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At long last, Park Theatre set to open

  • Shelley Blanksteen and Andrew Casciano, 12, of Little Rock Arkansas, Roberta Gordenstein of Rindge and Carol Gordenstein of Boston review the upcoming features which will be showing at the Park Theatre in Jaffrey upon its opening during a tour of the theater Saturday. Staff photo by Ashley Saari—

  • Residents tour the Park Theatre during Riverfest in Jaffrey on Saturday, July 31, 2021. Staff photo by Ashley Saari

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/2/2021 3:50:23 PM

It’s been 45 years since The Park Theatre last opened its doors. It’s been nearly two decades since a small group of Jaffrey stakeholders got together with the goal of revitalizing the Jaffrey landmark. Now in just two days, that shared passion to see the theater that operated on Main Street for 54 years reopen will become a reality.

The Park Theatre will officially begin its second incarnation with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Thursday, the same day it will begin offering programming to the public for the first time since the mid-1970s.

“This is exactly what we wanted,” said CEO and Managing Director Steve Jackson. “The response has already been truly positive and beyond expectation.”

Founded by Romolo Vanni, the theater began operations in 1922 and remained a place in downtown Jaffrey to see a movie or live performance until its closing in 1976. The Main Street portion of the building was subsequently converted into a sporting goods and art supply shop by Roy and Nancy Stone, but while the theater was no longer in operation, the back half of the building remained virtually untouched with the stage, curtain and seats still in place, even well after the lights went dark and the marquee was removed. It was actually used as storage space by the Stones.

Charlie Palmer, who was the original chairman of The Park Theatre Restoration Committee, said it all began in the fall of 2001 through TEAM Jaffrey and its work with the NH Main Street Program. The goal of the program was to resurrect downtown areas across the state and through conversation the theater came up.

It led to feasibility studies and discussions with groups across the country to learn more about the theater business, to get an understanding if the project was worth it. A small group was formed with locals across various areas of expertise and a business plan was developed.

Palmer said one gentleman in Texas told him to figure it would take about 15 years. In the end it took about 20 and Palmer gives the credit to Thursday’s opening to Caroline Hollister. Palmer recruited Hollister to fill the lead role on the committee and said “it’s because of her that we are where we are today.” Hollister just recently stepped down as president of the board of trustees.

“It was not without a lot of heartache and struggle,” Palmer said. “But I’m just elated, so happy that it’s at this point where we can actually open the doors. We knew there was a market for the theater in Jaffrey, it was just a matter of how we’d get it done.”

The project gained momentum when the nonprofit board of trustees was formed and fundraising began in earnest in 2005 and continued following the purchase of the building in 2006 from the Stones.

The original intention after acquiring the property was to renovate the existing theater and return it to the glory days, but soon it became apparent that just wouldn’t be possible.

Feasibility studies revealed that much of the structure, which had been expanded in 1935, had to be replaced and it would actually cost more to renovate the building than to tear it down and build a new state-of-the-art performing center that would last another 100 years. In 2011, Hollister said, the decision was made to remove the old building, which came with a lot of mixed emotions.

“That was not an easy decision to come to,” she said.

Despite the inability to save the old building, Hollister said the intention remained to see The Park Theatre come back. The mission never got derailed. Work began on the new building in late 2018 and Hollister said the almost three-year rebuild was a remarkable undertaking with hundreds of different tradespeople working on the project.

“We said we’re going to rebuild it just the way it is,” she said. “But it never occurred to me we’d have to put the building totally back together again.”

Jackson was hired in 2016 and ever since he described the efforts as “a journey with highs and lows.” He credits the board for never wavering because a project like this just doesn’t happen too often in a small town like Jaffrey.

He said the theater “had a huge emotional significance for the people in this town” and while it took longer than anyone ever expected, it means even more that opening day is finally here.

“It’s a mixed emotion of being nervous, but exhilarated,” Jackson said.

Nancy Belletete, who has served on the board since 2007 and recently took over as president, said the one word that comes to her mind is “elated.”

She said what lured her to the project was what the revival would mean to the downtown Jaffrey area. She admits she lived in town for 10 years and didn’t know there was once a theater there. Belletete knows others were also drawn to the project based on their generosity.

“So many people have donated to the project hoping it would happen and now it’s happening,” she said. “And it will enrich a lot of lives who come through town.”

But it wasn’t always the easiest road to navigate.

“It’s been a long journey and it’s been a struggle at times,” Belletete said. “But there’s been just a lot of really good people that wanted to see it happen, see the theater come back to life. It’s been a long time coming and for a small town that’s meant a lot of hard work to get to this point.”

The old building could house 720 patrons, but as Hollister said, “it was pretty tight, pretty crowded.” The new Park Theatre consists of two spaces to see both movies and live performances, including the Epps Auditorium, which seats 330 and includes a 17-speaker surround system and a 27-foot wide screen.

“I think people are going to be very impressed,” Jackson said.

There’s also the 77-seat King Auditorium located upstairs, named for Michael B. King, a former restoration committee member.

Hollister remembers going to the old theater on many occasions for a movie as a young girl, making the walk from the family home just two and a half miles away. It had its quirks, with no hot water and just two bathrooms.

“That was the era where you went before you went,” she said.

The performing arts center might be brand new, but there are odes to the former space. There are four historic murals of Mount Monadnock that were saved that depicted the view from the towns around the mountain during the four seasons of the year painted by New Hampshire muralist Carl Eric Nelson in 1941 and are now displayed. One of the original seats is prominently displayed and posters from the lobby were carefully cared for.

“I hope everybody will appreciate the history we have preserved,” Hollister said.

A new addition is a 288-panel mosaic titled The Fifth Mountain Mural, with each individual tile painted by a local artist. Hollister called it “a wonderful work of art.”

The fundraising endeavor was daunting, as more than $6 million has been raised for the project from north of 1,000 donors. In recent times, people have stepped up to help fill out the equipment needs through a gift registry, something Jackson said was crucial to opening.

Hollister said she decided to step away because the theater was in such good and capable hands. Hollister worked tirelessly for many years to bring The Park Theatre back “to be part of the community just as it was.”

“It was central to Jaffrey for so many years,” she said. “Now we’ve given it back and it was built with a lot of love and care.”

To celebrate the rebirth, The Park Theatre will show two classic films after the ribbon cutting on Thursday at 11 a.m. as part of a “Quarter Day” in the two auditoriums, including “Field of Dreams” and the 1950 Walt Disney production of “Cinderella.” The ticket price will be 25 cents for either film. Popcorn for those films will be 10 cents. Regular movies will begin Thursday evening with “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” in the Eppes auditorium and “The Green Knight,” in the King auditorium.

New programming is being scheduled all the time, Jackson said, and includes the first live performance with the Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki Trio on Aug. 13 and a documentary put together by Jackson titled “Last Boat From Bordeaux” on Aug. 11. Other upcoming events include collaborations with Electric Earth Concerts, Peterborough Folk Music and the Keene Chorale.

For up to date information on programming, visit https://theparktheatre.org/.


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