Sunday September 23, 2012

LENOX

Let the good times roll. That's the feeling following a summer tourist season widely described as the best since the glory days prior to the Great Recession.

With a cornucopia of harvest season festivals and fairs under way this weekend from North Adams south to Lenox and points beyond, fall foliage forecasts are equally upbeat.

It's no coincidence that, aided by strong programming and dynamic leadership, two of the area's prominent cultural and entertainment landmarks are celebrating their return from the near-dead.

Just three years ago, Shakespeare & Company and The Mount, home of the Edith Wharton Restoration, were dangling by a thread, on the brink of bankruptcy, foreclosure and imminent shutdown as they tried not to drown in debt.

With the help of remarkably generous donors for both Lenox institutions, as well as dedication to a slate of events designed to attract repeat visitors as well as newcomers, both patients are out of intensive care and well along the road to recovery.

At Shakespeare & Company, this summer's conclusion of a $6 million capital campaign, aided by mega-contributions by the estate of Elayne P. Bernstein and by Founding Director Tina Packer, is credited for stemming what had been a cascade of red ink.

While a long-term, refinanced mortgage on the 33-acre campus remains, as well as pending renovations or replacements for several derelict buildings left over from previous owners, the troupe is on an even keel, balancing its budget after belt-tightening in recent years and stellar results at the box office.

During a recent chat, Artistic Director Tony Simotes enthused over a new box-office record, now near $1.4 million for a season that still has three productions waiting in the wings. The ticket tally is 22 percent ahead of last year's pace, and total attendance should be well over 50,000 when the books are closed in March.

An adaptation of "The 39 Steps," based in part on Alfred Hitchcock's well-remembered cinematic murder mystery, has just begun performances and runs through Nov. 4. In December, "The Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris returns, followed by a comedy, "The Liar," in February and March.

Also raising the theater's profile is its enhanced role as a community center and home for special events such as today's BrockTrot charity race and next weekend's Lenox debut of the Berkshire Arts Festival.

At The Mount, Executive Director Susan Wissler remains cautious about finances, although less than half of its onetime $9 million debt remains. Under her leadership, special programs such as last weekend's Berkshire WordFest, ongoing Friday night Ghost Tours and other upcoming Halloween season attractions help keep the cash flowing.

The restored mansion and lushly landscaped gardens have turned out to be a big draw for weddings -- 14 of them this year compared to four last year. On Columbus Day weekend, there's a lecture and demonstration performance of a new opera based on Wharton's tragic "Ethan Frome," set in the Berkshires, as well as Berkshire Coaching Day.

The Mount continues to benefit from reinvigorated fundraising through an expanded board led by Lila Berle, back as chairwoman, and infusions of cultural-facilities support from the state.

The survival of these two former basket cases is worth cheering, not only on their own merits but also because they help draw in visitors and residents to keep the county's No. 2 industry, hospitality, prospering despite a still-struggling economy.

Eagle staffer Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6247.