The Mayo Performing Arts Center, which kicks off its 20th season on Sept. 19, 2014, with Broadway stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Kelli O’Hara, has seen many memorable performances over these last two decades.
One of the most remarkable–and least heralded–is a magic act worthy of Houdini or David Copperfield.
Nearly every day this summer, Paul Larena and his construction crew have been re-building the lobby, as part of a $2 million facelift for a venue born in 1937 as a movie palace called the Community Theatre.
Nearly every evening this summer, Larena’s workers, tools, building materials and construction debris have vanished without a trace–just in time for the arrival of hundreds of patrons for that night’s show.
How challenging has that been?
“You have no idea. When we started, I had hair,” Larena deadpanned on a recent afternoon. “She keeps booking more shows. We keep working harder and harder.”
“She” is Allison Larena, the president and CEO of MPAC, who also happens to be his wife. Allison Larena just smiled at his joke, and resumed trading last-minute design suggestions with her husband as he aligned the new MPAC sign over the new bar, which is framed by two new video screens, in front of a new carpet, under a re-painted ceiling with new LED lighting, near a new “history wall” exhibit space.
Allison expressed confidence that the lobby would beship-shape for opening night. (And you think your marriage has pressure!)
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BUSY, BUSY, BUSY
These are busy times at the Mayo Center, which is saying a lot for a place that presents upwards of 200 shows a year.
On Friday, Sept. 26, the theater will host best-selling author William Cohan, keynote speaker of the first Morristown Festival of Books.
On Sunday, Sept. 28, MPAC will stage Community Day, in association with the Morristown Festival on the Green. From noon to 5 pm, the theater will host free outdoor concerts, a performance by the Teen Performing Arts Company, theater tours, giveaways and more.
The next evening, Sept. 29, at 7 o’clock, the Performing Arts Company returns for a ribbon-cutting to commemorate the theater’s first concert in 1994, and to showcase all the front-of-house improvements. Twenty-one young members of the ensemble will sing It Feels Like Home, composed for the occasion by Tony-nominated composer Keith Hermann (Romance/Romance).
And in January, the theater welcomes back Valery Gergiev, the Russian conductor whose 1994 concert–arranged by the late Alexander Slobodyanik, an elite pianist who lived in Morristown– galvanized volunteers to restore the crumbling venue into the world-class venue it is today.
Some $16 million of donations were raised in three campaigns over the years. The most recent drive, spearheaded by fundraising chairman Joseph Goryeb, is responsible for an electronic marquee, new box office, expanded restrooms, an elevator to the balcony and of course, the sparkling lobby.
For architect Andrew Passacantando, the trick was modernizing the facility within constraints imposed by its geography–while retaining the iconic feel of the Community Theatre. Rest rooms were not a high priority in the 1930s; the number has been tripled, and the only way to achieve that was by expanding towards South Street.
Passacantando did not dare mess with the beloved Greco-Roman columns that have beckoned generations of patrons. So two symmetrical side additions were created–one for ladies rooms, the other for the ticket office.
“We put greenhouses atop the new additions, so you don’t realize they are windowless buildings,” he said. Swirling ceiling and carpet patterns were introduced to the lobby as hints of its art deco past.
Keith Hermann’s new song, It Feels Like Home, is appropriate for this transformation, said Allison Larena, who remembered the theater as a “diamond in the rough” when she was hired in 2002.
In those days, merchandise was Scotch-taped to lobby mirrors, the box office consisted of a little Formica booth and concessions amounted to cans of soda and beer dispensed from a table, Paul Larena recounted.
Re-named for benefactor Bud Mayo, the center now draws some 200,000 visitors annually to see stars old and new, from Tony Bennett and Ringo Starr to first-rate in-house youth productions of Hairspray and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. These visitors pump $14 million into the local economy, by the theater’s estimate.
“People feel like this is a part of the family when they come here,” Allison Larena said of the Mayo Center. “That’s the most exciting part of what we do here.”