Possibilities for New Canaan Playhouse include expanding its offerings to include live performances, shifting toward a classic and independent film venue under a public-private partnership or simply continuing as-is with the town footing the bill for sorely needed, high-cost capital improvements, a panel of local stakeholders said Wednesday night.
No one in town government is interested in “having a developer come in and ‘mini-mall-ing’ the Playhouse or ‘Gap-ing’ ” the iconic 1923 structure, panelist First Selectman Rob Mallozzi said during a New Canaan League of Women Voters-sponsored discussion on the future of the building.
“The idea is, quite frankly and I think legitimately, is we want to keep that an environment for entertainment, and my only hope is that stays as a Playhouse and provides Hollywood shows, or, ideally, it morphs into something much more exciting—a place that houses live entertainment, simulcast broadcasts from major venues across the world on arts and cultural programming, or that shows some more independent movies,” Mallozzi said at the panel discussion, held in the Sturgess Room at the New Canaan Nature Center. “But I think it is a real opportunity for this community to expand the offerings of that theater, and have it run by a private group instead of the town running it, so to speak.”
More than 50 people attended the 2-hour discussion, moderated by the League of Women Voters’ Kate Hurlock.
In addition to Mallozzi, panelists included: George Maranis, who had been serving as town administrator when the town acquired the Playhouse for about $2.2 million in 2007; Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tucker Murphy, whose organization is located in the building; Department of Public Works Buildings Superintendent Bill Oestmann; and Jerry Miller, a New Canaan-based attorney and member of the New Canaan Kiwanis Club who is also a founding member of the Ridgefield Playhouse.
In turn, the panelists offered their own insights and expertise into the Playhouse—its condition, prospects, importance to New Canaan and future possibilities—and also fielded questions from those in attendance.
The future of the Playhouse emerged during the municipal budget season (that just ended) after Mallozzi called for the prioritization of capital needs among New Canaan’s public buildings and parks. Following a consultant’s report (which can be found in PDF form at the bottom of this article) issued in December, a $2.1 million line item appeared in the DPW’s spending request for fiscal year 2016. More than half of that figure represents estimated ADA accessibility upgrades, in addition to work on the building envelope, drainage, upkeep and abatement.
Responding to a question about whether New Canaan could just make the repairs and keep the status quo, Murphy said yes, if elected officials such as those on the Town Council (of which she is a member) “determine that is the will of the people that is what everyone seems to want, we can do that.”
“Everybody has to bear in mind that there is obviously a cost associated with that, but the benefits need to be weighed as well, and I personally think the benefit far outweighs the cost,” she said.
In her opening remarks, Murphy said that many people are drawn to New Canaan for its schools and its downtown, and that the Playhouse is a vital anchor to the village center.
That sentiment, and a strong attachment that many locals feel toward the Playhouse, prompted scores of residents when the question arose nearly a decade ago about what to do with the building, to urge New Canaan to purchase it, Maranis said.
“At the time, we [in the first selectman’s office] were deluged by phone calls and appearances at public meetings by parents who begged us to keep the Playhouse,” he recalled. “The retailers, the restaurateurs, they begged us to keep the Playhouse and that is where we are today: We have complete control.”
Responding to a question about whether it would be possible to sell the building on but with a condition that it be operated as a Playhouse forever is a tricky business, Maranis said, because it is “awful hard to get a commercial developer to buy a piece of property that is so heavily restricted.”
Miller said the Ridgefield Playhouse is a venue for both live performances and screenings, and that a nonprofit organization was formed to oversee fundraising and two years of renovations to create the popular, self-sustaining facility. He encouraged New Canaan to study how other municipalities have gone about creating their own performing arts venues, but also to land on a solution that was specific to the town. Miller also advised New Canaan to designate one single point person who would push a project forward.
He touted the expertise of Norwalk-based Theater Projects, whose people “know acoustics, they know video, they know sound, they know everything there is to know about these things and to have them right in our backyard is quite something,” Miller said.
Earlier this month, Miller said he brought two members of the company up to New Canaan and walked the Playhouse with them.
One of the consultants who worked closely on the Ridgefield Playhouse project called New Canaan’s Playhouse “a fantastic building” after seeing it, Miller said.
“There was no point in even holding this meeting if he looked at it and said ‘No way.’ But he thinks it has great bones, he thinks the dimensions and proportions of the main space when you knock down the ‘twinning wall’ as he calls it, the acoustics would be fantastic, but you have to think about more than just movies. If you want live performances, you will have to have that option. One of the major renovations you would need is to put a stage in, there is no stage, that would go in the back of the Playhouse, it would have to be a somewhat large addition, probably extending 40 feet or so, close to where the Outback starts, you would lose about 10 parking spaces but you would have a stage which could accommodate a significant performance. You probably also want a fly space which if you are going to go back and forth easily between live performing arts and a large movie screen, you need the screen to fly up in the air.”
Attendees asked whether the annual lease payments made by the Playhouse tenants cover the building’s maintenance costs (no), whether the building’s prominent architectural façade would be preserved in any future use (almost certainly), whether zoning regulations would affect future use (not really), and how town residents could have a voice in the process (by going to future public hearings).
Responding to a question about why the Playhouse could not simply remain a movie theater as it is, Mallozzi said that within Bow Tie Cinemas, New Canaan is not designated as a big-hit, first-run venue the way theaters are in neighboring Wilton, Norwalk and Stamford.
Though Bow Tie itself has never complained about doing business in New Canaan, the company also is paying an artificially low rate to lease the space there (a figure introduced at the time the town acquired the Playhouse in order to incentivize Bow Tie to operate here).
A handful of residents addressed the panel (and Channel 79-watching residents at home) directly, including Ed Vollmer of Main Street, a New Canaanite for 32 years. Vollmer said that he moved here “because there was a movie theater and because of the train station and then I thought, ‘There are good schools.’ ”
“I do agree that the town should keep ownership of the theater, no question in my mind,” he said. “It’s an iconic building and it’s part of the downtown and part of why people come to this town.”
Mallozzi praised the League of Women Voters for kickstarting a community-wide discussion and said next steps will include gathering feedback from attendees at the panel discussion, and designating a group of elected and appointed officials to start studying New Canaan’s options in greater detail.