Palace Theater

THE REFURBISHED Palace Theater in Waterbuy, a registered National Historic Treasure, has reopened after a $30 million renovation that restored much of its gilt-edged splendor.

After years of theater expansion across the state, the momentum has slowed as institutions now face a new power-base reality: a new governor, a new legislature and a new state commission for culture and tourism.

No longer are there tens of millions in bonding money that in the past decade was doled out by Gov. John G. Rowland and legislators for capital arts projects, mainly to enhance urban downtowns across the state.

Meanwhile, several museums are expanding, with a mix of public and private money.

But what will the new financial template be for arts funding?

The forecast is mixed.

Certainly there have been success stories, with three theater projects completed, nearly completed or moving along before the fiscal curtain came down last year with Rowland's exit and the increasing state deficit.


The Palace Theater in Waterbury opened in November with great fanfare and was embraced by the community. But can a city that lacks solid tenants for the facility come up with alternative programming that will bring the crowds to Main Street and make it a viable business? What is undeniable is that the first-class, $30 million renovation has restored what was a lost gem. Now, about the programming ...

The Westport Country Playhouse is on track to open its expanded and renovated barn-like theater, thanks to a $30.5 million drive that included $18 million to build the new facility. (The state kicked in $5 million for the project.)

Despite the year-round capability of the new theater, The Playhouse's leadership will be taking it slow for the first year, producing four, instead of its usual five, shows for its 75th summer season. The Playhouse will also produce its own holiday show, as well as two other events during the year.

Just as significant is the news that Joanne Woodward is stepping down this year and that a new artistic director will be leading the theater starting next January. Woodward led a forceful team that saved the theater from developers in the '90s, gave it some financial stability and then reshaped and upgraded the artistic programming.

Long Wharf Theater got its $30 million in state funding just weeks before Rowland resigned last year. Planning is underway to relocate the 40-year-old Tony Award-winning theater from its location off I-95 to become part of the ever-growing New Haven downtown.

Long Wharf will be part of a larger developmental project that includes a hotel, conference center, housing, retail and a college campus. But at the moment, the process is a slow one because the demolition of the New Haven Coliseum must still be completed before the project really moves forward. The demolition of the coliseum is expected later this year.

Synergy seemed to be the reason why the Goodspeed Opera House decided to say goodbye to East Haddam and take Middletown's offer to build a new $40 million theater downtown. The old Goodspeed Opera House, on the banks of the Connecticut River, would have opened for just the summer.

But Goodspeed didn't figure in the ire of a politician scorned, namely powerful state Sen. Eileen Dailey, whose district includes East Haddam. She became angered that Goodspeed didn't stay in town. She has used her considerable clout as chairwoman of the bonding committee to block funding for the new theater, thereby killing the move - or at least dimming hopes for it.

Goodspeed is now in talks with East Haddam to get approval from local agencies for building a new theater there. But that's the least of the problems for Goodspeed if the new theater ends up in East Haddam, as many now believe. The new problem will be raising the money for the new theater. Place this project in the wait-and-see category for 2005.

In other theaters in the state, conditions languish. There's a legal struggle between the attorneys general in Connecticut and New York and the executors of the Lucille Lortel Foundation over the fate of the historic White Barn Theater in Norwalk, which has been closed for several years. The executors want to see the facility and its 18-acre estate and property sold to developers of residential housing, with the money being used for other theater arts projects. That's not what Lortel's will says, the attorneys general say. The legal wrangling continues - for now.

The less-than-robust economy in Connecticut continues to present financial challenges for theaters throughout the state.

But both Hartford Stage and Long Wharf have an improved financial picture. Hartford Stage ended its last fiscal year in the black for the first time in years. Hartford Stage is placing its energies on its main stage subscription series, the summer stage programming, special events such as the play-reading series and maximizing the profits from its holiday show.