Fred Contrada, The Republican By Fred Contrada, The Republican
on October 31, 2013 at 2:55 PM
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NORTHAMPTON Academy of Music patrons will be able to sit back in comfort and enjoy the grandeur of the 1891 building, pending the success of the Academy’s first capital campaign.

The campaign, which kicked off with a gala Wednesday night at the theater, is seeking to raise $100,000 toward a $600,000 project that includes replacing the building’s 800 seats, which date back half a century or more, with new one geared to improve the comfort of the more than 50,000 patrons who attend plays, concerts and other events every year. The project will also restore the ornate plaster damaged by a leaky roof and, in a feat similar to the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, return the interior to its original colors.

The state and Northampton, which owns the building, have already committed $500,000, leaving the Academy to raise the remaining money from the community.

“The Academy serves the community in so many ways,” said Andrew Crystal, president of the theater’s board of directors. He noted that local groups such as the Pioneer Valley Ballet and the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School are among the companies that perform at the theater.

“Where else can you be a member of the audience one day, and on the stage as a cast member the next?” he asked.

Built by Northampton native Edward H. R. Lyman, the Academy of Music opened as a state-of-the art opera house. Lyman deeded the building to the city in 1892, making it the nation’s first municipally owned theater. The full-fly proscenium stage and full-size screen are unique in the region, according to executive director Debra J’Anthony.

“The vast majority of full-fly theaters are motorized now,” she said. “Our hemp rope and pulley system has become a real rarity, and we intend to keep it.”

Among the legends who have appeared on the Academy’s stage are Mae West, Harry Houdini, Rudolph Valentino and Boris Karloff. However, just as time has taken its toll on the building itself, the changing economy and public tastes forced the Academy to revamp its mission. In 2007, it announced it would stop showing first-run movies and focus more on live performances. It now has seven resident companies and partners, all local.

Gail Yacuzzo, who is on the Academy’s board of directors, said the drawings displayed by architect Thomas Douglas at the gala were well received by those in attendance.

“Tom Douglas has been an integral part of the historical research,” she said.

After seeing the Academy go through some hard times when she first joined the board in 200, Yacuzzo said she is “incredibly optimistic” about its future. Thanks in great part to $2 million in state aid secured by the local political delegation, the building had already had major structural work.

“This last piece is more about the interior glory of the building and the comfort of the patrons,” she said.

J’Anthony said the new seats are among the most eagerly awaited improvements.

“Anyone familiar with the Academy knows the seats are a big issue,” she said, noting the current ones were installed in the 1960s or earlier. “Our patrons will be a lot more comfortable in the plush new ones we’ve picked out. We’ll also be modifying the seating plan to provide more wheelchair positions.”

Douglas Architects earned a Massachusetts Historical Commission Preservation Award and a Northampton Historical Commission Award, for its restoration work on the Calvin Theater. Former mayor Mary Clare Higgins, who also attended the party, said the Academy needs a similar make-over.

“It’s a legacy building for the city and it needs care and attendance,” she said.