Friday, October 23, 2015

Barbarians At The Gate


by Nick Paleologos

As the proud parent of an Emerson student and a longtime patron of Boston’s magnificent Colonial Theater, I must confess that President Pelton’s recent op-ed piece in the Boston Globe and his half-hearted justification for the college’s “Colonial Cafeteria Plan” left me totally confused.

“It is clear,” he asserted, “that maintaining the Colonial for its intended purpose is no longer viable.” Really?

According to Variety, Broadway’s 2014-2015 season
smashed all-time box-office attendance records attracting more than 13 million patrons who shelled out $1.37 billion (yes billion) in a 52 week frame.

Meanwhile, President Pelton says “the landscape for theater is undergoing a transformation.” Indeed it is. More people paid more money to see Broadway shows this year, than at any other time in the history of the American theater---except apparently at the Colonial in Boston.

I for one will need a bit more convincing before swallowing—hook, line, and sinker--his argument that the Colonial Theater, as we have come to love it, is no longer a “viable” institution because of a “changing landscape.” President Pelton himself admits that it wasn’t commercial producers who shunned the Colonial, but rather the other way around. Still more mystifying, he seemed oddly proud of his refusal to renew the lease of a producer who clearly had a greater appreciation for the Colonial’s special place in the constellation of Boston cultural institutions over the past century than does President Pelton.

The Colonial Theater is the oldest continually operating theater in Boston. It opened its doors on December 20, 1900 with a production of Ben-Hur complete with eight live horses on stage at full gallop in the chariot race scene—a feat so technically advanced it was featured on the cover of Scientific American.

The world premier of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess took place at the Colonial in 1935. Colonial theatergoers were among the first to see Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma in 1943 when the working title was still Away We Go. The very first audience to see Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking musical Follies, was at the Colonial. Ditto A Little Night Music. In fact, it was during Night Music’s Colonial run that Stephen Sondheim—working between performances in a nearby Boston hotel---penned Send In The Clowns for Glynis Johns.

So when President Pelton tauts Emerson’s “well known commitment to advancing the theater arts in Boston” while showing virtually no appreciation for the storied history of its most venerable commercial house--whose stewardship is now his exclusive responsibility—his whole tone rings hollow.

By the way, offering up BU’s boneheaded decision to boot the Tony Award winning Huntington Theater Company out of their longtime home as justification for Emerson’s actions is worse than ridiculous. Its insulting. And speaking of the now homeless Huntington Theater Company, Emerson should offer them the Colonial. If Boston’s colleges—which pay no property taxes whatsoever—can’t even be counted upon to maintain some of the city’s most cherished cultural institutions, then who can?

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to understand fiscal reality. Which is why its hard to square Mr. Pelton's doomsday scenarios with the fact that more people bought tickets to Broadway shows this year than the combined home attendance of every single professional sports team in the New York tri-state area. Newsflash: Somebody is going to the theater.

If Emerson isn’t up to the challenge of owning a cultural landmark in the Athens of America, then they should step aside and let someone else do it. But chopping it up into some developer’s idea of a glorified college cafetorium with a so-called inspiring “front porch” on Boylston Street is not an option.