Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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History in the Making: Legacy Theatre Renovation Underway


Keely Baisden Knudsen, co-founder and Artistic Director of The Legacy Theatre, poses with a rendering of the renovated theatre, in front of the Stony Creek building where work is now underway. 

Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound

Keely Baisden Knudsen, co-founder and Artistic Director of The Legacy Theatre, poses with a rendering of the renovated theatre, in front of the Stony Creek building where work is now underway. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound)

Call it history in the making: within the original walls of its historic home, the new Legacy Theatre is rising in Stony Creek. Zip06/The Sound recently joined Legacy co-founder and Artistic Director Keely Baisden Knudsen at the construction site at 128 Thimble Island Road, where work is underway to retain the envelope of the historic 1903 theater building and bring in a state-of-the-art venue that will continue a tradition of the arts in Stony Creek.

If all goes according to schedule, the theatre should be completed and open for use in mid-November, 2020, said Knudsen.

"The most exciting part to this construction is that it has an end – and the end is November 9," according to the builder's current timeline, said Knudsen. "We are cautiously optimistic, and if everything goes well, we'll probably do our opening gala on Saturday, November 14 and announce our 2021 season from the stage."

But for those who can't wait to see what it's going to look like inside, a virtual tour of this premiere Arts house is up and running at the theatre's website, www.legacytheatrect.org. The tour's remarkable views have been created by Legacy's theater design firms Wyeth Architects and GWG Architects.

Viewers will see the new theatre as it will appear once the work is complete, from seating to the stage to the accessible tech booth. Having an accessible booth is "really unusual" for historic theatres, Knudsen notes – but especially perfect here, as Legacy includes among its programs Wheel Life Theatre Troupe, for those with mobile disabilities.

Knudsen, a Guilford resident, incorporated non-profit Legacy Theatre in June of 2011 and, with co-founder Stephanie Stiefel Williams, led Legacy's purchase of the building in 2012. The professional theatre company's mission is to "enhance the shoreline's economy, educational opportunities and quality of life through live theatre and related programs [and] provide uplifting, inspiring, and challenging professional theatre and theatre training for all," as stated at www.legacytheatrect.org

Restoring a Legacy

In many ways, the restoration intends to deliver a state-of-the-art neighborhood theater arts center while upholding its historic legacy. After all, this the building where Orson Welles mounted his production of a William Gillette play, "Too Much Johnson" in the summer of 1938.  Beginning in 1963, the theatre began its last, best arts run as the Stony Creek Puppet House, home to famed Sicilian marionettes puppeteered by Stony Creek Puppet House founders Jimmy Weil and Salvatore Macri and later, puppeteer Joel Davis. The building fell into decline in the 1990's and was shuttered in 2009, before Legacy came to its rescue.

"The name Legacy had come to me far before we even found the building," said Knudsen. "So it feels like, somehow, I'm the one that's supposed to pass this legacy on."

When it comes to recognizing this building's history, and its location in the heart of a residential shoreline village that draws tourists to its summer scene, Knudsen says she comes to the role as an "outsider" guided by the input of those who knew it best.

"I recognize that, and I've always just really wanted to pay homage to that; and let people guide me. That's what we did in terms of the business plan [and] the stipulated agreement in terms of how many shows we are going to be doing, the parking and all that," said Knudsen.

Currently, a quick 10-question survey at the Legacy's website is seeking to gather input from folks about the elements they think make for a great theater experience, and other suggestions.

"We'd love to hear from them. Right now, it's kind of a clean slate, and we've love to set the scene, so to speak, correctly," said Knudsen.

One of the exciting plans Legacy has in the works is a special way of incorporating tributes to the building's past, including one dedicated to the founders of the puppet theater.

"We have these windows on the theatre that we're going to use as historic eras of the theatre. One of them is dedicated to the Sicilian puppets and to Jimmy Weil, Sal Macri and [puppeteer] Joel Davis; and everything that they did," said Knudsen.

Construction work was well underway on Feb. 16, 2020, when Davis passed away. According to information published by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven (newhavearts.org), which Knudsen posted in tribute on the construction fence outside the theatre, together with a bouquet of flowers, Davis was just 13 when he started training with Weil to work the marionettes. Davis went on to become Weil's general manager and join him in the struggle to keep the theatre running as it fell into decline in the 1990's. Davis also continued to teach the art to others for several years after Weil's passing in 2013.

"Now, with the passing of Joel Davis, there's just so many stories. There's so many memories here," said Knudsen.

Fundraising Continues

Over the past seven years,Legacy Theatre's board of directors has been working to raise the $3.2 million needed for the theatre project.  Legacy has raised $2.2 million to date, said Knudsen. The goal now is to "close the gap" on the remaining amount.  Once those funds are secured, a pending award from the CT Trust for Historic Preservation will reimburse Legacy for 20 percent of the project's hard costs.

Naming opportunities include a $350,000 stage-naming as well as several $2,500 naming opportunities (all naming commitments can be pledged over five years). Knudsen has also been reaching out to potential supporters well beyond the borders of Stony Creek, Branford and the shoreline area.

"Because it's such a historically important building for people such as the Welles fans of the world, we're really hoping to widen the pool," said Knudsen, who also thanks all of those individuals, groups, organizations and foundations which have supported the effort to date.

"We've been so grateful for all the generosity that's gotten us this far. It's been unbelievable," she said.

Even without its theatre home, this organization has already made an impact on the area. Since 2011, the Legacy Theatre has provided more than 7,000 individuals with over 60 theatrical productions, numerous classes, workshops, and in-school programs. Knudsen also thanks audiences and sponsors who have been supporting Legacy performances throughout the years, from cabarets to plays and musicals held at various locations on the shoreline, including those at nearby Stony Creek Museum.  Legacy's upcoming schedule of programs includes a fun evening at Woodwinds in Branford on March 26, 6 p.m. Following dinner and a song serenade by Knudsen and Williams, playwright Kevin Daly will give a ready of his new, award-winning comedy "Where is Everybody?" with actors Thomas Schwans and Michael Sayers. Tickets and more information at www.legacytheatrect.org/shows

Traffic-Stopping Exposure

The project's traffic-stopping, building-opening exposure first appeared mid-February, when workers removed the exterior wooden panels of the theatre façade, leaving a gaping (albeit fenced off) view into the cavernous theatre space fronting 128 Thimble Island Road. The façade's wood was catalogued and numbered and is being refurbished, on its way to being replaced to remake the historic front entrance as part of the restoration.

While the 1903 theatre building envelope will remain intact, interior demolition and excavation has taken the area inside the completely down to the bedrock. Concrete footings and wall framing will be shaping up throughout March. The façade's wooden exterior is anticipated to be buttoned up during the month of March as well.

Pam Johnson covers news for Branford and North Branford for Zip06. Email Pam at p.johnson@shorepublishing.com.

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