Theatrical history is highlighted by triumphant returns to the stage by legendary performers. It is less frequent, however, for the stage itself to make a triumphant return. The restoration and reopening of Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater is one of those rare, even miraculous, occasions.
Let’s go back 136 years to February 16, 1883. A special Town Meeting has been convened to discuss the burning issue of where to establish a new center for Middlebury’s social and cultural life. The site is Academy Hall, home of the Addison County Grammar School and Middlebury College at the beginning of the 19th century, and now home of the Middlebury Graded (Elementary) School (standing approximately on the current site of Twilight Hall).
The Academy has long since been deemed unsuitable for public use. A wood structure, the 83-year-old building is clearly a fire hazard, particularly given its public meeting space on the third floor. There is strong support to relocate the center of community cultural and social life to the east side of Otter Creek – delayed payback, perhaps, for the decision to locate the College on the west side of the creek in 1800.
A committee of community-minded citizens has inspected eight locations. The most promising property is the site of Epaphrus Miller’s fine 1811 brick house and tavern. Situated here, the new Town Hall would occupy a prominent site overlooking the town green. The contract to design and build the structure is awarded to Clinton Smith and William Allen.
Smith, Middlebury’s most influential architect, formed an architectural construction firm with Allen in the 1870’s. Examples of Smith’s frame style, featuring elaborate window frames, moldings, and brackets could be seen up and down South Pleasant Street. The firm would also design and build the new Addison County Courthouse, the Beckwith Block, Shard Villa and numerous other local buildings.
One year later, the new Town Hall was complete. The exterior of the beautiful new edifice boasted a soaring tower and two magnificently original chimneys. The main floor was a spacious 600-seat theater and balcony. Town offices occupied the basement. According to Glenn Andres, esteemed Middlebury professor and local architectural historian, the Town Hall is…
The building opened on February 13, 1884, with a Masquerade Ball. On Friday, February 15, 1884, the Middlebury Register reported the gala event.
For more than a decade, the Middlebury Opera House, as it was often called, hosted an impressive array of theatrical events. The list includes town meetings, religious services, children’s operettas and plays, traveling and local theatricals, balls, dances, and proms, lectures and orations, concerts, readings, political rallies, a tuberculosis exhibit, meetings of the DAR, the WCTU, and Masons, dog and pony shows (literally), minstrels and Hibernian (Irish) shows, Middlebury College Junior Exhibition and Commencement exercises, benefits and charity balls, Middlebury High School graduations, tableaux vivants, local school tests and common teachers’ exams, fairs, dance recitals, music festivals, national holiday and memorial services, and novelty exhibitions including glass blowers, bell ringers, a wax museum, a monumental clock, and exhibition of Edison’s wondrous new phonograph. On January 1, 1898, nearly fifteen years after it opened, the Opera House celebrated its 100th theatrical performance. Although vaudeville and other events continued, it was the art form of the 20th century – the cinema – that would eventually dominate the schedule.
Early in 1922, P.S. Murray took over the reins of the Opera House from J.M. Peek. The following year, the Town ordered a complete overhaul of the 40-year-old building to adapt it to the new requirements of a movie theater. In March 1937, the theater was closed again in order to prepare the building to meet its first serious challenge — the opening of the Campus Theater on Main Street. The Campus was not only a fully modernized movie house, it was a member of the Graphics Theater circuit, theaters throughout New England that exhibited first-run films and offered two matinees and two evening shows daily.
A refurbished Middlebury Opera House, renamed Town Hall Theater, opened in May, 1937, under the management of Kenneth Gorham. Despite the addition of new projection equipment, sound system, rest rooms, and comfortable upholstered seats, THT – not on the Graphics circuit – generally had to settle for second-run films and “B” pictures. Widely considered the inferior movie house in town, in later years it became known for malfunctioning projectors, film that snapped mid-reel, and rowdy behavior from college students and locals alike.
In 1958, after a seventy-five year residence, the Town offices moved to the old Middlebury High School, and the building was purchased by Sam Emilo, who tried to make a go of it as a furniture store. In October, 1960, the main floor and stage was filled with Buicks for, of all things, a car show. Eventually, Sam created the Belmont, a restaurant popular with local residents, not only because of Marion Desrocher, its well-loved manager and cook, but because it boasted a dance floor.
Once the town sold the building, however, its physical appearance changed drastically. The ornate stage and curved balcony were ripped out and the stained-glass windows bricked in. A dropped ceiling and wood paneling were added. Over time, multiple cracks appeared in the masonry walls. The exterior brick walls, buckling under the weight of the leaky slate roof, began tilting at dangerous angles – a full 12” out of plumb – and bat and bird guano accumulated in the rafters.
The Knights of Columbus bought the building in 1968, and ran it successively as a meeting hall and community space. Among the Knights who were active in those early years were John Adams, Bob Bergedick, Andy Bourdon Sr., Clayton Breiner, Frank Broughton, Bill Collins, Jules Denis, Clement Gagne, Marcel Rheaume, Stan Stefanski, Lucien Paquette, and Bob Whittemore. Many will remember dinners and bingo games in the space, and the After Dark Music Series performed there to the delight of folk music fans. Everyone in town had to stop by the building every few years to get their driver’s license.
In the late 1990’s the aging building was in need of a great deal of repair, and the Knights wrestled with the idea of selling their beloved building. Eventually it was decided that the building would be sold for $275,000, to a community group led by Douglas Anderson.
Douglas Anderson and his wife Debby, residents of Middlebury for more than 15 years, had most recently been the owners of Dada, a popular local culinary supply store. Anderson’s background, however, went far beyond this retail venture. After 14 years on the theater faculty at both Middlebury and Amherst colleges, he moved on to a highly successful career in theater and television as a multifaceted actor, director, and writer.
Anderson wasted no time in mobilizing community residents who shared his passion and vision. Within two years, Town Hall Theater, Inc. – a new non-profit corporation — had a hard-working Board of Directors and $500,000 in the bank. Early support came from the Lions Club of Middlebury, the Rotary Club of Middlebury, the Walter Cerf Fund, and Middlebury College. The building was purchased in 2000. Almost immediately, THT hired Bread Loaf Corporation to design and build the project, with a team headed by architect Steve Schenker and project manager Dutton Smith, Jr. Keefe and Wesner Architects, Vermont’s premier historical restoration firm, were brought on to oversee the restoration.
Scores of promotional events would follow in the next five years, Community Demolition Day on May 19, 2001, brought in members of the community to spend the day removing the interior “improvements” of past renovations to reveal an entire wall of windows for the first time in decades. Completion of the interior demolition was underwritten by a major grant from the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
In September, Middlebury Remembers brought together long-time residents to reminisce about THT over the past seven decades. Moderated by former town clerk Dick Goodro, a highlight of the event was a showing of The Movie Queen, a film shot in Middlebury in 1939. In October, the 1st Annual Rotary Club/THT Variety Show launched a new showcase for local talent.
Community support proved extraordinary. Early on came the Stagehands, a corps of 70 residents charged to solicit donations. The sold-out Toast the Town Hall series, “intimate dinners and small performance events in private homes,” was organized by Joann Langrock and an energetic Events Committee. The building had no heat, but performances could be presented in the summer months. In May, 2002, the Kander & Ebb Broadway classic Chicago was a smash hit, a production of the Middlebury Community Players. Sellout audiences, amazed by the high caliber of the performances, saw this as a clear indication of the limitless potential of the space. Middlebury Actors Workshop came next with an evening of short plays, and two more hits followed in August with Encore! the popular local musical group, and Jefferson and Adams, the acclaimed historical drama, starring Bill Barker and Sam Goodyear.
Among the scores of devoted community volunteers and donors, a leadership group emerged including Maxwell Eaton Jr. (Board President); Peter & Elisabeth Holm (Co-chairs, Capital Campaign); Bruce & Sue Byers (Board. VP; Co-Chairs, Major Gifts); David & Jean Littlefield (Co-chairs, Honorary Committee); and Peter & Joann Langrock (Legal Counsel, Chair Events Committee).
In 2003, major work on the building exterior began in earnest. Projects included structural stabilization, a new slate roof, copper cresting, a replica of the original weathervane, restoration of bell tower, and the recreation of gingerbread molding on the south gable, the work of Jack Brown of East Middlebury.
Before this phase of the project was over, 59 windows had been removed, restored, and reinstalled. 3000 bricks were replaced, the Pleasant Street garden was created, and a grant from the Middlebury National Bank underwrote the creation of the beautiful new porch and steps.
2003 events began with THT’s 1st New Year’s Eve bash, which drew a large crowd to a completely unheated theater. At a Governor’s Reception in May, Vermont Governor Jim Douglas spoke eloquently in support of efforts to save Vermont’s historic buildings, and raised $50,000. A second summer season included a wild production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, set in Texas, 1959.
The highlight of the 2004 fundraising campaign was the $100,000 Got Your Brick? campaign. Proposed by Middlebury Professor Rich Wolfson, the campaign would sell bricks removed from the windows to the public for $100 each. For $250, bricks would be engraved and reset in the new Pleasant Street Garden. Initially viewed as a “crazy” idea, Got Your Brick? was a wild success and raised more than $100,000. In May, the Great Middlebury Birdhouse Exhibition raised an additional $18,000. THT also hosted the MUHS Junior Prom.
The big story of 2005 was the Saga of the Great Bell. In 1887, Middlebury selectmen purchased a great Meneely bell, the largest in the county, to serve as a community fire alarm and to announce the town curfew at 8:50 p.m. In April 1961, then owner Sam Emilo removed the bell from the tower with the intention of selling it for scrap. Local resident Theron Wolcott and other concerned citizens tracked it down and negotiated to buy it back. To raise the necessary funds, they set up “A Buck for the Bell,” a subscription campaign asking local residents to contribute $1 each to save the bell. The campaign a success, the bell returned to Middlebury and was placed on the lawn of the Henry Sheldon Museum on Park Street, where it sat for over 40 years.
On July 3, 2005, the museum graciously and theatrically returned the bell. A ceremony on the porch of Henry Sheldon Museum honored those who gave a buck to save the bell, a number of whom were in the audience. The bell was loaded on a wagon and pulled through town, carried along by the music of Bud Leeds’ Dixieland Band. G. Stone Commercial’s forklift raised the 1569-pound bell 35-feet into the air. It took a suspenseful hour to maneuver the massive bell into place. Crowds cheered when, for the first time in a half century, the bell pealed out, rung by Angelo Lynn and Paula Simons, who underwrote the restoration of the bell tower.
Magically, when the bell began to ring it was soon answered by a chorus of ringing church bells throughout Middlebury.
At the event, Sen. Jim Jeffords was honored for his support of a $147,000 Federal Grant for the restoration. Gratitude was expressed to Maynard McLaughlin, President of the Bread Loaf Corp., donor of funds to build replicas of the two original chimneys, and to Gardner Stone, owner of G. Stone Motors, for his gift of the monumental front doors.
For its third summer, THT sprang into action, this time offering a virtual performance blitz. Sell-out audiences were delighted by Little Shop of Horrors, Laundry & Bourbon, Tosca, Middlebury Does Motown, Tales & Things : a Monstrous Children’s Musical, The Last Five Years, a series of rock bands, an evening of a cappella singing groups, and Pathos Dance Theater. In October, the THT season came to a triumphant end when the Great Middlebury Antiques Auction, chaired by Barbara Blodgett, raised $18,000.
THT had been operating on a series of temporary occupancy waivers, but the interior was little more than a shell and not up to code. THT and state authorities agreed that the time had come to close the building until the interior had been completely restored, a process that included fire alarms, a sprinkler system, ADA accessibility, and completely new heating, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems.
When architect Steve Schenker left Bread Loaf Corporation to create his own firm, the interior restoration was left in the hands of talented young architect Ashar Nelson.
As of April, 2007, THT had raised an amazing total of $3,845,168, within reach of the $5 million fundraising goal. That goal came a giant step closer to reality when Middlebury College formed a partnership with THT providing the theater with $1 million over the next 20 years. The partnership creates a new venue for student and faculty performances, and reserves three weeks each summer for performances by the college Language Schools. “With all of these exciting college productions coming to THT, we’re going to have a season line-up that will be the envy of theaters in much larger towns,” says Anderson. “Everybody wins.”
Bruce Baker and Peggy Keith were the hard-working co-chairs of the final phase of the capital campaign. Working with a small team of volunteers, they raised the last dollar in the fall of 2007. The restoration of the interior started almost immediately.
After years of grueling fundraising efforts and unanticipated construction challenges, the building is once again among the most beautiful structures in Middlebury. It reopened with great fanfare on July 26, 2008 – a state-of-the-art building constructed within the historic shell.
The interior has became a spacious hall. With a ceiling rising to the very peak of the roof, the Main Stage offers a beautiful and capacious space for theater, music, dances, meetings and receptions. Light pours into the room through the newly restored stained-glass windows, and the refinished hardwood floor gleams. The lower level has been reconfigured to accommodate the Carolyn and Will Jackson Gallery, the Bruce and Sue Byers Studio, the Middlebury Community Players Dressing Room, and THT offices.
How often does it happen that a dream, a vision, has been fully realized down to the last detail? How can a community thank the tireless, dedicated efforts of more than a thousand volunteers and donors who are responsible? Clearly, the answer is for everyone to use the building and support THT presentations, guaranteeing that the town’s hall will be here to serve the community for another 125 years.