20 years later, Great Barrington's Triplex Theater lauded as driver of local economy
GREAT BARRINGTON >> At the beginning of Thursday night's celebration of the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Triplex Theater, many noted how unlikely it seemed 20 years ago that such a celebration would happen at all.
Even more unlikely, it might seem, is that 50 or so people would gather in one room to praise the work and leadership of Triplex co-founder Richard Stanley.
"There were times," he told the crowd on Thursday, "when I might have seemed a little arrogant."
"OK, maybe more than a little," he said.
Twenty years ago, Stanley and architect Joseph Wasserman of New Marlborough began the process of cleaning up what is now known as the Taconic parking lot, tearing down the burned out Bowlero building and construction a three-screen theater (it now has four screens).
Thursday's event at the Triplex was a celebration of that start. In addition to food and refreshments, and a large cake, there was a brief 10-minute documentary featuring photos and interviews with Stanley and Wasserman, who died in 2004.
In the process of building the Triplex, the two men revitalized the downtown area, revived the Chamber of Commerce and, 10 years ago, sponsored the first Berkshire International Film Festival, now one of the most popular events in South Berkshire County.
More than 1.8 million people have viewed more than 2,600 movies at the facility in that 20-year span.
"It became a catalyst for everything Great Barrington has become," said local businessman Steven Carlotta, who was conceded he was not initially in favor of the project, to Stanley. "The community and I appreciate your friendship."
"We thought you were out of your mind," added former Chamber of Commerce President Robert Razer. "But son of a gun, you and Joe did it."
Stanley said the catalyst for the Triplex and parking lot came in 1987, when the former Taconic Lumber and Supply Co. on Railroad Street burned down. Stanley and Wasserman saw a potential development opportunity, although admittedly one that would take a lot of work.
"Without the Taconic Lumber fire," said Stanley, "the Triplex doesn't happen."
Razer and many others emphasized, however, that the project was almost a perfect partnership of the public and private sector. The project merged state and federal grants with private money.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks, noted Rob Hoogs, then a member of the Planning Board, was getting all the property owners abutting the parking lot to give up their parking easements in the lot — at their expense.
"Getting easements from all those property owners was no small thing," Razer said. He estimated the entire process took about a year and a half.
"But the sense of community this project built was really amazing," he said.
That community wasn't always 100 percent in favor of the undertaking.
"This was not a project everyone supported, by a long shot," recalled former reporter Erik Bruun, who covered the project for The Eagle in its earlier days. "Not everyone thought this was a good idea."
In addition, said Hoogs, another roadblock was getting the electric and phone companies to agree to bury all the utility lines underground. The process required endless negotiations with various organizations, and is unlikely to be duplicated these days.
"No way that happens in 2015," Stanley said.
The lines were buried, Hoogs said, because prior to the fire, they crisscrossed back and forth across the parking lot in a huge, potentially hazardous, jumble.
Stanley and Wasserman found out fairly early that the federal government didn't give out grants to build parking lots. After considerable discussion, the two hit upon a theater as the anchor for the project.
"It took us a long time to figure out what to do there," Wasserman said in an interview in the documentary. "The idea of a movie theater came along fairly late in the process."
After completion, the Triplex spawned an economic revival that continues today.
"If you want to know how successful the Triplex has been, all you have to do is stand in the lobby and wait until a movie gets out," said town resident Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and an Eagle columnist. "And all you hear is people talking about where they're going to go to eat."
Ten years ago, movie enthusiast Kelly Vickery approached Stanley to request permission to host a film festival in the Berkshires on a weekend.
"And he said, 'That sounds great! I'll give you one screen,' " Vickery said.
Eventually, Vickery said, she and theater manager John Valente convinced Stanley to hand over the entire theater for a weekend. Now the Berkshire International Film Festival attracts filmmakers from throughout the world and draws thousands of moviegoers to Great Barrington.
"Without the Triplex, none of that would have been possible," she said.
"I've done a lot of projects on my own," said Stanley. "But this one, I could not have done on my own. This is the result of what happens when a community has a shared vision and acts on it."
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