Cap Center proposes Concord Theatre revamp in multimillion-dollar plan

  • A rendering, which envisions one concept of what the old Concord Theatre could look like if it’s overhauled. The historic theater is located at 16-18 S. Main St., between Endicott Furniture and OutFITters Thrift Store. Dennis Mires PA, The Architects / Rendering

  • The interior of the Concord Theatre is shown in its present state. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The box office of the Concord Theatre sits in the entry way of the main entrance. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The projection room of the old Concord theatre on South Main Street. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Concord Theatre’s marquee is shown in a courtesy photo. Courtesy

  • The Concord Theatre's marquee is shown in a courtesy photo. Courtesy—

  • Dennis Mires PA, The Architects—

Monitor staff
Published: 2/23/2017 12:11:59 AM

The legendary Concord Theatre, shuttered for 23 years, could be reborn as a versatile midsized event venue if a $4 million plan hatched between the city’s largest theater and its most prominent developer comes to pass.

Through its window at 16-18 S. Main St., beyond the skinny box office booth, the art deco stylings of the theater’s 1933 opening day are juxtaposed against the debris of disuse. The building is better known today for the bodybuilding supplement business it houses up front.

But its unassuming facade gives way to a deceptively large interior. The main hall once squeezed 499 stiff seats in front of a 30-foot screen in the heart of downtown.

Officials at the Capitol Center for the Arts, who were already planning a retooling, seized the opportunity when developer Steve Duprey told them they might be able to buy the uniquely sized space within the South End, an area that planners hope becomes a cultural hub.

“This is this building’s last chance,” said Richard Uchida, the chairman of the Cap Center’s board. “If we don’t work on that site right now, it could very well be something entirely different that’s not arts-and-culture-related. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, for us and for downtown.”

The proposal

Architectural drawings reimagine the theater as a flexible, multi-purpose event venue. Set up for a standing-room-only crowd, it could fit 400, or by extending the retractable bleacher-like seats, it can sit 260. It has a bar upstairs, a lobby downstairs and a box office out front.

Nicki Clarke, the Cap Center’s executive director, said concerts would be the space’s primary use, especially those featuring up-and-coming artists who can’t yet fill the main theater’s 1,300 seats.

But there are other specialized audie nces, too, that theater officials know exist but can’t efficiently serve in its existing space, she said – for instance, small-scale live theater, or remote screenings of ballet and opera performances.

“People have a lot of niche interests now,” Clarke said. “I know there are 350 dance lovers in this city, but a 350-person audience in a 1,300-seat theater doesn’t work so well.”

In fact, she said, any show that would sell 400 tickets doesn’t fit well into Concord’s event venues. The largest hall at Red River Theatres holds 156 people, according to its website. The next step up is the 841-seat City Auditorium.

An arts and culture district

To meet that need, the Cap Center was planning an expansion even before it learned about the possibility of using the Concord Theatre.

By getting creative with the Cap Center’s banquet area, which it calls Governor’s Hall, and moving its kitchen, it did the best it could. But still, the total seating would max out at about 110, which fell far below its ideal target.

“It’s all we had within our four walls,” Uchida said.

Clarke added: “And then we got the call from Steve Duprey.”

In addition to its size, the physical location of the Concord Theatre is another draw, Uchida said.

It’s less than a block from Pitchfork Records, it’s across the street from the nonprofit Red River Theatres – which screens independent, arthouse films – and it’s one-fifth of a mile from the Capitol Center for the Arts, which features the biggest names that come to the city.

“You know how Boston has its North End? This would be an arts-and-culture South End,” Uchida said. “I think this (project) would cement the creation of that district.”

The old theater

If it hadn’t been fallen to neglect, the Concord Theatre would be a well-known piece of the local culture.

A decade ago, the Monitor’s former editor, Mike Pride, wrote that his favorite thing about the theater was this: “If you were running late, you could call and ask whichever Cantin sister answered the phone to postpone the start of the movie for 10 minutes. And she’d do it.”

Then there were tales about the wildlife inside the theater. There was at least one cat living upstairs with Theresa Cantin, the owner, and it may have chased after rats inside, according to some accounts.

“I remember seeing a bat flying across the screen,” recalled the building’s owner, Arthur Aznive, who attended shows at the theater as a teenager. “People said it wasn’t a movie unless you felt a rat run across your feet. I never saw that, but a bat once in a while was kind of cool.”

Before it was a theater, the building housed the Norris Baking Company, which dated back far enough that it baked biscuits on-site that were supplied to the Union army in the Civil War, Aznive said.

Aznive said the building has been for sale ever since he bought it in 1998. It once seemed that it might sell to Red River Theatres when that group was first planning, but in the end, the deal fell through, he said.

The thought that it might become a bona fide theater again, he said, is “kind of nostalgic. It’s kind of fun.”

‘Very tough shape’

Duprey, the developer, said he’d made a habit in recent years of calling Aznive and asking if he would sell the building separate from a package of residential real estate holdings.

It was late last spring, Duprey said, when he finally got a yes.

“I was thrilled,” he wrote in an email. “They deserve a lot of credit for holding onto the building and not tearing it down.”

Because the building is in “very, very tough shape,” Duprey said, he may have to tear it down himself, if he doesn’t win a historical tax credit that would make it feasible to keep the existing brick shell. Otherwise, he said, he plans to rebuild the facade and second floor “the exact same way it was when it became a theater.”

Duprey pegged the total cost of the project between $4.2 million and $5.2 million. He said his hope was to start construction in the fall and open for September 2018; although, the Cap Center representatives cautioned that the timeline is dependent upon fundraising.

“It only works through a successful capital campaign, so we’re going to be relying on our ties in the community and the region to raise that funding,” Uchida said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)

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