The Show Continues – And Into A New Century – With The Colonial’s $ 12.5 Million Upgrade To Downtown Keene | A&E


It was built as a state-of-the-art vaudeville theater in 1924, but over the next 97 years, Keene’s Colonial Theater saw the lights turn on and off on several occasions.

Fashions changed, interests changed and economies wavered, but one way or another – often with the help of a rallying Monadnock area community – the show continued.

So when entertainment venues across the country began to sink last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colonial Performing Arts Center made a bold choice. That would speed up plans for a $ 12.5 million project that includes the redesign of the 900-seat Main Street monument, as well as the purchase and transformation of an adjacent 1900s building on Commercial Street into a second smaller “showroom”.

And all of this would take place in just under a year.

“This is an 11 month construction project,” Doyle said. “The Showroom is finished, and we hope to open the main stage in the spring of 2022.”

This is good news for Jane and The Pitts, who discovered the Colonial shortly after moving to Keene 25 years ago. At first, the couple opted for the film series, as many were independent or arthouse works that they didn’t expect to find in rural New Hampshire.

Then come concerts and plays.

“For us, the most memorable were those where the performers established a close connection with the audience and with the historic building itself. Some of our favorite artists were Diana Krall right after her big Grammy wins, (comedian and author) David Sedaris, Post Modern Jukebox, Blues Traveler and a powerful performance by Pat Benatar, ”the couple said in a joint email. “Plus, annual events like the ‘The Nutcracker’, Warren Miller (ski film series) and the Lions Club production are beloved traditions for many of us.”

A disheartening prospect

About 150 local residents, foundations and businesses have already donated or pledged 70% of the project price to create a more contemporary art campus. A fundraising campaign for the remaining $ 3.75 million is underway.

It’s an intimidating but crucial prospect to compete in today’s entertainment market, which is as much about amenities and services as it is about the show itself.

The best touring shows often don’t book shows at venues without high-tech stage facilities and spacious green rooms, and crowds won’t buy tickets if there are bottlenecks navigating the ticket offices, in the toilets and at the concession stand.

Weller & Michal Architects did the design work for the main theater upgrade, and DEW Construction’s Keene office is handling the ongoing demolition and reconstruction.

Overall, the project will create a better flow through the building for artists, patrons and staff – everything from a larger stage, tech upgrades and a new green room and dressing area for performers at a ticketing hall, lounge and dedicated concessions area for customers.

The hope is that the changes will not only attract a more diverse roster of artists, but also have a ripple effect on other downtown businesses – the restaurants, shops, and hotels that typically benefit when people are in town for a show, but have been hit hard. in the past year by closures related to the pandemic or a reduction in the number of customers.

A main street ‘magnet’ It’s hard to miss the Colonial, with its glittering marquee. It sits along the city’s wide boulevard and the new showroom is tucked away just behind.

“It’s a magnet,” Doyle said.

Originally, the Colonial Theater was intended to screen movies and put on smaller touring shows.

“They weren’t Broadway-type shows. They were easily moved in and out, then thrown into the truck or wagon and moved on, ”Doyle said.

For fans of trivia, the Colonial Theater screened the film “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, starring Lon Chaney, on its opening night on January 29, 1924.

Other early highlights include playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder reading “The Woman of Argo” in 1929 and Amelia Earhart sharing her thoughts on transatlantic air travel in 1932.

It worked at the time, but the outdated layout, both on and off stage, has hampered the venue for the past several decades.

The front of the house had charm, but it was not designed to accommodate large crowds and there were often traffic jams in the lobby as people crowded in and around the queues for tickets, toilets and snacks.

In the theater itself, the old hemp rigging system could not handle the thousands of pounds of lighting and sets required by today’s shows, so many big bands, dance companies, and shows. of Broadway that use a circus-type aerial rig just couldn’t play here.

In addition, the stage was only 22 feet deep, compared to the current standard of 30 feet, and the backstage for the performers was cramped and unwieldy.

The renovated building will change all that.

“Light fixture on the main street”

John Round, who lives and works in Keene, has frequented this “Main Street Light Fixture” for over 20 years.

The draw is more than the many theater shows, concerts, and movies he saw at the Colonial, which was listed on the New Hampshire Register of Historic Places in 2004.

This is how an event triggers excited chatter that spills over to nearby restaurants and drift onto sidewalks.

Round, who works for The Richard Group, a company that manages insurance, benefits and financial services, served six years on the Colonial board of directors, including three as chairman. But it is another role – that of welcoming a crowd – that is close to his heart.

“One of my favorite things to do on the night of the show was serving as a porter. I was standing in front of the front doors, with the marquee on and the lights flashing, and I felt that energy as people started to enter. I welcomed them, thanked them for coming and told them to enjoy the show.

Main Street buzzed on these occasions, the crowd was a mix of locals and people from neighboring towns and states.

“There were nights when I didn’t know anyone and nights when I apparently knew everyone else,” Round said. “They still have that sense of anticipation, that excitement.”

Bill and Peggy Heyman became members of The Colonial in 1993, when a citizen effort, The Colonial Theater Group Inc., purchased the site and launched it as a non-profit organization.

“We have been loyal members and participants ever since,” said Bill Heyman, who also served for half a dozen years on the board, including three as chairman. “My favorite live shows have been Kathy Mattea, Arlo Guthrie and Natalie McMaster.”

The long list of artists who have performed there also includes Michael McDonald, Peter Frampton, Eddie Money and Art Garfunkel.

The future is now

Doyle said the performance center needs to be relevant to the next generation as well.

The completed exhibit hall, designed by Daniel V. Scully / Architects of Keene, aims in part to attract a younger audience with educational programming and performances by emerging artists and local performers.

The contemporary showroom, with monochrome color combinations, is an upgraded version of an industrial space. Although it was recently used as a fitness center, the building originally housed an automotive company that produced vehicles from 1915 to 1935.

“The second floor is supported by massive steel beams because the cars would go up to the second floor on a large ramp. (We) removed a lot of the second floor to create more height in the performance area, ”Doyle said.

There are 150 cushioned seats, including those that wrap around a balcony and others on risers at the bottom, where the push of a button retracts them for general admission events of up to 300 spectators standing.

For more information or to donate to the Colonial Performing Arts Center fundraising campaign, visit

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