on April 13, 2016 at 8:40 AM, updated April 13, 2016 at 8:41 AM
NORTHAMPTON –In the late 19th century, Edward H.R. Lyman, a philanthropist and Northampton native, had a vision for a new venue for culture and theater in his hometown. On May 23, 1891, the 800-seat Academy of Music Theatre opened its doors to the public. One year later, he deeded the Academy to the Citizens of Northampton, making it the first municipally owned theater in the nation.
Now, The Academy of Music Theatre will host a 125 Years of Memories benefit on Thursday, April 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the theater.
“We are celebrating the many hats the Academy has worn over the decades, and the resilience of the theater and its many managers and directors,” said Kathryn Slater, development coordinator. “We’re incredibly proud of the history of this theater and want to celebrate this momentous birthday.”
The benefit will begin with a cash bar reception in the lobby, where guests will mingle and enjoy hors d’oeuvres, craft beer and wine. Silent auction items donated by local businesses and artists will be on display.
At 6:30 p.m. guests will move into the theater for a brief program, paying tribute to the academy through the years. This program will include a history, capturing moments representative of each decade. Short vignettes and movie and music clips will be narrated by emcee Linda C. McInerney, founder and artistic director of Eggtooth Productions, who will help direct the evening.
“Since the moment that the Board of Directors made the difficult decision to stop showing first run movies all those years ago, the Academy has blossomed into a fiscally sound, state of the art, world class performing arts venue that offers a wide variety of programming for all kinds of audiences in a magnificent, newly renovated hall that sparkles up the history of the place,” said McInerney, who serves on the Board of Directors.
Rounding out the 125 Years of Memories production will be local performers and personalities including Myka Plunkett, Athan Vennell, Mike and Joan Haley, Dwayne Robinson, André Boulay, dancers from the Pioneer Valley Ballet, members of the cast of the Academy Youth Production of “Music Man, Jr.”
The late actress Sarah Bernhardt, film star Mae West, illusionist Harry Houdini, actress Elizabeth Taylor and actor Richard Burton performed on the stage at the Academy.
“The ghosts in that place are marvelous — all very benevolent, but all very present!” said jazz pianist Jerry Noble, who has accompanied people at the “Really Big Show” several times and has played cocktail piano for several Academy events. Earlier this year he presented a scene from his opera-in-progress, “The Mask of the Red Death,” with tenor Alan Schneider, and he worked on both “Truth” and “The Garden of Martyrs” opera productions as rehearsal accompanist.
“The Academy of Music is a jewel in the crown of the Paradise City,” Noble said. “I am always honored to be asked to take part in the life of the Academy of Music.”
The Academy serves as a home for local, national and international artists to perform and has a robust family of resident companies. It offers musical performances including classical, opera, rock and roll, folk and children’s music.
Following the anniversary production, there will be a party onstage with musical accompaniment by Noble, appetizers from River Valley Market and craft beer and wine provided by Black Birch Vineyard.
“The Academy is owned by the City of Northampton so it really is our theatre,” McInerney said. “You feel that pride in ownership at every event that takes place there. …In the Academy, the rich air resonates with the voices and songs of the last hundred years and fills our present lungs with a sense of love and gratitude. You feel it pouring down the aisles as you sit together with your 800 friends and neighbors in the dark. It is simply magical. We are surely blessed to have this jewel in the crown of Northampton.”
Funds raised by the Academy of Music are invested back into neighboring businesses and families. Providing a venue for community to gather, the Academy of Music participates in several downtown events and ensures affordable rental rates for numerous local non-profit arts, social and educational organizations.
“The Academy has been open for 125 years because we have remained connected to this community,” Slater said, noting community arts participation through resident companies that perform on our stage, educational programs that are training the next generation of theater goers and performers and diverse programming that reflects the diverse interests of the community.