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A little, old theater that has ‘seen it all’ survives, with a new look

June 8th, 2014


A little, old theater that has ‘seen it all’ survives, with a new look

New Haven Register

Randall Beach. June 8, 2014
 

Sure, there were some “technical difficulties” with the old joint. Sometimes the projector would break down in the middle of a scene and we would have to wait a few minutes for the action to resume. One night, perhaps during a Hitchcock thriller, a bat — not part of the movie — flew across the screen. Yowza! Special effects!

Robert Spodick and Leonard Sampson ran the Lincoln from 1945-1982, but the building was bought by the city of New Haven during the 1960s and wasn’t properly maintained. Finally, Spodick and Sampson shut it down and moved full-time to their York Square Cinemas, which they operated until 2005.

After the Lincoln was shuttered, the building was in grave danger of being bulldozed, despite its proud history: It had been built in 1924 for use as a community theater, under the name the Little Theater. But preservationists rose up to save it (and I wrote many stories and columns supporting their long, tough fight).

We won. The preservationists were able to get the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and the wrecking ball never descended. In 1986, the building was bought by Area Cooperative Educational Services, which operates Educational Center for the Arts, close to the theater.

ACES renovated it from 1988-90 and the theater subsequently was used for ECA events (my elder daughter had use of it as an ECA student) as well as public events, including bluegrass shows.

Five years ago, it was closed again for a much more ambitious renovation. I was worried it was too ambitious; one day I walked past it in 2012 and was horrified to see the interior had been gutted, the seats ripped out.

And so I was greatly reassured last Friday when I attended the grand reopening of what is now called the Little Theater on Lincoln Street.

The $5.7 million project, a challenge undertaken by the local architecture firm Svigals + Partners, succeeded in preserving its historical integrity while transforming it into a modern theater and performing arts teaching facility for ECA.

I was holding my breath a bit as I finally got that chance to walk inside. But then I saw the red curtain fronting the stage, the art deco black-and-white globe light fixtures and the original wooden beams on the ceiling. These are key historic links to the Little Theater and the Lincoln Theater. But the original seats could not be restored.

Julia McFadden, an associate principal with Svi­gals, said during Friday’s ceremony that the Little Theater project presented some mighty big architectural and engineering problems.

“This is a tight site, right in the middle of the block, with neighbors close by on each side,” she noted. (Those neighbors include lawyers in their offices and condominium owners.)“We had to underpin the condos when we put in a basement under the building,” she said.

Alicia Clapp, who chairs the ACES governing board, told us: “This project is especially important to me; I was born literally around the corner on Orange Street.” “From the time I could be put in a stroller,” she said, “I sat in this theater and watched productions. I remember seeing the play ‘Heidi’ here, with my brother in it.” She was also on hand for the Lincoln movies era and later saw her grandson in the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “This theater has seen it all,” she said.

Bitsie Clark, who lives in one of those adjacent condos, told the gathering about her early memories of the Lincoln: “In the ’50s, I had a boyfriend at Yale. We spent every weekend in this theater, seeing wonderful foreign films: Alec Guinness, (Federico) Fellini.”

But in 1983, when she became director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, Clark was caught in a bad spot: shortly before she took that job, the council had decided the theater should be torn down. “It was a ruin. The roof was falling in.”

However, Clark noted that when the arts council made its announcement, “people like Alicia’s family just went bananas.”

Two decades later, Clark stood on the revitalized stage Friday and said, “It’s so exciting to have this back as a thriving theatrical experience.”

After the ribbon-cutting on that stage, the red curtain parted and we took in the venue’s debut performance: songs by the ECA Vocal Ensemble.

During a tour of the building, McFadden took us to the control room, in the space which was the Lincoln’s projection booth. ACES Technical Director Seth Harris told us a digital projector will be purchased soon for showing movies.

When I asked Harris if plans are afoot to let folks besides those with ECA-ACES ties come there and see movies or live performances, he merely said they had “not ruled it out.”

Clark assured me the public will be able to rent the theater for events; ACES Executive Director Craig Edmondson said the same. I think that’s only right and fair; after all, a great deal of public money from a state education building grant made the reopening possible. This beautiful space should be shared.

I know that Vincent Scully, the Yale professor emeritus of the history of art, would agree with that sentiment. Indeed, Edmondson quoted Scully during Friday’s ceremony: “The Lincoln (Little) Theater is the ultimate survivor of our youth, holding the memory of so much pure joy in years gone by. We are lucky that it survived.”


For full article with photos, click here.

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