were told, 'It's a great idea but not in these tough times.' '' The Sugarmans' response was, ''Why not? Particularly because of the tough times.'' The couple proceeded, and won over the Hartford Downtown Council, the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce, the Hartford Graduate Center and Trinity College, among others. People signed on as volunteers to help organize the forum. ''Some were new to the community and just wanted to get involved,'' said Mrs. Sugarman. ''Some were forever looking for something new.'' Because the organization was in Mrs. Sugarman's words ''very grass roots,'' ideas were turned into action quickly, ''and we all started to feel this was the start of something new and exciting.'' Support grew, in part, said Mr. Sugarman, because it was so easy to get involved. ''We had people say to us they were not challenged to think in their jobs, to create, to experiment, to use their imagination, their passion. Here they could.'' That dare-to-experiment attitude also helped shape the character of the forums. The skepticism brought on by Hartford's economic woes led many longtime residents to think the only panelists they could attract would be local or at best, from elsewhere in Connecticut. But organizers decided to seek out the top experts in their respective fields. The first forum, held Oct. 16, 1992, was ''The Changing Political Landscape,'' moderated by Lesley Stahl of CBS News. Among those on the panel were Ron Brown, Pat Buchanan, William Proxmire and John Sununu. Four months later the forum topic was ''Straight Talk and Honest Answers About AIDS,'' which again featured a distinguished panel. One of the panelists, Arthur Ashe, was unable to attend on the advice of his doctors who had just changed his medication, trying to battle his AIDS. In his place, he sent a video he had taped a few days earlier. At intermission, rumors floated through the theater that Mr. Ashe had died, and a call to The Associated Press revealed that the rumors were true. The announcement was made on stage at the beginning of the second part of the program, and Mr. Sugarman recalled, ''There was a lot of collective grieving and a lot of coming together that night.'' The experience, Mrs. Sugarman said, ''elevated the importance of what we were doing.'' The Sugarmans never did want the forums to be simply an alternative to theater, or just another form of entertainment. Bridge building remained their focus. At intermission during the AIDS forum, doctors from the University of Connecticut Medical Center, Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center decided there ought to be a way to work together to provide better treatment for those with H.I.V., the AIDS-causing virus. That led to a collaborative effort to create a common database. After a forum on race relations -- which included the rap artist Chuck D., William F. Buckley Jr., Dr. Betty Shabazz (the widow of Malcolm X) and the former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates -- a group of high school students wanted to continue the dialogue. As a result, the Connecticut Forum Student Board was created, allowing teen-agers from differing backgrounds and communities to meet monthly at each other's schools to discuss current issues and plan a variety of programs. A ticket program was developed to insure that the forum draws residents into The Bushnell who could not otherwise afford the admission price. The most recent outgrowth of a forum is the two-year-old Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame exhibition, which grew out of a panel titled ''American Women in Focus . . . Breaking New Ground'' with the help of Hartford College for Women, the University of Hartford and Fleet Bank. Geena Clonan, the executive director of the Hall of Fame and a friend of the Sugarmans who has been involved in the forum since the early days, said the forum's success may stem from its harkening to old New England town meetings, where neighbors would gather to talk about pressing issues of the day. ''It's the same thing the Mayflower Compact was founded on,'' she said. '' It's the whole idea of communicating once again, analyzing problems and solving them.''
  • Leonard Felson
    Jun 19, 2018

    FAIRFIELD COUNTY residents accustomed to using LaGuardia, Kennedy or Newark airports are being asked to consider an alternative that most probably thought made no sense: Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, about 20 minutes north of Hartford. Beginning this month commuters tuning into their radios in Bridgeport, New Haven and Danbury during morning and afternoon rush hours will hear commercials boasting Bradley's ''hassle-free'' access. Buses will also feature advertisements meant to entice residents along the shoreline and in other southern and western Connecticut towns into giving the state's largest airport a try. ''We want to be sure the folks in Fairfield County are aware of the services we have at Bradley. It's an easy-access airport,'' said Robert F. Juliano, the head of the State Department of Transportation's bureau of aviation and ports. ''A lot of people in Fairfield County really don't realize how large the airport is, the frequency of flights and the number of airlines servicing Bradley.'' The push to increase passenger traffic from the southern part of the state arrives amid what is turning into a record year for air travel at the nearly 50-year-old airport. After posting its busiest year ever in 1995, with more than 5.1 million passengers, Bradley has recorded a 7.4 percent increase in passenger traffic this year. Cargo traffic has increased by better than a third over last year, airport officials said, and it is expected to continue to grow with the inauguration in August of three 747 international flights a week to Manchester, England, and Luxembourg. Each flight can carry up to 100 tons of freight, and Mr. Juliano said most flights are running about 90 percent full, primarily with imports and exports of electronic components. ''People are discovering us. We're halfway between New York and Boston. Rather than fly into both airports, companies can cut their expenses by flying straight into Bradley,'' said Andre J. Libert, Bradley's director of marketing and development. Earlier this year, Continental Airlines introduced daily nonstop service to Houston, United Airlines added nonstop service to Denver, and American Airlines offered nonstop service to Dallas. The airport also has daily nonstop flights to Puerto Rico and on to other Caribbean islands. A spokesman for USAir, the busiest airline at Bradley, said coast-to-coast-service from Hartford was unlikely until demand grew enough to fill a jetliner. Despite the lack of nonstop service to the West Coast and no regularly scheduled international flights (except to Canada), promoters of Bradley are betting that other conveniences, including less highway traffic, no tolls and cheaper parking fees, will lure many travelers away from New York. The distance between Bridgeport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, for example, is the same as between Bridgeport and Bradley: 65 miles. Danbury is a closer to J.F.K. (66 miles) but not by much (70 miles to Bradley). Greenwich and Stamford obviously are closer to Kennedy and LaGuardia, but state airport officials said there's always a good chance travelers will encounter more rush hour traffic and congestion heading into New York, particularly at the Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges. Estimated time to get from Bridgeport to Bradley or Bridgeport to New York is the same, 1 hour and 15 minutes, barring traffic slow-ups. Without traffic, it takes motorists one hour to get from Danbury to New York airports; 1 hour and 15 minutes to get to Bradley. Bradley officials acknowledge that Fairfield County residents are inclined to think of New York first, in part because of their perception that ''bigger is better,'' said Mr. Libert. ''However, many people do not realize that Bradley is the second largest airport in New England'' -- after Boston's Logan International.'' To try to change perceptions, airport officials have hired the Hartford advertising and public relations firm of O'Neal & Prelle, at a cost of about $170,000 to reach the more than 700,000 Fairfield County adults. The campaign is also targeting about 200,000 adults in New London County and about 600,000 in Worcester County, Mass. In all, Connecticut transportation officials estimate that close to 2 million passengers from Connecticut fly from one of five airports other than Bradley, including Stewart International Airport near Newburgh, N.Y., and Westchester County Airport. Over the past decade, said Mr. Juliano, the head of operations, Bradley has more than doubled the number of flights that depart and arrive daily, to 275. And he said that when other airports, including those in New York and Boston are closed during winter storms or because of fog, Bradley often is the only Northeast airport open, a result of its location inland, and because its fewer runways are faster to clean. Last winter, for example, a record 115 inches of snow fell at Bradley (the state average is 47 inches), but the airport was only closed for 28 hours, ''and 12 of those hours were during the Blizzard of '96,'' recalled Mr. Juliano. ''We were the last to close and the first to open.'' Airport officials also hired a Washington, D.C., international air service consultant, Campbell Aviation Group, to explore ways to add trans-Atlantic passenger service to Bradley. Although charter flights regularly use the airport, and the Concorde is often diverted to Bradley because of headwinds, there are no regularly scheduled overseas flights. Mr. Juliano said the airport would like to see international service from Bradley. A recent survey showed that Connecticut ranked in the top five states on a per capita basis for United States passports issued, and the presumption is that most of those airbound residents are flying from Kennedy or Newark. LaGuardia is restricted to flights of no more than 1,500 miles, to encourage domestic service. Bradley, however, has no such restrictions.

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