Critics want a review of past and future
By Brian PJ Cronin
Beaconites breathed a collective sigh of relief after learning that although the Beacon Theatre had been sold, the space would continue to be used as a performance venue in some capacity. As former owners (and current tenants) 4th Wall Productions and new owner Brendan McAlpine told The Paper in the Aug. 21 issue, a plan had been drawn up to forgo restoring the original 800-seat main performance space and convert it instead into a multiuse complex consisting of apartments and a 200-or-so-seat flexible venue.
“This is sustainable now,” said 4th Wall Productions’ Managing Director Patrick Manning, referring to 4th Wall’s current status as a theater company mounting smaller performances within the Beacon’s restored lobby. Manning said that 4th Wall had decided to abandon plans to restore and reopen the main theater for fear of what it would have meant for the company going forward. “We are one of the few theater companies around here that runs in the black. But it would have become unsustainable if we had continued on the path we were going, both financially and artistically. We don’t want to be stuck having to do My Fair Lady every other year in order to pay the bills. So we said that in order to keep doing good quality theater, we have to always be able to pay our bills.”
But Cabot Parsons, chair of the City of Beacon’s Arts and Cultural Development Committee, has a differing opinion.
“Gutting that theater and stuffing it with apartments is like gutting a mermaid and stuffing it with sawdust,” said Parsons. “Sure, you’ve got the shell. But you’ve killed a soul that is magical. And a theater in a small town has that degree of magic. Like our mountain and our river, it’s a resource for the community. And we’re at the point in the development of our local economy in which the establishment of a real theater space could push Beacon over the top.”
Parsons, along with Scott Tillitt, the founder of Beacon’s coworking space BEAHIVE, are leading a group of concerned citizens and local arts organizations who are looking at the current plans for the theater — as well as the status of the theater in the past — with skepticism.
“They say that they’ve always operated in the black, but they’ve defaulted on their mortgage,” said Parsons.
4th Wall bought the building from developer William Ehrlich in 2010 with grand plans of renovating it, via an unconventional deal in which Ehrlich retained the note to the building and 4th Wall paid the mortgage to him. “Ehrlich had foreclosure proceedings against them that were almost done when McAlpine bought the space from Ehrlich,” said Parsons.
Also at issue was a lien on the building issued by McAlpine Construction as a result of work that the company did to renovate the lobby. “McAlpine Construction was retained by 4th Wall for about $220,000, give or take,” said Parsons. “4th Wall paid about $20,000 and then stopped making payments. So McAlpine got a default judgment against them on July 7, 2014. So I’m not sure how they can say that they’re in the black.”
While this may seem to be all water under the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge now that the building has been sold, Parsons said it still raises the thorny issue of what happened to the money that 4th Wall had been raising for the past five years in order to renovate the Beacon Theater’s main space if the plan is now to turn the space into residential units.
“They raised a lot of money from the public to renovate the theater itself,” said Parsons. “Obviously, there weren’t any renovations. So where did that money go? The public has a right to know. People want that theater to be a theater. They want it to be a vibrant and bubbling addition to the local arts economy. And even when it was neglected it was serving a purpose. Because it had that sense of potential.”
And Parsons and Tillitt claim that if the building is converted into one that is primarily residential, that potential to benefit the City of Beacon will be lost forever. In their opinion, Beacon needs a large venue in order to host performances and community events.
“I’ve done a number of community events here in Beacon and I’ve been approached about doing many, many more,” said Tillitt. “Large ones. But there aren’t any spaces. When I did the TEDx Talks in Beacon a few years ago, I had a hell of a time finding a space.”
“There’s a lot of reasons why Beacon needs that space,” continued Parsons. “The dance studios in Beacon all have to go to Poughkeepsie and have their recitals at the Bardavon because there’s no place in town they can use. The Beacon Independent Film Festival could really take advantage of being able to use multiple venues at the same time. The Towne Crier could use it for when they bring in really big acts. When Ani DiFranco played there, they were bursting at the seams because they’ve only got 200 seats. Hudson Valley Shakespeare could come in and do shows over the winter.”
Parsons and Tillitt have reached out to McAlpine, who plans to meet with them in order to discuss the plan. Parsons also hopes to facilitate a public forum at some point in the future so that McAlpine can present his plans to the general public — and the public can let their voices be heard.
“I hope that he can hear the community, revamp the plan and come with a space that will make that theater work,” said Parsons.
Photos by B. Cronin