Monday, August 14
For decades, the Colonial Theatre symbolized Pittsfield's glamorous but forgotten past, a silent sentinel that people drove by on South Street without really noticing. In recent years, the Colonial symbolized a paralyzing divisiveness born of political posturing and the suspicion that any effort to better the city was some kind of attempt by an ill-defined elite to fleece the working man.

Today, with the Colonial (subject of a special section in today's Eagle) close to its grand re-opening, the theater may soon enjoy another incarnation as a symbol — that of a downtown renaissance that will drive an improved Pittsfield economy, and by extension give a shot in the arm to the Berkshires.

Pittsfield's North Street area declined along with GE's slow, painful pullout, and if downtown is to come back it will be to a large extent through cultural tourism. Happily for the city it is in the middle of a hotbed of cultural tourism, even though in a case of reverse snobbery, Pittsfield has long clung to its blue-collar image and sneered at its effete neighbors to the south. That had to change and slowly it has, with the Colonial Theatre emerging at the core of the newly reinvented downtown.

It hasn't been easy. Its days first as a venue for live theater and concerts and later a movie house apparently over, the Colonial almost certainly would have gone the way of Pittsfield's glorious train station if had not been for George M. Miller, who bought it in 1952. Mr. Miller and later his son, Stephen, ran an art supply store in a portion of the building, allowing the great theater to sit largely undisturbed, waiting for the day when the house lights would blaze again.

Robert Boland kept the Colonial fires burning throughout the '90s. He founded the Friends of the Colonial Theatre Restoration, a nonprofit group that began raising money for the project in 1997, and in 1998, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton gave the theater project a boost by visiting it as part of her "Save America's Treasures" tour.

It appeared the project would succumb to Pittsfield politics when the city-formed Colonial Theatre Association and the Friends clashed over primacy. Considerable ugliness ensued, but in retrospect both the Friends and the Association proved instrumental in the Colonial's success. Among the key players in the Colonial's revival are former Mayors Gerald Doyle and Anne Wojtkowski; state Senator Andrea F. Nuciforo; former Colonial Theatre Association Presidents Joyce Bernstein and Teddi Laurin; founding CTA board member and President Gary Scarafoni; Board of Trustees Vice President and construction supervisor Michael MacDonald; former executive director Susan Sperber; and Susan Harrison, the former interim executive director.

The project's slow pace and the political infighting earned it skeptics, as did consistently rising costs. The final $21.6 million price tag includes about $14 million in taxpayer money, which has prompted critics to bemoan public spending on what they perceive to be a project with little public benefit. The City Council's decision to invest $1 million in General Electric development funds two years ago was controversial for this same reason, but the public money leveraged private donations, and the Council's vote was a vote of confidence in the project and the city. That public money will return to the city many times over if the Colonial reaches its potential.

Will it reach that potential? Similar theaters devoted to a wide variety of concerts and performances, as the Colonial will be, have triggered downtown revivals. The Colonial is relatively small at 810 seats, but few regional theaters will match its acoustics and physical beauty, and not many communities have the built-in audience of locals and tourists that the Colonial can draw from.

Though Colonial critics claim it will appeal only to the monied elite, the theater won't survive if that is the case, which Executive Director David Fleming and the Colonial board understand. It must attract a wide mix of patrons, as must Barrington Stage and the new downtown movie theater. If they are successful, new, appealing dining establishments will follow, a process that has already begun with Spice, among others. Put a renovated Berkshire Museum in the mix, add in the many other downtown art and cultural projects, as well as the new residents and small businesses filtering in thanks to a zoning change, and the long-awaited critical mass that will send shock waves through the Pittsfield economy will be reached.

More than a century old, but enjoying the bloom of youth, the Colonial Theatre stands poised to join Pittsfield's reinvented downtown. It's been a long wait but Ms. Clinton's "rare jewel" is set to shine again.