Recalling the ‘wow’

  • The front of the Capitol Center For the Arts on South Main Street in Concord. Monitor file

  • United Way Day of Caring volunteers paint backstage at the Capitol Center of the Arts in 2018. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 11/4/2020 12:16:09 PM
Modified: 11/4/2020 12:15:59 PM
Editor’s Note: Jay Haines wrote this piece in April 2019 while participating in a memoir writing class and assigned to write a story about an event in his life that would be worthy of the word “Wow!” He is sharing the piece now in celebration of the Capitol Center’s 25th anniversary on Nov. 9 after planned recognition of the theater was curtailed by COVID-19. 

I can’t believe it’s really happening. It’s actually here, Nov. 9, 1995, opening day ceremonies for the Capitol Center for the Arts, and tomorrow night is our first show, Tom Rush, Janis Ian and a bunch of other folksy folks. It’s a cold, gray, windy November afternoon, 3½ years since I joined the board in May 1992 and more than two years longer for members who began working on this project following the Capital Theater’s closing “for good” in 1989. Badly needed repairs triggered the requirement for major building code upgrades forcing the owner to make the hard decision to hit the switch to “make it dark” and lock its doors.

As a board, we’ve been meeting weekly all these years, chasing a dream. A consultant’s report said it had to be a community center, not just a performance venue, and at their projected cost, it would take $2.75 million to purchase and renovate. Getting to today, Opening Day, including the purchase of the connecting Kimball House, the cost blossomed to almost double that number. Reflecting the community’s ownership, its new name became The Capitol Center for the Arts.

“We can’t let this classic pair of buildings go the way of Concord’s iconic railroad station,” was the call that always hung over our heads. Our reminder was a large photograph of the station, busy with activity. Subsequently abandoned by its corporate owner, it fell into disarray. Eventually sold and demolished it was replaced by a large shopping center running for several blocks along Storrs Street, the remaining ground covered by asphalt parking spaces.

Listening to the opening ceremonies, I recalled my first board meeting when the vote was taken to proceed forward, and the dream became owned by us all. While Mary, Sylvia, and I negotiated the purchase of the Kimball House, others were negotiating the purchase of the theater. The owners were open to negotiations and each building sold for a generously low price. Respective owners were quite content and relieved to walk away from what could also be termed a “Wow,” as in “Bow-Wow,” as in real estate properties known as dogs.

The theater had its own lore, long before it played host to vaudeville shows, first-run movies, and more recently, music and comedy performers and bands. I have a great memory of attending the second of two shows by Ray Charles and the Raelettes.

But the story that haunted us all as a board involved renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. Polio had rendered him wheelchair-bound. The stage was five feet above the mezzanine entrance level thus requiring performers to climb stairs to gain access. Because there was no elevator to accommodate those with limited mobility, Mr. Pearlman, in his wheelchair, was forced to suffer the indignity of having to be carried up on stage by four strong men. It didn’t stop there. The heating system in the theater underserved the space and was worse on stage. So, Mr. Pearlman kept his heavy overcoat on, buttoned-up, and wore white cotton gloves to keep his fingers warm and nimble. Joining him in the melody was the backstage radiator providing a clanging intermezzo thanks to its overworked pressure system.

Coming to grips with the reality of our folly purchase came quickly and was cruel. The theater sat stone cold, with only an occasional 75-watt lightbulb to cast a shadowy glow into its cavern-like open spaces. The damp cold was accentuated by a strong musty smell that carried a hint of dead rodent. Our echoing footsteps made it all but impossible to imagine audience pre-show chatter or performance-inspired laughter and applause.

Architects and construction contractors were the first to go in and out to assess the challenges of our dream, often to leave with a “thanks, and good luck,” and never seen again. Our dream sank lower and lower on the “it’s possible” chart, with the “Oh wow’s” having a somber meaning, totally opposite from that we feel today. Matching all this reality was the public outcry of “What do we need another performance facility for? We have the Audi – the City Auditorium – and it serves Concord just fine.” We dared not mention that our dream went far beyond just Concord. It was beginning to feel like we were on a hopeless march, a feeling thankfully, never openly shared among ourselves.

But it wasn’t.

“Wow.” The architect’s drawings were mesmerizing, stirring again the passions of what was to come, deliberately building friends “in all the right places” as the song goes. The city was on board, Schools throughout the county enthusiastic, neighborhood friends hosting events to generate donor support.

“Wow, we’ve raised a million bucks already,” then two, then three. Success in fundraising became our dream’s fuel as we set about attacking the project, with leadership bursting forward from likely and unlikely places. The former being the arrival of Mary Therese Mennino, CCA’s first executive director. M.T. brought and infused in us all an energy and optimism that was as big as a house, neverending, and not to be challenged. The latter exemplified by Mark Ciborowski and his army of Michelangelo-ettes perched on a mountain of scaffolding stenciling the theater’s equivalent Sistine Chapel ceiling. Letters and editorials in the Monitor began changing their tone. Maybe we weren’t just a bunch of stage crazies after all. Wow, it’s going to happen, and after 3½ years, it’s happening now.

I’m standing off to the side of the theater entrance pathway taking in all the excitement and commotion. To my left is the crowd, made up of dignitaries, community supporters, friends, and curious onlookers. I can hear voices coming from the outdoor PA system, pausing from time to time for applause, crowd laughter, or a change in speaker.

Then came Paul Hodes’s big shout “I declare the Capitol Center for the Arts to be open” followed by, “Come join us inside, just follow the Concord High School Marching Band.” And we did, to the oom-pas of 76 trombones.

What I know and will forever recall are the looks of pure joy, of eyes filling with tears, hugs of disbelief and pride in our accomplishment of making real our dream, one we never let ourselves deny it would happen.

And wow, it’s happening right now.

From 1995 to today...

Later to come in life my “wows” will be from personal experiences and performance events: Daughter Lizzy’s 12 years of dance recitals. An after-show meeting with B. B. King, at which he autographed my show poster, “Thanks for coming Jay, B. B. King.” Hosting President Clinton who chose to use the theater to make a national education policy statement, but not before offering congratulations to the community for coming together to save and preserve this wonderful theater. And being backstage waiting to make a “front of curtain” greeting and introduce the evening’s performers, Gladys Knight and the Pips. Gladys, seeing my nervous anxiety, came over and gave me a hug saying “you’ll do just fine honey,” then gently pushed me through the opening between the curtains with a pat on the bottom.

For me, I can’t believe it’s been 25 years since that opening day event. The Capitol Center for the Arts will forever remain my place of “wows.”

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