- by Lisa Mulcahy
How three friends with a passion for preservation saved some of our national treasures
In the mid-’70s, friends and colleagues Michael Price of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., and Bob Stoddard of the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., knew they were in a unique position: both were working at two very traditional, historic performing arts houses that had undergone successful renovations. The Goodspeed had been slated for demolition in 1958, after having at one point functioned as a storage facility for the state highway department, and was rededicated in 1963. The Grand Opera House, which was selected for the National Register of Historic Places roster in 1972, was successfully restored between 1973 and 1976.
“At that time, I think we felt very lonely,” Price recalls. “Our spaces had been historically restored, and we were really interested in finding out if other theatres had undergone similar experiences—if there was a community out there, what happened in terms of their stories? I asked my assistant at the time, Sarah Shelley, to look into finding some similar organizations.”
At the same time, Gene Chesley, an associate of Price’s and Stoddard’s and a theatre design professor at the University of California at Davis, was captivated by the same idea. Chesley, a theatrical history expert, had put together a list of houses that were built prior to 1910, and Stoddard used that list to contact each theatre’s administrators to see if there was interest in meeting and sharing knowledge. When numerous theatres responded favorably Price, Stoddard and Chesley decided to form a non-profit with the idea of helping other theatres seeking to restore themselves. “We really felt it was important to meet and share information, then use that information to tell other communities when to do a restoration, when not to do the work—to help them decide, if they weren’t sure how to proceed,” says Price. And thus, the League of Historic American Theatres was born.
Although LHAT was officially formed in 1976, on June 3, 1977, the group held its first conference in Indiana, with 42 charter members. Attending theatre personnel came from diverse and respected entities such as the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Ga., the Philadelphia and Brooklyn Academies of Music, the Dock Street in Charleston, S.C., the Ford in Washington D.C., the Pabst in Milwaukee, the Wheeler in Aspen, and the What Cheer in Iowa.
“When we first took a look at each other, it was clear there was a lot to be done,” Price recalls. “We wanted to build a network of building professionals, architects, consultants who could really give a theatre unfamilar with the process of restoration an idea of what it takes to succeed.” As membership grew, more and more aspects of restoration and building technique were addressed through a growing body of skilled veterans. Then, in 1981, Gene Chesley passed away; his legacy still informs LHAT members, however, as his vast collection of historic theatrical data was endowed by the NEA, and found its home at Princeton University, where it continues to be a rich treasure trove of available research.
Build the Network
“I love historic theatres, so I love that part of my job allows me to visit as many of them as possible,” says Ken Stein, LHAT’s current executive director, who runs the organization from its current headquarters in Bel Air, Md. “In my previous job, I had been the executive director of the Paramount (1915) and State (1935) Theatres in Austin, Texas. I experienced firsthand how a historic theatre can be the center of community revitalization efforts as well as a celebrated cultural institution. In Austin in particular, enormous population growth was happening and so much new development. The Paramount became a symbol of a city not wanting to forget its past. It also became an arts organization that could attract multi-generational audiences creating a common link between a community’s past, present and future.”
LHAT is quite democratic when it comes to membership—any theatre, cinema or opera house is eligible to join, as long as it’s 50 years old or older. Prestigious names do make up a good portion of its listings, however—Broadway theatres abound, as well as distinguished houses such as the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. and the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto. No matter how large or small a theatre’s profile, LHAT is there to help, and has consistently expanded its services. The LHAT Chat Network connects professionals seeking troubleshooting advice about work at their houses; LHAT also sponsors a job bank, a professional development program, an online database and an insurance program specializing in coverage for historic spaces. This kind of growth reflects the desire Michael Price has always had for the organization to be “accomplished artisans coming together.”
Visions for the Future
With a view toward years to come, LHAT has started a conscious shift from being known as an organization that solely “saves” theatres to an organization spreading the word about new stage technologies. To this end, LHAT publishes a “Rescue and Rehab” manual on its website. Packed with cutting-edge stagecraft info, it’s available to any theatre.
“There are literally thousands of historic theatres of various sizes, ages and functionality across the nation,” explains Stein. “My goal and vision is to make sure that any community wanting to rescue, restore or sustain its beloved historic theatre will easily be able to get access to expertise and best practices from League members who have already been through the process.”
LHAT is continually striving to inform the general public about the value a restored historic theatre can truly have. “Right now the League has 280 theatres ranging in size from 4,800 seats to zero seats and ages 50 to 161 years. We also have dozens of professionals in the field of restoration, architecture, ticketing, fundraising, booking, operations, facility management and safety, to name a few,” Stein explains. “My vision is to raise the profile nationally about the value of our historic theatres. Too often, communities are spending millions to build new theatres literally blocks from historic theatres that could have been easily and less expensively adapted for re-use. Sadly, many of those cities would have galvanized around saving a historic structure rather than splintering around how to cover the costs of building something new.”
Stein is committed to bringing the original vision of Price, Stoddard and Chesley along as LHAT continues to evolve. “As corny as if might sound, this organization was born out of a common love for a place,” Stein says. “Even as it has grown from its original 42 charter members in 1976, it has retained the feel of a family coming together for a reunion of sorts. Members of the League are not competitors and genuinely want to lend support and resources to one another. We celebrate when a historic theatre has success and we mourn when one is lost or in trouble. There was a certain spark born out of the founders’ love of historic theatres that is very much still alive in the membership today.”
Price concurs: “That fraternity we created—it’s there today, and that gives me the greatest sense of accomplishment.”