SKOWHEGAN — It’s time for the Skowhegan Opera House to step back into the limelight.
That’s the goal of Jon Kimbell, the longtime artistic director at the North Shore Music Theater, near Boston, and current producer-in-residence for a production company that works on the televised broadcast of the Oscars.
Kimbell, 74, a full-time resident of Skowhegan for the past three years, got permission from selectmen last week to help create a committee to explore ways of improving the opera house for performers, producers and audiences alike. The Skowhegan Opera House continues to showcase comedian Bob Marley and dance recitals by Dance Express, Sally’s Top Hat School of Dance and Bradley’s School of Dance; but popular musical acts have fallen off the venue roster, said Cara Mason, the opera house manager.
Kimbell, chairman of the Somerset Cultural Planning Committee, recently funded a brief survey to see what is needed to bring people back to the 850-seat opera house, built in 1909.
“It all started a few months ago when Jon Kimbell contacted me,” Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand said. “He was really interested in the opera house. He’s got so much theater experience, and the opera house is clearly underutilized.”
Almand said they discussed some of the drawbacks and shortcomings of accommodations for performers, producers and the ticket-buying public. She said Kimbell paid for an assessment of the venue and came up with a few recommendations for a committee to address.
To bring the opera house up to industry standards, the following list of action items was compiled:
• Install heat and air conditioning.
• Create sound insulation between the performance area, which is upstairs, and the town’s municipal offices on the ground floor.
• Install public restrooms in the opera house lobby.
• Build backstage restrooms and dressing rooms.
• Put in a quality sound and light system that will meet the needs of simple productions.
• Build an elevator to move heavy equipment to and from the stage area.
• Build a public elevator that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Erik Thomas, owner of Sweet People Productions in Waterville, who promoted shows in Skowhegan, including Susan Tedeschi and Grammy-winning Shawn Colvin, said the same thing in 2013, when he noted competition for performing acts was tight in Maine, with the State Theater reopening in Portland and concerts on the waterfront in Bangor. Leon Russell, Ani DiFranco, Cowboy Junkies and Johnny Winter also drew crowds to Skowhegan, where restaurants, bars and motels also enjoyed the visits.
Thomas said at the time that the Skowhegan Opera House is a nice venue, but it is in a busy municipal building that also houses the Police Department. He said the lighting in the opera house should be updated, and it’s inconvenient to haul the performers’ equipment in the facility’s passenger elevator.
“What really needs to happen is they need an opera house association like they have here in Waterville,” Thomas said. “If the people in Skowhegan want to see these acts, they need to get some sponsors and get some money together.”
That’s what Kimbell is talking about, too.
“I think it’s spectacular,” he said of the Skowhegan Opera House, noting its big stage and full balcony. “The fellow I bought up to look at it from New York and Connecticut was very impressed. It’s a beautiful turn-of-the century opera house, very typical of what (is) around the country, and so many of those have been repurposed into facilities and are active most the year round. They do everything from films to concerts to local productions. Waterville is a perfect example.”
The Waterville Opera House, on the second floor of City Hall, had been closed a year to make way for a massive $4.9 million renovation project that included new balcony seating, new flooring, restored woodwork and new technical equipment. It reopened in April 2012.
In Skowhegan, members of the new Opera House Committee are Mason, opera house manager; Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan director of economic and community development; Jim Preble, from Top Hat School of Dance; Bradley Adams, from Bradley’s School of Dance; Julie Cooke, a local business owner; and Darla Pickett, a Skowhegan selectwoman.
At SenovvA Inc., with offices in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, San Francisco and Dublin, Kimbell said he still works as a producer in residence and is one of the group’s “live theater people.”
Kimbell is known for his innovation and risk-taking in professional theater. He has received the Elliot Norton Award and the New England Theatre Conference Award for Outstanding Achievement in the American Theater, Salem State College’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Spotlight People’s Choice Award and the Moss Hart Award for his musical adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” in addition to several awards for his work promoting tolerance and diversity.
“There is so much here culturally, and nobody know about it,” Kimbell said. “So what we’re trying to do is track it all and get all the information to people who live here and for tourists. It’s amazing what’s going on around here in the arts, in the food movement and recreation, in education. It’s fantastic.”
But a big challenge is that the economy of Somerset County might not support major concerts or performers more than just a few times a year. There also are the costs of lighting, staffing, heating or cooling the space. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, Mason said.
Former Chamber of Commerce Director Cory King floated an idea in 2013 for getting shows into the Skowhegan Opera House, but he couldn’t raise enough local interest to make a go of it. Donald Skillings, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, also presented a plan for the venue in 2013, called Skowhegan Performing Arts, which put on a couple of shows but soon faded.
“Given the local population, you can’t have back-to-back shows and have them all succeed,” Mason said. “It’s never worked before. You run out of people that have enough money to do it. Instead of getting 850 people here, you might get only 200 people, and people can’t make it happen with only selling that many tickets. That’s what happened here. A couple of people had shows and they lost money. My best guess is the economy.”
The first meeting of the Opera House Committee will be scheduled for sometime in April, when the group will come up with a proposal for the downtown TIF committee to fund a conceptual plan for the Opera House and outline the needs of the building.
“This is a great old place,” Kimbell said, descending the wooden staircase leading back to the ground floor of the Municipal Building. “Wouldn’t it be nice to see it come back to life?”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367