GARDINER — In his first year at the helm of Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, Mike Miclon has built a new stage for the first floor and tripled the number of shows over the previous season.
But his sights, like the directors before him, are on the second and third floors of the 150-year-old performance hall.
Miclon, 46, standing in the expansive but derelict former opera hall on the third floor last week, said he and the board of the performing arts organization are committed to renovating and opening the potentially 400-seat space within five years.
The second and third floors, before Miclon held two cleaning days that cleared 15 tons of debris out of them, served as storage for the organization and a reminder of what could be for the performing arts center.
As a teenager, Miclon apprenticed with Benny and Denise Reehl, vaudeville performers who were part of the group that founded the arts organization in 1987.
The goal was to eventually renovate all the floors, and there have been several attempts over the years to finally complete it. Several obstacles, including the 2008 recession, derailed previous attempts. A planned capital campaign in 2011 never really got off the ground.
One of Miclon’s challenges, besides continuing to fill the first floor space with shows and attendees, is to demonstrate to people in the community and potential investors that the plan will move forward this time. His goal is to make some physical improvements, such as adding an elevator to the upper floors, to show people progress.
“We’ve got to convince people that this time it’s going to happen,” Miclon said. “We want to be able to get some of the work started as soon as we can, so we can have potential donors look and see that their dollars will really matter and it is going to happen.”
“I feel like something major has got to change, physically, in the building,” he added. “They’ve got to see it start. That’s going to get someone going, âOK I believe you this time.'”
The organization has taken initial steps and hopes to have an architectural plan in about a year for the renovations, Miclon said.
One of the changes Miclon brought was a renewed focus on growing the first floor space — a 125-seat theater with a new stage Miclon built himself. He brought in some notable acts, Crystal Bowersox, a runner-up on American Idol, and, most recently, singer and songwriter Ellis Paul for a show last week.
Miclon plans to try to increase the level of performers next season, but the major jump will come if — or when, according to Miclon — the third floor hall is complete.
“When we start having big enough shows that we’ll fill 400 seats, multiple times per month, the revenue that that will bring in to the community will be great,” he said.
Another goal for the coming season, which will run September to June, is to bring several of the performers into the local schools for free shows. Miclon said he wants more families and children to come to the shows, so he hopes reaching out to students will help bring their entire families to the theater. He also plans to lower the ticket price for children, which were $12 for most shows.
Last Thursday, Johnson Hall hosted the first of three free outdoor concerts at the Waterfront Park, and Miclon plans to host three outdoor movie showings over the summer. He also wants to hold an independent film series next season.
However, the reason Miclon took the job last year was to finally open the third floor space.
He previously ran the 150-seat Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield, a slightly larger theater, for 14 years before closing it at the end of 2011.
That theater served as the launching pad for Grammy award-winning musician Ray LaMontagne and EepyBird, an entertainment company best known for its viral videos of Diet Coke bottles erupting like fountains with the help of Mentos. The laboratory-coat wearing duo behind the videos — Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe — first did the act in a skit at Miclon’s theater.
Miclon said he enjoys running smaller venues, but he wants the challenge the third floor at Johnson Hall will bring.
“The point of our existence is to get that third floor renovated,” Miclon said. “You can keep saying you’re the oldest opera house in Maine, but you’re running on the basement floor. I want to be the oldest opera housing running in Maine and be that opera house.”