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    Little Theatre Lives!

    Submitted: June 11, 2014

    New Haven Independent

    Allan Appel. June 8, 2014

    Little Theatre Lives!

    In the vitrine outside the building was a copy of a 90-year-old playbill for The Romantic Age by A.A. Milne, the first show performed in 1924.

    Inside the building, the vocal ensemble of talented high schoolers sang Bruno Mars’“Just the Way You Are,” the first performance in the space in five years.

    But Friday afternoon the star of the show was the building itself, the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street.

    The New Haven architectural and cultural landmark (formerly known as the Lincoln Theatre) at 1 Lincoln St. has survived attempts at obliteration in the 1960s and 1980s. It has now officially come back to life after a five-year, $5.8 million gut rehab.

    Most of the money came from a state grant, with some foundation support. Some families and neighbors “purchased” seats in honor of relatives.  For example, as a little girl ACES Board Chair Alicia Clapp saw Heidi performed at the Little Theatre and never forgot it, complete with a goat her dad supplied to the production. She named two seats after her grandchildren, both graduates of ECA.

    Friday’s long-awaited ribbon-cutting ceremony drew a crowd of officials, neighbors who remember the place for their first dates or theater or racy art-film experience; and lots of staff and kids from Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES), which operates the half-day arts magnet high school, the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), around the corner.

    ACES/ECA bought the building in the mid 1980s, gave it a first modernization in 1986, and has brought it back to life with multi-purpose, ultra modern facilities for use by its students; and after a break-in phase, continued use, on a rental basis, by the community.

    Svigals + Partners Architects principal Julia McFadden, who managed the Little Theatre project, said “there is nothing little about the challenges of any aspect of the work.”

    Some of those challenges included a tight site, the presence of neighbors in a residential district, and crumbling foundations that had to be shored up.

    There was also the necessity to maximize every square inch both as performance and also teaching space. The national landmark status, which protects the building, made the project one-year construction schedule extend to five.

    On Friday, during a tour of the space led by McFadden, everyone agreed the wait was worth it.

    Among the niftiest features: The stage floor has been lowered several feet for better sight lines. And a basement was dug three feet down so that the floor can be hydraulically lowered from flat—usable as a classroom or rehearsal space—to a ranked performance auditorium or little theater in the round as needed.

    McFadden showed off a dressing room on the second floor where the entire cast of Midsummer Night’s Dream might put on its glitter and fairy make-up, while behind the actors a group of dancers could practice in front of the floor-to ceiling mirrors.

    The square footage of the building has grown from about 6,000 to 9,000, and about 30 additional seats added to the main auditorium.

    McFadden pointed out an acoustic screen that can pull across the stage on tracks, creating enough of a barrier so that two classes, rehearsals, or performances can go on simultaneously.

    “Double duty for each space,” said McFadden.

    Former Alder Bitsie Clark, who helmed the Arts Council in the 1980s, said she well remembers that the council itself was prepared to tear the building down to make way for more arts districts apartments. She said the true rescuers were the local theater devotees who had built the building and their families and descendants, who led the charge for national landmark status.

    She pronounced the prop room exciting, along with another room to be used for scenic design, complete with dust collection hoses, and fixtures for table saws to create flats and other objects of theater magic.

    After ACES students sing, dance, act, and carry creatively on in the new spaces, the Little Theatre should be available to rent to the public as early as September, said ACES Executive Director Craig Edmondson.

    For full article and photos, go to:  Little Theatre Lives!

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    New Haven Register

    A little, old theater that has ‘seen it all’ survives, with a new look

    Randall Beach. June 8, 2014

    Sure, there were some “technical difficulties” with the old joint. Sometimes the projector would break down in the middle of a scene and we would have to wait a few minutes for the action to resume. One night, perhaps during a Hitchcock thriller, a bat — not part of the movie — flew across the screen. Yowza! Special effects!

    Robert Spodick and Leonard Sampson ran the Lincoln from 1945-1982, but the building was bought by the city of New Haven during the 1960s and wasn’t properly maintained. Finally, Spodick and Sampson shut it down and moved full-time to their York Square Cinemas, which they operated until 2005.

    After the Lincoln was shuttered, the building was in grave danger of being bulldozed, despite its proud history: It had been built in 1924 for use as a community theater, under the name the Little Theater. But preservationists rose up to save it (and I wrote many stories and columns supporting their long, tough fight).

    We won. The preservationists were able to get the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and the wrecking ball never descended. In 1986, the building was bought by Area Cooperative Educational Services, which operates Educational Center for the Arts, close to the theater.

    ACES renovated it from 1988-90 and the theater subsequently was used for ECA events (my elder daughter had use of it as an ECA student) as well as public events, including bluegrass shows.

    Five years ago, it was closed again for a much more ambitious renovation. I was worried it was too ambitious; one day I walked past it in 2012 and was horrified to see the interior had been gutted, the seats ripped out.

    And so I was greatly reassured last Friday when I attended the grand reopening of what is now called the Little Theater on Lincoln Street.

    The $5.7 million project, a challenge undertaken by the local architecture firm Svigals + Partners, succeeded in preserving its historical integrity while transforming it into a modern theater and performing arts teaching facility for ECA.

    I was holding my breath a bit as I finally got that chance to walk inside. But then I saw the red curtain fronting the stage, the art deco black-and-white globe light fixtures and the original wooden beams on the ceiling. These are key historic links to the Little Theater and the Lincoln Theater. But the original seats could not be restored.

    Julia McFadden, an associate principal with Svi­gals, said during Friday’s ceremony that the Little Theater project presented some mighty big architectural and engineering problems.

    “This is a tight site, right in the middle of the block, with neighbors close by on each side,” she noted. (Those neighbors include lawyers in their offices and condominium owners.)“We had to underpin the condos when we put in a basement under the building,” she said.

    Alicia Clapp, who chairs the ACES governing board, told us: “This project is especially important to me; I was born literally around the corner on Orange Street.” “From the time I could be put in a stroller,” she said, “I sat in this theater and watched productions. I remember seeing the play ‘Heidi’ here, with my brother in it.” She was also on hand for the Lincoln movies era and later saw her grandson in the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “This theater has seen it all,” she said.

    Bitsie Clark, who lives in one of those adjacent condos, told the gathering about her early memories of the Lincoln: “In the ’50s, I had a boyfriend at Yale. We spent every weekend in this theater, seeing wonderful foreign films: Alec Guinness, (Federico) Fellini.”

    But in 1983, when she became director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, Clark was caught in a bad spot: shortly before she took that job, the council had decided the theater should be torn down. “It was a ruin. The roof was falling in.”

    However, Clark noted that when the arts council made its announcement, “people like Alicia’s family just went bananas.”

    Two decades later, Clark stood on the revitalized stage Friday and said, “It’s so exciting to have this back as a thriving theatrical experience.”

    After the ribbon-cutting on that stage, the red curtain parted and we took in the venue’s debut performance: songs by the ECA Vocal Ensemble.

    During a tour of the building, McFadden took us to the control room, in the space which was the Lincoln’s projection booth. ACES Technical Director Seth Harris told us a digital projector will be purchased soon for showing movies.

    When I asked Harris if plans are afoot to let folks besides those with ECA-ACES ties come there and see movies or live performances, he merely said they had “not ruled it out.”

    Clark assured me the public will be able to rent the theater for events; ACES Executive Director Craig Edmondson said the same. I think that’s only right and fair; after all, a great deal of public money from a state education building grant made the reopening possible. This beautiful space should be shared.

    I know that Vincent Scully, the Yale professor emeritus of the history of art, would agree with that sentiment. Indeed, Edmondson quoted Scully during Friday’s ceremony: “The Lincoln (Little) Theater is the ultimate survivor of our youth, holding the memory of so much pure joy in years gone by. We are lucky that it survived.”

    For full article with photos, go to:  Randall Beach:  A little, old theater that has 'seen it all' survives with a new look