Sunday February 3, 2013

GREAT BARRINGTON

The indefatigable Lola Jaffe never has been one to let grass grow beneath her feet.

Now in her 80s -- a grudging, hard-won acknowledgment of time -- she can often be seen in her reserved seat at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, which she founded 11 years ago. She's just as likely to be in New York taking in Broadway shows or a music or dance concert -- alone, or with friends, or with Berkshire high school students she sponsors under the auspices of the Anne Levinson Fund for Experiencing the Arts, named after her mother.

"One of the ways of surviving is not dwelling on age," she says. "I'm proud of what I'm still doing. My energies haven't diminished."

Jaffe's proudest achievement, she says, is the reclamation of the dusty shell of an old movie theater as a 690-seat year-round performing arts venue that brings 40,000 people through its doors annually. They come for a mix of live performances, film events and HD simulcasts and telecasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and National Theatre in London.

"Considering where we started from, a deserted theater," she said, "not knowing how it would be done, I'm very proud of what the Mahaiwe stands for, what we offer the community the year round; the work of our staff and our executive director, Beryl Jolly, who's been incredibly astute about the theater's needs, not only financially, but artistically.


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Now, after 11 years as the Mahaiwe's founding chair, Jaffe has stepped down.

"Eleven years is enough for one person," she said by phone from the New York apartment that is her home away from the Stockbridge house she bought in 1968 with her husband, Edwin A. Jaffe, who died in 2007.

"She is so much a part of the Mahaiwe," says Maggie Buchwald, Jaffe's successor. "As chair, I want to maintain the standards she has set."

"Lola will always be our founder and remain an active member of the board of directors moving forward," Jolly said by email. "Lola and Maggie have worked together as chair and vice chair for [four] years and share a deep commitment to excellence."

It didn't come easily, Jaffe said. When the Berkshire Opera, of which she was board chair, dropped its plans to make the Mahaiwe its permanent home, Jaffe saw other possibilities.

"At that time," she said, "everything in the Berkshires was open only about 10 weeks. But there are people who live here the year round. I felt there needed to be a venue for live performance the year round. I wasn't interested in another summer venue."

With the invaluable help of John Hoyt Stookey, retired chairman of Quantum Chemical Corp. and chairman of Suburban Propane LLC, Jaffe raised the $9.5 milliom needed to restore the Mahaiwe.

She did it in stages, "baby steps," she said. "It was scary. I had never raised this kind of money before. But in order to do this, I had to make people believe I could do it."

With a mischievous chuckle, after a well-timed pause, she added, "I did go to acting school."

Indeed she did, at Carnegie Tech -- now Carnegie Mellon University -- in Pittsburugh.

Early exposure to arts

Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx only five blocks from Yankee Stadium, Jaffe grew up as the only child of a single mother who loved the arts. At the age of 6, she began studying piano. She and her mother listened to the opera on the radio. They went to movies and live theater.

When she was old enough, she went to theater on her own, preferring 50-cent standing room to full-price seats.

She spoke with a tinge of marvel at all she had been exposed to. And when her four children -- Walter, Allan, Robert, Donna -- were old enough, she did for them what her mother had done for her.

She's done the same for other children through her foundation.

Moved to Berkshires

The Jaffes became familiar with Berkshires on trips from their home in Fall River -- where her husband's business, J & J Corrugated Box Corporation, was located -- to visit their son, Allan, at Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn.

"Ed wanted a place he could get away to," she said. "Most of the people who lived in Falls River used to go to the Cape. We were not beach people.

"We loved the Berkshires. It had everything we all liked; the kind of cultural activity we all enjoyed."

In 1986, she joined the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival board and her husband became involved with Berkshire Theatre Festival, serving as a trustee and, later, managing its archives. He would also launch a campaign to create the South Berkshire Community Center and serve as its founding chair for several years.

In 1988, two years after he sold his business and with all the children in college, the Jaffes sold their Fall River house and moved to the Berkshires full time.

Looking back on her 11 years as the Mahaiwe's founding chair, Lola Jaffe said one of the toughest decisions she and the board had to make was letting go of the first artistic director, Jonathan Secor.

"He was wonderful," she said sincerely and graciously, "and he is having deserved success [as director of special programs] at MCLA [Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams], but it was the wrong mix of programming for us.

"But it's how you should try things," she said. "The only thing that makes me sad is when the theater is dark."

To reach Jeffrey Borak:
jborak@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6212.
On Twitter: @BE_Theater