Two Connecticut theaters listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designed by renowned theater architect Thomas W. Lamb have recently undergone major renovations that have restored them to their former glory. Plan a visit to both this season.
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2005/2006
By Gina Bacchiocchi
THE WARNER THEATRE
Torrington’s Warner Theatre was built in 1931 by Warner Brothers Studios. Believing the population of the Litchfield County city mirrored that of New York City, Warner Brothers decided Torrington would be the perfect location to test new movies before their New York City premieres. The studios chose Thomas Lamb to create an Art Deco masterpiece. Lamb designed more than 140 theaters worldwide, including the still operating Orpheum (1852) in Boston in the Poli (1920) in Hartford, which was later demolished in 1964 to make way for Bushnell Towers [see Hartford’s Motion Picture Palaces, Spring 2003].
Upon entering Warner Theatre’s main hall, with its red crushed-velvet walls, bright gold detailing, and stunning star chandelier, it’s hard to believe the theater was until recently a decaying, neglected, dark space. Water damage, the result of a 1950s flood, stained the walls, mold flourished on the seats, and weeds sprouted through the floor. With slumping sales and soaring costs, the once vibrant Warner Brothers movie house was scheduled to be razed in the early 1980s.
In 1982, concerned residents formed the Northwest Connecticut Association for the Arts, Inc. to raise money to save the theater. With more than 100 volunteers raising $10 million over a 10-year period, the Warner’s “A Star is Reborn” campaign was the most successful such effort for a private, not-for-profit organization in Northwest Connecticut.
In November 2002, the Warner held a grand reopening featuring singer Lynda Etter to celebrate the completion of nearly a decade of renovation. The theater was once again stunning, as great pains were taken to ensure it retained its original 1930s Art Deco style. The enormous star chandelier of the main hall was lowered for a cleaning and repainting in its original colors, while the 1,765 seats were reinstalled in the style Lamb had specified in the original plans. The restoration design team contacted the original carpet manufacturer in South Carolina to replicate the original flooring. Yale-trained muralist Alfred James Tulk’s lobby murals, however, which illustrate scenes of colonial Litchfield County, were not repainted or even retouched. They were simply cleaned using ultraviolet light.
The 2005-2006 season, marking the theater’s 75th anniversary, features a variety of musicals performed by the Warner’s own resident community theater group, the Warner Stage Company, plus professional artists such as modern dance troupe MOMIX, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, jazz great B.B. King, and singer Tom Jones. In a more intimate setting, the Warner’s Marine Studio Theater, an 80-seat black-box-style theater, hosts a variety of performances, from Arthur Miller’s All My Sons to Nunsense 3: The Jamboree.
This fall, the Warner initiated Phase II, spurred by the purchase of the adjacent Mertz building, a former department store. By October 2006, the Mertz will contain an expanded Nancy Marine Studio Theater and The Warner Center for Arts Education, where students of all ages will enjoy music and acting lessons. With the completion of Phase II and a projected $15.85 million raised, the restoration will be complete and the Warner will be the showcase it once was — and more.
The Palace Theater, located in the heart of Waterbury, experienced an equally dramatic restoration process, but its journey back to glory took a different course. Built in 1921 by theater impresario Silvester Z. Poli, the second-Renaissance-Revival-style Palace was also designed by Thomas Lamb and cost an impressive $1 million to build. Years later, the building’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form would note that “the interior of the Palace is embellished almost beyond description, with plaster-relief figures…[such as]urns, festoons, cartouches, gods, goddesses, and cherubs.”
The theater had a long history of success, presenting vaudeville and legitimate theater before it became primarily a movie house and, later, a rock-and-roll venue. Despite its long history and breathtaking aesthetics, the Palace looked like it would close its curtain forever in 1987 after a period of declining funds and mounting structural damage caused by floods and fire. After nearly 65 years of constant use, the theater simply shut down.
In 2002, the state of Connecticut began an economic development project in Waterbury to construct an arts magnet school, renovate the University of Connecticut’s Waterbury campus, restore the Palace Theater, and build an adjacent parking garage. Thanks to the state’s support of the arts, the Palace was brought back to life after 15 years of darkness.
Wanting to preserve the original architecture, the renovation retained the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and American elements typical of the Renaissance Revival style. The panels surrounding the stage retained their over-the-top melange of urn, Roman coin, dog, and eagle ornamentations. The ceiling’s large circular dome, which features a scene of dancers and musicians surrounded by vines and flowers, maintained its original detailing but was restored with an updated color scheme. The grand foyer’s stunning staircases leading to the mezzanine level, with their scagliola, or artificial painted marble treatment, required only minor touchups. Though the lobby’s sparkling glass chandeliers are new, they are exact replicas of the originals.
While much of the Palace remains the same or similar after the restoration, some alterations were made to improve acoustics and enhance audience comfort. The fabric-lined walls were replaced with a hard, faux-leather painted finish. The Great Brook, a river that runs beneath the Palace’s foundation, was diverted to allow construction of a 52-seat orchestra pit. (In the past, musicians had sat in the front rows with their backs to the audience.)
A new inner lobby was created by removing a portion of the original 3,200 seats from the back of the theater. The new reception area’s oak bar and marble water fountains create a relaxed atmosphere for that pre-performance cocktail. Finally, since the average american in 2005 is taller and heavier than in 1920, larger seats were installed. The theater now seats 2,640.
The Palace’s grand reopening in November 2004 featured a return performance by Tony Bennett, who gave the farewell concert in 1987. Since then, the theater has hosted a variety of performances, from musicals, comedies, operas, ballets and rock shows to children’s theater. This winter, the Palace will feature pianist Jim Brickman’s Holiday Concert, productions of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals The Full Monty, Evita, and Les Miserables, plus Verdi’s La Traviata. The Palace will also revive its role as a venue for live music with performances by 1970s artists Earth, Wind, and Fire and Steve Winwood and country singers Kenny Rogers and Trisha Yearwood.
With their breath-taking decor and bright new performances, the Warner and Palace theaters are both perfect destinations for a night out — and a trip down memory lane.
The Warner Theater is located at 68 Main Street, Torrington. For more information, call the box office at (860) 489-7100 or visit www.warnertheatre.org. The Palace Theater is located at 100 East Main Street, Waterbury. For more information, call the box office at (203) 755-4700 or visit www.palacetheaterct.org.
Gina Bacchiocchi wa a senior at Trinity College and served as an intern with HOG RIVER JOURNAL last summer.