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Thursday, April 12, 2012 12:24 pm

I bought a theater

Scott Richardson’s theatrical labor of love brings eclectic culture to Springfield

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Preserving a Legacy: Scott Richardson in front of the former Theatre Guild building, which has emerged from a year of renovations to become Springfield's newest entertainment venue.
PHOTOS BY DAVID HINE

“I would say buying real estate is an emotional decision,” says Scott Richardson. “It’s probably not the wisest move, but sometimes you follow the heart. So we bought a theater!”

Not just any theater. The building in question, at 101 E. Lawrence, had served as a focal point for local performing arts for more than half a century as headquarters for the Springfield Theatre Guild, beginning in 1951 until the rechristened Theatre Centre moved to the Hoogland Center for the Arts in 2004. Over the next several years the once-vibrant edifice on Lawrence went through a slow, inexorable process of deterioration.

“When the building closed, you’d drive by and just see it falling farther and farther into disrepair,” remembers Richardson, who first came to the Theatre Guild as a puppeteer in a mid-1980s production of Little Shop of Horrors. “It was just sad. And you’d think of all the good times, and the laughs and the friends, and then you’d think back to the ’50s and all of that.”

Since purchasing the building in April 2011, Richardson, who by day works as a graphic designer for Levi, Ray and Shoup, has remained acutely aware of its particular history, hence the name Legacy Theatre. “In the lobby, as you enter the building, you can’t help but notice all the plaques with names on them. Those are the folks who, in the ’50s, were having bake sales and selling insurance policies to raise the funds to build this facility that they dreamed about, you know? The name honors their legacy, and it was also chosen to honor anyone who performed onstage or painted the scenery or popped the corn or bought a ticket – whatever, anybody who has appreciated what has gone on here, it’s their legacy.”

Not every piece of history left on the building’s walls is quite so stately. “As you can see there’s a million pieces of graffiti everywhere, which is also part of the legacy,” Richardson sighs, pointing around the dressing room area. “We’re photographing every little piece of it but then there’s going to be a nice, spiffy coat of paint, and we’re not gonna write on the walls anymore. We’ve been posting the pictures on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/atthelegacy) and people go, ‘Oh, I know who that is!’ and it starts a dialogue which is really fun.”

“Fun” would probably not be the best way to describe the painstaking process of resurrecting the long-neglected property, which Richardson purchased personally, in turn leasing it to the Legacy Theatre, which is registered as a nonprofit. “It had really become a little piece of urban decay,” Richardson recounts. “The courtyard had overgrown and there was a homeless population kind of residing here. We cleaned up the courtyard, did landscaping and planting, and happily elevated our little chunk of earth, and hopefully helped the neighborhood a little bit.”

The interior of the building presented plenty of challenges as well, both structural and cosmetic. “This whole project, I keep saying, it’s like eating an elephant, one bite at a time,” says Richardson, smiling through gritted teeth. During the dormant period, the building flooded, leaving two feet of standing water in the basement for months. Carpets were taken up and replaced, and the building’s plumbing, electrical and heating systems all needed revamping. The Legacy, which is staffed entirely by volunteers, immediately sparked the enthusiasm of the local theatrical community. “It’s amazing to see the love that’s been lavished on the project, it just astounds me. It’s so wonderful and so remarkable. People just walked in the door out of the blue and said, ‘We heard what you were doing, this is great, how can we help? I’m wearing my painting clothes.’ So nice,” Richardson beams.

Renovations to the property started in April of 2011 and have just recently been completed.
PHOTO BY CASSANDRA PENCE OSTERMEIER


“One of the first things we did was to texturize the walls in the auditorium,” he continues. “It’s a cinderblock building, and I’ve always said, if you’re seeing a show in a cinderblock room, you’re either in a school cafeteria or prison. Not really the vibe we’re going for. So two of my friends spent a solid week, 16 hours a day, up on scaffolding, working on the walls, and then a dozen people wearing kneepads painted the floor under the seats with only little work lights and no air conditioning. In June. It was crazy.”

Of course, all of this labor would have been for naught without a vision of the sort of venue the Legacy would be. Richardson and his associates are betting every chip on their conviction that Springfield is capable of supporting more different types of performance than have traditionally been on offer in the local market. “When we started, there seemed to be some chatter to the effect that we wanted to be competition for the Hoogland,” says Richardson. “Not true. I prefer that we complement. We want our venue to be quirky, and we’re certainly willing to throw some different things out there just to see. If the public doesn’t respond, that’s fine, it’ll be, ‘Welcome to Broadway Musicals 101’ – which is something we also love – but it’s not all we want to do.”

Patrick Russell, a promoter for the Legacy, agrees. “Our target demographic is the seven-year-old crowd all the way up to the grandparents. We do have the sensibility where we get to do things that are a little bit odd, maybe – which is great, but within that, we are doing a lot of different things.”

Indeed, the first year of Legacy shows has lived up to this broad ideal, ranging from the ’50s-’60s classic sensibility of its debut production The Fabulous Wonderettes (mounted while the space was still being renovated), to a flamboyant drag revue benefitting Legacy neighbors the Phoenix Center, to the dark drama Den of Thieves, staged “in the round” in the building’s basement, cleverly utilizing the rough, unfinished feel and indirect lighting of that space to great effect. As expected, each show brought in a distinctly different crowd.

“It’s been fun to see the different kinds of folks who show up to various events,” says Richardson. There are a few different ways that shows make their way to the Legacy stage. Richardson’s production company, Roxy Theatricals, produces community theater, such as the upcoming Legally Blonde, while his Roxy Entertainment is responsible for bringing in touring acts, such as Dixie’s Tupperware Party and the recent concert by Mike Doughty. The venue is also available for rental by local producers. “Every time there’s a new show, people say, ‘Wow, I’ve never been here before, this is a really cool space, I really like this, we’ve had a great time.’”

“We’re firm believers that you shouldn’t have to travel an hour and a half, two hours away to see some good things,” says Russell. “We can bring shows that are cool and interesting here to Springfield, and our hope is to get the crowd to help support that, to make Springfield a viable stop for this kind of thing.”

The Marvelous Wonderettes, left to right: Elizabeth Eckert, Cassie Poe, Teri Wells, Sara Baltusevitch.
PHOTO BY SCOTT RICHARDSON


But therein lies the rub, at least potentially. Here Richardson echoes the laments of many others who have attempted to promote mid-size, “alternative”-skewed events locally, whether the performers are homegrown or internationally known. “I’m discovering that Springfield does not have a great reputation out there in the world, in terms of artist management and booking agencies and stuff like that,” reports a strained Richardson. “I’ve learned that Springfield is notorious for being last-minute ticket buyers, and it’s generally thought that as a market, we don’t really support stuff. The word that comes up a lot is ‘apathetic.’ It’s hard to get Springfield off the sofa. What I’ve seen happen is, a management company will say, ‘Well, I can take this artist, I can book him in Peoria, where I know they buy tickets in advance and support stuff, or I can book Springfield, where they don’t.’ It’s nerve-wracking and heartbreaking for anyone who’s trying to produce an event here, whether it’s our venue or any of the venues in the area, because if you’re not selling those tickets in advance, then you’ve gotta expend more resources on advertising to sell more tickets, which then makes the ticket price higher.”

As dire as this all sounds, there may be change on the horizon for Springfield. The March 28 concert by ’90s “alt-rocker” turned independent acoustic troubadour Mike Doughty (former singer of Soul Coughing) showed some encouraging results.

“I view it as a great success,” says Richardson. “The artist was impressed with our place and had a really positive experience. When [Doughty] walked in the front door, he was impressed with the space and especially excited when he saw what we had done for him with the set. We’ve already heard from his management company thanking us for what we did, and so now we’re on their radar a little bit. The audience had a really nice time, too. I can’t tell you how many people commented on the sound of the concert, which was very encouraging to us because it was the first event using our new sound system. It was, gosh, heartwarming, almost, to see the level of enthusiasm the audience had for Mike.” He pauses. “Now if we can just find the happy marriage of that enthusiasm with action toward buying tickets, all will be right with the world.”

“I do feel really positive about that [the outcome of the Doughty show],” Richardson explains. “More attendance would’ve been great, but you can’t focus on the folks who didn’t come, you can just make sure the ones who did have a great time.” As for future rock shows, the Legacy would love to build on the momentum of the recent concert. “We don’t really want to be a total production house – in fact we prefer to be a platform for other people chasing their joy, bringing in great things that I’m not even aware of, out there in the world. We’d love to find people here in the community who have, say, a grand passion for a certain artist and they want to bring them in. We would be delighted to partner with you to help that happen. Mike Doughty was not on my radar at all until I saw him last fall in Chicago, and he’s great, you know?”

The ’90s alt-rocker Mike Doughty performed March 30 to an euthusiastic audience.
PHOTO BY PATRICK RUSSELL


For now, the day-to-day tasks of running a theatrical space are enough to fill up anyone’s schedule. “We are sort of basking in the happy afterglow of this successful event, and we’re really looking forward to Late Night Catechism, which is coming up [April 13-15 and 20-22], and which is completely, night-and-day-different, a funny, nostalgic piece, going along with our philosophy of really wanting to be an eclectic venue. After that, Spring Awakening in September, which is a musical with a rock score in the vein of Rent. We have also confirmed rentals by two film festivals, one in late May, which will be sort of alternative films and coincides with the Pride fest here in town, and then the Route 66 Film Festival the first week in November. We’re also working on our own film series, based on our great experience showing holiday movies last Christmas.”

“Seeing a movie in here is really, really cool,” enthuses Russell. “It reminds you of an old theater, like something you would see in a larger city. The night we were doing all the tech stuff, getting everything ready for screening the Christmas movies, we had the popcorn popper in the other room and that popcorn smell started wafting in, and all of a sudden, just like that, along with the overall ambience, it became a movie house.”

A return to 1951: Scott Richardson stands in the renovated lobby of The Legacy Theatre, which features colors selected from a 1951 paint chart, lighting evocative of a swanky mid-century cocktail party and a custom crafted ticket booth modeled on the ori
PHOTO PATRICK YEAGLE


“We’ve been really fortunate in that every single thing we have done here, so far, has made money,” says Richardson. “Not crazy money, not, ‘Woo-hoo, let’s put in a swimming pool!’ But money. And that’s a huge thing. The great thing is, as we do these shows, we make friends, who go to other towns and say, ‘We just played this great little theater in Springfield, Illinois, oh my gosh the folks were so nice, they gave us great home cooking, and you’ll have a ball, here’s Scott’s email.’ And that’s what it’s all about, just to fertilize our little town, our little culture. So come on, Springfield – let’s fertilize, shall we?”

Scott Faingold first reported on the arts for IT in 1987. He can be reached via
scottfaingold@gmail.com

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