Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Tale of Two Palaces

Broadway’s BT McNicholl New Producing Artistic Director.
Stamford’s Palace Theatre recently named Broadway’s BT McNicholl New Producing Artistic Director.

The 1,580-seat Palace Theatre is dedicated to performing arts of all genres - music, dance, theater and comedy. In addition to hosting world-renowned performers in each of those fields, The Palace partners with arts organizations like the Stamford Symphony and Connecticut Ballet for their performances.

Stepping into a position originally held by legendary impresario Alexander H. Cohen (founder of the Tony Awards telecast), McNicholl will oversee productions at the historic 1927 Palace and a soon-to-be-completed Off-Broadway-sized playhouse.
"After talking with Mike Nichols, James Lapine and other theatrical luminaries — all of whom spoke highly of BT’s artistry and professionalism — we felt he would be a perfect match for the organization’s bold new initiatives,” said Stamford Center for the Arts and Palace Board Chair Mike Widland.

McNicholl has had a prolific career as director and writer in the U.S. and internationally.

Winner of the Australian “Tony” for Best Direction, he has also staged record-setting runs in Paris and Madrid.

A BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Award winning writer, McNicholl’s work with the Roundabout, MGM, Shubert Organization, O’Neill Theatre Center as well as hit productions for The Goodspeed Opera House, Walnut Street Theatre and others have poised him for success on this new venture.

The Palace is dedicated to providing exciting entertainment that enriches the cultural, educational, economic and social life of the community.
When Judy Garland sang that "you haven't made it until you've played the Palace", she was singing of another Palace, the famed Palace Theater on Broadway.

The Palace Theatre is a Broadway theatre located at 1564 Broadway (at West 47th Street) in midtown Manhattan, New York City. From 1913 through about 1929, the Palace attained legendary status among vaudeville performers as the flagship of the monopolistic Keith - Albee organization, and the most desired booking in the country. Designed by Milwaukee architects Kirchoff and Rose, the 1,740-seat theatre was funded by Martin Beck, a vaudeville entrepreneur based in San Francisco, in an attempt to challenge Keith-Albee's east-coast monopoly. Albee in turn demanded that Beck turn over three-quarters ownership to use acts from the Keith circuit. Beck took the deal, and was in charge of the booking.

When the theater finally opened on March 24, 1913 with headliner Ed Wynn, it was not an instant success. It lost money for months.

The theater is notorious, too, for its enormous and difficult-to-sell second balcony in which nearly every seat has an obstructed view. Soon, though, the Palace became the premiere venue of the Keith-Albee circuit.

The theater owner Albee sometimes traded on the performers' desire for this goal by forcing acts to take a pay cut for the privilege. Even so, to "play the Palace" meant that an entertainer had reached the pinnacle of his vaudeville career.

Three Vaudevillians: Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger ALL Played The Palace
Actor Jack Haley and actress Lois Smith in 1977

Performer Jack Haley, Judy Garland's Tin Man, wrote:
"Only a vaudevillian who has trod its stage can really tell you about it... only a performer can describe theanxieties, the joys, the anticipation, and the exultation of a week's engagement at the Palace.

The walk through the iron gate on 47th Street through the courtyard to the stage door, was the cum laude walk to a show business diploma. A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theaters in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it.
Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of Variety success."

With the Great Depression came a rise in the popularity of film and radio, and vaudeville began its decline. The transformation of all of Keith-Albee-Orpheum's vaudeville houses into movie houses through a merger with RCA and the Film Booking Office at the hands of Joseph P. Kennedy in 1929, was a major blow but did allow many to see their favorite radio performers of the day on the Palace stage.

The Palace Theatre, circa 1920

In 1929 the two-a-day Palace shows were increased to three. By 1932, the Palace moved to four shows a day and lowered its admission price.

In November of that year, it was re branded the "RKO Palace" and converted to a cinema.

Appearing on the closing bill when the venue ended its stage policy were Nick Lucas and Hal Le Roy.

There was a brief return to a live revue format in 1936, when Broadway producer Nils Granlund staged a series of variety shows beginning with Broadway Heat Wave featuring female orchestra leader Rita Rio. Finally in 1957 the Palace, succumbing to the popularity of television, gave up stage presentations with its films and began a straight film policy, beginning with James Cagney starring in A Man of A Thousand Faces.

The RKO Picture Citizen Kane had its world premiere at the theatre on May 1, 1941.

In the early 1950's the theater was in grave danger of being demolished.

Beginning in 1949 under Sol Schwartz, the refurbished RKO Palace tried to single-handedly revive vaudeville, with a slate of eight acts before a feature film. It attracted acts like Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Lauritz Melchior, Betty Hutton, and Harry Belafonte.

Judy Garland staged a record-breaking 19-week comeback here in October 1951.

While the shows were successful, they did not lead to a revival of the format. (No Copyright infringement intended. Source: Wikipedia)

As if it was a perfect storm on the horizon, Judy Garland's career was considered washed up after she was fired from MGM after years of quality movie making. After leaving MGM, Judy met, fell in love, and eventually married tough talking Sid Luft. He came up with the bright idea of taking Judy back to her roots, as a stage entertainer...with a major touch of vaudeville. She had toured the vaudeville circuit as part of the Gumm Sisters (her family name) before she became Judy Garland.

Luft first put her on the stage at the London Palladium to huge audience and critical acclaim.

Her next stop would be the Palace Theater on Broadway.

She would eventually return for two more engagements. In 1965, the Nederlander Organization purchased the Palace from RKO Theatres.On January 29, 1966, the Palace reopened as a legitimate theatre with the original production of the musical Sweet Charity, although for a period of time it showed films and presented concert performances by Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Josephine Baker, Eddie Fisher, Shirley MacLaine, Diana Ross, Vikki Carr, and the like between theatrical engagements.
Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret

I have seen many shows there over the years including Liza in two shows.. The very first Broadway show I saw was at The Palace.

It was the 1979 Broadway revival of Oklahoma! starring Christine Andreas and Laurence Guittard.
Currently Annie is finishing its run there.(It closes January 5th, 2014). In the late 1980s, a towering hotel was built above the theater, cantilevered over the auditorium; today, the theater is practically invisible behind an enormous wall of billboards and under the skyscraper, and only the marquee is visible. The Palace Theater was part of a circuit of theaters in major cities around the country the Palace Theater in Stamford is another Palace that I love. Running into my dear friend, Lynn DiMenna recently, she very excitedly had news to share with me about the future of the theater.

Lynn has been on the theater’s board and their gala chairman for five years.

Stamford’s Palace Theatre, with a rich and storied tradition of presenting the best in regional arts and entertainment, now embarks on its next exciting chapter with the appointment of new Producing Artistic Director, BT McNicholl.

I went to the Palace theater in Stamford last year to see the amazing Marilyn Maye and Billy Stritch.
Lynn produced that show, coupling it with a master class by Ms Maye. She has also produced a Broadway/Cabaret/Jazz Series this year called Perfect Pairs at The Palace in which two artists with different styles come together for what has already proven to be three very successful evenings. Marilyn Maye and Houston Person will close the series on January 22, 2014 and the series will continue in the fall of 2014.
Cabaret legend, Marilyn Maye, and tenor sax great Houston Person

Under the visionary direction of BT  McNicholl, a veteran of the Broadway theater community, the Palace intends to escalate the breadth and depth of its programming for Stamford and surrounding areas.

Lynn and I sat down to discuss the theater...where it has been, where it is, and where she envisions its future with McNicholl at the helm.

It truly is a family love fest with the Palace Theater.
Ray Giallongo, Cheryl Palmer, John DiMenna, Lynn DiMenna

Lynn's husband, John, is a major property owner in downtown Stamford, most specifically 1 Atlantic Street, the office building on the corner of Broad and Atlantic.
His company, Seaboard Properties, owns The Courtyard Marriott nearby and is presently building a new Residence Inn right next to the Palace Theater. Given this part of his portfolio, what happens at The Palace Theater impacts his properties rather directly.
Lynn and her daughter, Meredith, both performers themselves, went on the board of the Stamford Center for the Arts organization that houses The Palace Theater venue about five years ago bringing with them a passion for the performing arts in general. Lynn's husband came on board a few years later becoming the president of the board only recently. For their parts, it has been a collaborative effort. He has the contacts in Stamford. Lynn and Meredith have the energy, the ideas, and the New York/Connecticut musical community contacts.
The theater has had many ups and downs since the beginning with Alexander Cohen at the helm. The
Alexander H. Cohen
previous executive director had a "vision" that did not connect with many on the board.

She was replaced with the man who had been the operations manager at the Stamford Center for the Arts for a very long time. He knew the facility very well but recognized that they needed help with programming.

Once the need for an artistic director was discussed, a search  committee was put in place. Several months into that process, something fortuitous happened to Lynn on the corner of 54th Street and 8th in NYC on her way to see Marilyn Maye at 54 Below.

She recognized BT McNicholl from behind! He was so talented in high school that he also performed with adults in local community theater productions. That was how Lynn got to know him and she kept a close eye on him over the years.
Lo and behold, and thanks to the internet and the grapevine, she heard he was involved in Spamalot and Billy Elliot and Cabaret all on Broadway and that he had been working with Mike Nichols on both coasts.
Having good facial recognition (even from behind!), when she saw BT standing on 54th Street, she called out to him, and needless to say he was taken aback!
She quickly told him that there might be an ideal position for him at The Palace Theater in Stamford. His eyes widened and, from that moment on, he passed through the interview and vetting process with flying colors.
He has now officially taken over as the producing artistic director along with Mike Moran who is the managing executive director.
They will share their responsibilities and both will report to the board. Since they have entirely two different areas of expertise, they both recognize that working together will ultimately lead to the greatest success for The Palace.  
Billy Elliot Anniversary – Stephen Daldry – B.T. McNicholl

BT has a youthful enthusiasm that is a welcome asset to the board. He is used to the 24/7 kind of schedule that goes along with a position like this and his first "coup" was to secure Jerry Seinfeld for this year’s gala on April 4th. Lynn will be its’ chairman for the fifth year in a row. Past entertainers have included Dave Brubeck, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, and last year’s Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Seinfeld is everything they could hope for with a gala of this magnitude within BT's first year as artistic director.

with Maureen Moore BroadwayWorld.com
Suffice to say, The Palace Theater’s previous programming did not always meet the expectations for most on the board and/or the mission of the venue. As a result, the theater was not open as often as it needed to be and was certainly not taking full advantage of a thriving downtown Stamford. One of the biggest challenges facing all arts venues in the 21st century is building and maintaining an audience when there are SO MANY other entertainment OPTIONS to choose from.
The Palace Theater in Stamford is no exception. The bottom line is that programming is needed that people will come to and support. In Fairfield County and lower Connecticut, audiences do have a lot of options.
The Palace Theater needs to make sure that they provide dazzling programming to compete with all these other theaters and maintain a consistency in those program offerings with smaller series' that appeal to a broader community, not only to Stamford but also to the smaller towns around, which is where the cabaret  series comes in. It's an older audience but it's a very vital audience.
Michael O'Donnell (Associate Director, Co-Choreographer), Andrea Christine Leigh (Co-Choreographer), BT McNicholl (Director) and Joe Masteroff. Photo by Bobby Munster

As mentioned earlier, Lynn's “baby” is this cabaret series called Perfect Pairs at The Palace. The theater’s board has moved beyond some of the previous obstacles and his been extremely supportive of her efforts to bring the best performers from New York to Stamford for local audiences to enjoy.

Mike Moran, in particular, has helped to create an intimate “club atmosphere” on the Harman Stage
Christine Pedi recently played Stamford's Palace
where the audience can feel “up, close and personal” with the performers. With free parking, prix fixe dinners at area restaurants, reasonable ticket prices and a complimentary martini, it’s one of the best deals in town!
He has also tried to tap into various other sectors of the community that were not being served. Since it is a 1500 seat theater and not always easy to fill, one of the goals has been to utilize the many nooks and crannies of the theater for smaller intimate events. A new series called Studio 61 has also recently been launched, named after the address 61 Atlantic Street.

This will present the younger local artists in the area in a cabaret style atmosphere. It will offer a hipper look and a hipper logo.
Audiences will be treated to a relatively inexpensive ticket. There are so many artists in the area. They are ready to be heard but until now have had no place to be heard.
That will fill a huge need. This series is already doing very well.

At present, there is a very strong board in place and a sense of enthusiasm and optimism for the future. That said, every performing arts center, no question, struggles with the same issues. The close proximity of The Palace Theater to New York has also been considered a challenge but BT sees it very differently. He sees it as an advantage and as an opportunity. He has a very broad vision, having worked in ALL areas of entertainment including for the Disney Corporation. According to BT, these stages will be teeming with artists engaged in large productions, small plays and new works that will continually entertain, engage and enlighten their audiences.

He has "been there, done that" says Lynn, so she is mindful of that song, "How you gonna keep them down on the farm..." questioning further…”Why would he want to come back to Stamford?” The answer… he grew up going to events at The Palace Theater with his family and has a great love for its magnificent space and it’s potential as a major, regional performing arts center.

BT lives in Manhattan. He also has a home in Garrison, New York, where portions of Hello, Dolly were filmed. He will be commuting back and forth to Stamford. Fortunately, he is used to long hours and has a work ethic that is a requirement for the position he holds. It’s one more reason why everyone is so excited to have him on the SCA team!

There is a Yiddish expression "beshert" which means “meant to be.”
Since it is quite rare to find in an artistic director someone who operates and understands both sides of running a performing arts organization, "the bottom line" along with an equally strong creative vision, for Lynn, bumping into BT was a “beshert” moment indeed! To her, BT and Mike, represent one more “perfect pair” and, as far as she’s concerned, as the other song goes…”who could ask for anything more?”

Thank you all of the artists mentioned in this blog for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give! Thank you Lynn DiMenna and Wikipedia and for the contents of this blog. 

 With grateful XOXOXs ,

Check out my site celebrating Hello, Dolly!
Courtesy: Margo Feiden Gallery

I desire this to be the definitive Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at Richard@RichardSkipper.com.


Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    

Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!

I hope you can join us February 16th in NYC as we celebrate Eileen Fulton to benefit Habitat For Humanity! Would LOVE to see you! Bring friends! It’s going to be star-studded party!
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