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Thursday, June 30, 2011 04:09 pm

A living legacy

Springfield producer revives vacant theater

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Scott Richardson in April bought the vacant Springfield Theatre Centre building and is now renovating it and renaming it The Legacy Theatre.
PHOTO BY RACHEL WELLS

Everything but the basic framework may be new, but the 60-year-old auditorium at 101 E. Lawrence Avenue will reopen next month with due honor to the past, says Scott Richardson, director with local community theater group Roxy Theatricals and the new private owner of the former Springfield Theatre Centre building.

For $58,000, Richardson purchased the auditorium in April from the Springfield Theatre Centre, which vacated the building in 2002 when the organization became the first tenant of the Hoogland Center for the Arts. The Theatre Centre, called the Springfield Theatre Guild when incorporated in 1947, built the auditorium in 1951 by selling more than $120,000 in life insurance policies to Springfield community members whose names appear on bronze plaques Richardson plans to hang prominently in the theater’s lobby, where they’ve always been.

“It’s for them,” he says, pointing to the plaques and explaining the new name he’s giving the building – The Legacy Theatre. He says that in reopening the theater he hopes to honor past contributors, community theater enthusiasts and all the memories created there through more than 50 years of performances.

“I met some of my best friends here and it made us all sad to drive by and see a sad building,” Richardson says. “You want this to be filled with life and laughter and applause, so, you know, purchasing real estate as an emotional decision, probably not the wisest move, but, you know, that’s what you do.”

Since purchasing the theater, Richardson has stripped the facility of its aged and temperamental plumbing, electrical, and heating and air conditioning systems. In its final years under the Springfield Theatre Centre, the building became known for wet weather leaks and sump pump failures, which then caused flooded basements and mold problems.

“As far as what was usable in this place, it was the brick walls,” says Steve Williams, executive board president for the Springfield Theatre Centre. He says that, since his organization put the building up for sale when it moved to the Hoogland, the organization had received four or five inquiries before Richardson’s. “Everybody who came in and looked at the place commented on how structurally strong the building was, but pretty much everything else in it was in pretty bad shape.”

Williams says the Springfield Theatre Centre before moving had contemplated fixing up the building, a project once estimated to cost between $300,000 and $500,000, but also wanted a better parking arrangement, which, along with several production amenities, makes the group happy to be at the Hoogland.

The Legacy Theatre is still very much a work in progress, but Richardson plans to complete phase one renovations by the July 15 opening of the Legacy’s first show – The Marvelous Wonderettes. The off-Broadway musical is set in a generic 1950s Springfield High School and features dozens of well-known tunes from the 1950s and 1960s.

Jason Goodreau worked on the Springfield Theatre Centre’s last show at 101 E. Lawrence, where for a time he also ran the group’s summer program for children. Now he’s back serving as musical director for The Legacy’s first show.

“I had very deep ties to this building,” Goodreau says, explaining that he’d mopped up his fair share of rainwater and fixed a few appliances while working in the old Springfield Theatre Centre building. “To see it coming back to life is amazing.”

For Judy Denton, vocal director for The Legacy’s first show and past-president of the Springfield Theatre Guild, Richardson’s renovations mean flashbacks to the good old days, when a night on the town meant an evening gown and sold-out shows. “It was a big deal,” she says.

When the building opened in 1951, its first ever show was attended by Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson and audience members beckoned by engraved invitations, according to news clippings archived in the Lincoln Library’s Sangamon Valley Collection.

“This is just extra special. … You sometimes wish you could replay times of your life, and it was like ‘It’s going to happen,’” Denton says, describing her reaction to the news that Richardson was reopening the theater.

She and Richardson also recall memories full of volunteer workdays, marked by the tedium of paint stripping but also good company. “This has really been a theater of work for the people involved in it,” Denton says.

So it remains. While Richardson hired experts for work like waterproofing and plumbing, he’s relied on volunteers for the rest. “You don’t know love until you see a dozen people on their hands and knees under the seats painting the floor,” he says.

By the time the theater opens, audience members should see walls painted indigo blue and gold, red carpeting and new light fixtures reminiscent of the 1950s. Richardson, a set-designer at heart, says he’s shooting for a “mid-century modern” feel. Phase two of renovations – including the remodeling of the theater’s expansive basement – will take place after The Marvelous Wonderettes ends.

While the additional venue means more competition for Springfield’s theater scene, Fred Jarosz, the executive director of the Hoogland Center for the Arts, for which Richardson designed the logo, isn’t too worried. “We will match the quality of our shows against anyone,” Jarosz says, adding that good productions – no matter who puts them on or where – boost appreciation for the arts. “It’s wonderful for Springfield and for the community. If the quality of their stuff is good, then we all benefit from it. I don’t fear it as something that will in any way detract from what we do.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the Springfield Theatre Centre’s Williams, who says more good theater means more people will see Springfield as a performing arts community worth visiting. “The more theater out there, the more people go to the theater.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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