Monday, November 11, 2013
(Published in print: Tuesday, November 12, 2013)
The Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton has an impressive record of staying relevant in its 122-year history — no easy feat with the ever-changing public entertainment appetite. For more than a century, the theatre has provided an attractive venue for performance and a place for the artistic community to hang its hat.
The academy began as a pet project of a local philanthropist interested in bringing the arts to rural western Massachusetts. About a year after the 800-seat Academy of Music Theatre opened in 1891, it was deeded to the city of Northampton. The Academy lent its stage to some legendary performers including French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, film star Mae West and illusionist Harry Houdini. As interest in live theater waned, the Academy experienced decline through the ’50s and ’60s and eventually closed. But not for long. In the 1970s, the Academy reopened as a movie house featuring first-run films. That carried on until the allure of the multiplex siphoned that audience away, too. Today, the Academy of Music has gone back to its roots and operates as a venue for live theater, dance, film, music and arts education.
What’s particularly remarkable about the Academy of Music Theatre’s staying power is the arts space has largely made it without having to hold a capital campaign, a fundraising effort in which donations cover major physical improvements. Until now, that is. Last month, the Academy kicked off a $100,000 capital fundraising drive. Money raised through the campaign, which will wrap up in June 2014, will support a renovation effort aimed primarily at the theater’s interior, one that will include adding all-new seating and aisle lighting, repairing some crumbling plaster and repainting the theater in a color scheme that matches the original paint job from the building’s earliest years in the 1890s.
The $100,000 won’t cover all the costs. Academy leaders have garnered $500,000 in state and Community Preservation Act grants to help with the updates. Kudos to the Academy for keeping the appeal to residents and patrons low.
Donating to the Academy’s capital campaign doesn’t just support the building, it supports the community. The Academy is home to resident companies the Pioneer Valley Ballet, Old Deerfield Productions, Greene Room Productions and the Pioneer Valley Symphony. It also has partner relationships with WGBY, the Out! For Reel film series and the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School. These are just some of the groups that make the Valley’s arts community vibrant — a major draw to the area and boon to the local economy. More than 50,000 people go to the Academy every year, according to the theatre’s executive director.
The renovation project is expected to take place next August and September and will close the theater for approximately nine weeks. If all goes as planned, the building will reopen the first weekend in October 2014.
The Academy of Music Theatre has long supported the arts community, and now it’s the institution’s turn to ask for help. We hope the Academy gets what it needs. In 122 years, the theatre has more than earned it.