Beacon Theater, Beacon: Renovation and Restoration in 2013
A beacon of light: The Beacon Theater in Beacon
Photographs by Ken Gabrielsen
In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put historic movie theaters on its annual list of Most Endangered Historic Places. Once upon your grandmother’s time, these theaters numbered in the tens of thousands. Just about every town with a stoplight had one, and some towns had them before they had stoplights, as many of these grand halls were built as live performance venues long before cars were invented. Indeed, many towns had more than one. “Newburgh once had five theaters, if you can believe that,” says Tricia Haggerty Wenz, executive director of the Ritz.
Whether they offered marching bands, vaudeville, radio shows, comedy acts, Shakespeare, or foreign films, these theaters played a role that extended far beyond entertainment. They were often the most lavish, beautiful, and architecturally iconic structures in town. They brought people downtown on Saturday nights to mingle, flirt, catch up, and throw down. You met the person you would later marry there. Kids spent entire Saturday afternoons watching double features downstairs, while teenagers stole their first kisses up in the balcony. Lifelong memories were formed at these theaters; they helped give a locality its sense of place.
Patrick Manning, president of 4th Wall Productions’ board of directors
Then came the urban downfall of the 1960s and ’70s. For 40 years theaters across the land sat empty, then crumbled and were torn down. Today there are just 270 single-screen movie theaters in the country, says Ann Citron, managing director of one of them — the Rosendale Theater in Rosendale.
But now, many dedicated people are working passionately to bring them back. At the Beacon, they include Manning, Executive Director Christine Vittorini, and Managing Director Jim Brady. Vittorini and Brady are theater people, she as a performer and director (“I did my Equity time,” she says), and he as a backstage manager. Their credits include Broadway (Brady is currently assistant comanager for Nice Work If You Can Get It), regional theater, MTV, MSG, and many other gigs. After an initial start in 1994, the duo reestablished 4th Wall Productions in 2002 and set up shop at the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center in Poughkeepsie. The space was soon too small; by luck, Manning — a former state and county legislator turned business consultant — approached them. He was working with the Beacon Chamber of Commerce to develop the dilapidated theater. “I was a lifelong Dutchess County resident, and I didn’t even know it existed,” he said. “It blew my mind that this gorgeous thing was intact.”
Above, the MainStage area, still under construction. Below, the renovated lobby, where performances are being held until the MainStage is complete
Beacon’s “gorgeous thing” is an Art Deco-style performance hall which sits where the Dibble Opera House was originally constructed in 1886 (one newspaper clip indicates that the space was previously a roller skating rink). In 1927, the opera house was torn down with plans to build a theater to accommodate the large crowds flocking to the latest entertainment, “photo plays” — aka moving pictures. The expansion was delayed by the Depression, but in 1934 the 1,200-seat theater became a show-biz hot spot, welcoming Broadway stars, plays, musicals, vaudeville acts, and movies. It once hosted a popular national touring radio show called Vox Pop, which Manning describes as the Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me! of its time. Reportedly, it was also the Hudson Valley’s first air-conditioned public venue. Upstairs was home to the Wonder Bar, a popular jazz club in the 1930s and ’40s. “During renovations, we found an original program with the mayor saying the Beacon Theatre was the best thing ever to happen in the Hudson Valley,” Manning says.
But in the 1960s, urban decay descended on Beacon as it did everywhere else. Downtowns gave way to suburbs, big theaters to mall multiplexes, and the Beacon “closed for renovations” for more than 40 years. Since then, the space was used as storage for a roofing contractor and, in the 1990s, as a church, which was responsible for putting in the current purple reclining seats.
In 2010 Manning helped 4th Wall purchase the building. “We weren’t actively looking for another space,” Vittorini says. “It was serendipitous. We found that it was structurally sound and nearly performance-ready — but for little things like heat and hot water.” What it lacked in amenities, it more than made up for in 150 years of history. “The charm of the building is that it has its own story,” says Brady. “Restoring it to what it was, was very important to us. Modern theaters have their place, but when you have a gem like this you have to bring it back.”
A photo of the theater’s marquee circa 1940s (left); above, detail of an Art Deco column near the stage
That, of course, hasn’t been easy. Though the bones of the building were in good shape (if they hadn’t been — if, say, the roof needed replacing — it would have been prohibitive), restoration is still a pricey venture. “We’re estimating $50,000 just in paint,” Manning says. The $3 million, three-year campaign’s first phase involved restoring the lobby to accommodate performances and start bringing in both audiences and money. 4th Wall produces live theatrical shows, comedy, concerts, art shows, performing arts classes, and children’s programming. “We have things going on seven days a week,” says Manning.
The next phase includes getting Studio B up and running this spring; this education and studio space on the upper floor will be run by retired Rockette (and Cold Spring resident) Katie Bissinger. In the fall a new marquee is set to shine brightly again to coincide with Beacon’s centenary. Construction on the 800-seat MainStage, as it will be called, is projected to begin at the end of 2013, with a grand reopening in 2014, God and the economy willing.
“With the bigger theater we can do any number things,” says Vittorini, the company’s artistic director. “We can stage huge musicals, book larger-name concerts and comedians and touring shows.” And that will be good for the entire Valley, Brady predicts. “As a resident, that’s important to me. The impact it will have on my home is huge.”