Volunteers nudged opponents aside to keep Concord’s arts alive 

  • The City Auditorium on Prince Street in Concord was once slated to be converted into extra office space for the city. That possibility ushered in a new wave of arts advocacy and volunteerism that has kept the downtown venue thriving. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Dick Hesse (right) and Allwynne Fine wipe down the chandeliers at the City Audi on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The stained glass in the new entrance wing of the Concord Audi completed in 1992. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The poster for the Freese Brothers Band from 1991 that helped raised $10,000 for the Friends of the Concord Audi, helping save the building. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dick Hesse (right) and Allwynne Fine wipe down the chandeliers after they were lowered to ground level at the City Audi Wednesday, August 23, 2017. Fine has been volunteering for forty years plus and knows the delicate work of cleaning the chadeliers. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Monday, August 28, 2017

Carol Bagan calls herself “The Nudge.”

That means if you’re in the vicinity of the Concord City Auditorium this time of year, she might try to recruit you to come inside and help clean.

There’s always something to do to keep the old theater looking good, like scraping gum from under the seats, or dusting and polishing the chandeliers, or cleaning the bathroom, or adding a fresh coat of paint on a wall.

“Just show up for three days at the beginning of the third week of August,” Bagan said. “The community is urged to show up and just pitch in to clean and polish and shine and get this theater ready for the new season.”

Bagan and her committee of senior, retired volunteers, known as the Friends of the Audi, have been doing this for years in their effort to make sure this local jewel remains shiny. They love the arts, theatrical productions, singing, dancing and anything that adds to the culture and identity of the city.

“I have performed here, I plan to perform here again in the future,” said Laurie Weisbrott, a retired executive at Northeast Delta Dental. “I want a nice, clean, fresh auditorium where people are not complaining about the state of the auditorium, but enjoying the show that they are watching.”

 I sat around a table in the theater’s greeting room with bagels and nine volunteers, learning about the history of this theater and how local enthusiasts have fought to keep it up and running.

How hard have they fought? Hard enough to squash former city manager Jim Smith’s effort to build offices in this spot nearly 30 years ago, gathering signatures, raising money and, later, naming one of the theater’s urinals after him.

We don’t have a sign for that,” joked Carol’s husband, Merwyn Bagan.

The marquee on Prince Street is a staple of Concord’s artistic landscape, much like the Weirs Beach drive-in sign is closely connected to Bike Week each summer. The sign here says “The Audi,” which is engulfed by 32 little light bulbs. “Since 1904” is also clearly visible.

That’s 113 years of entertainment.

“That’s the overarching goal, to make this place open and available to anyone who wants to use it,” said Betty Hoadley, who’s been painting and cleaning toilets at the theater for 10 years. “There’s no paid staff ever.”

Yet the people I met considered themselves rich from the work they do. There was Hoadley, a wise-cracking former school board member not known to keep opinions to herself, and who’s the most recent recipient of the Audi’s Friend of the Year award.

“I’m sick of hearing that,” Hoadley said, dryly. “I’m a latecomer to all of this. These people here are the pros.”

That would include Joye Olson, Weisbrott, Steven Meier, Allwynne Fine, Dick Hesse, Dr. Merwyn Bagan, and Joe Hayden.

The Bagans have been involved in the theater since moving here more than 45 years ago. He’s a retired brain surgeon, but it’s not brain surgery to figure out what’s important to the couple and their friends.

The history of traditional, old-school theater is everywhere, from the box office, to the brick walls, to the little spiral staircases on the sides of the stage, to the detailed, ornate paintings and sculptures high on the walls, to numerous hidden dressing rooms, some with stars on their doors, others with long benches so the actors can sit together as they prepare for and discuss the upcoming production.

One of the mainstays of the Audi is the Walker Lecture Series, a free program that dates back as far as the theater, to 1904.

Another is the Concord Coachmen Barbershop Chorus, which has been featured for 60 years, 35 of which have included Hayden, who told me, “This is my outlet in life.”

None of this would be possible if city officials had gotten their way back in 1991, when, led by Smith, a proposal was made to replace the Audi, in need of a major facelift, with three levels of office space, nudging “The Nudge” into action.

Carol Bagan and the late Harriet Ward, Bagan’s close friend and a former trustee of the Walker Lecture Series, gathered signatures, organized volunteers and fundraisers, and closed the curtain on the city’s bland, indifferent approach to the arts. They helped open a new curtain and a new era at the Concord Audi.

Bagan clenched her fists and tightened her jaw when speaking about the battle of ’91, telling me, “Smoke was coming out of our ears.”

And ever since, a free season-opening gala has been held each September, with ice cream and raffles and a 90-minute preview of the upcoming shows. The latest three-day clean-up sessions were held last week, and Gala No. 27 will be held Sept. 17.

“We want to make sure new generations have the opportunity to learn about the Audi, act and perform at the Audi, and orient them to the Audi,” Hoadley said. “And we think we do a pretty good job of that because if you have parents hooked, then their kids will be hooked as well.”

That’s what these people do. They’re a bridge, to both the past and the future, keeping a Concord tradition alive, nudging any obstacle aside, led by a woman who calls herself a “community arts advocate,” as well as “The Nudge.”

“If the theater was lost, they’d have nowhere to go,” Carol Bagan said. “The Friends of the Audi was formed as an umbrella for all the users of the theater. . . with a mission to preserve and maintain this historic municipal stage for the benefit of everyone in the community.

“Well, here we are.”