Inside Holyoke’s Victory Theater
The historic Victory Theater in Holyoke has new owners and is on track for a grand reopening in 2012.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
By Mark Roessler
Last September, the Holyoke City Council unanimously voted to hand ownership of the Victory Theater over to the not-for-profit Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts (MIFA), a group that hopes to reopen the building, which has stood derelict since 1979.
MIFA has in hand more than half the estimated $27 million it will take to revive the theater. It’s working closely with Nessen Associates and the Architectural Heritage Foundation on marketing and acquiring the necessary tax incentives and grants. With those resources, MIFA hopes to complete the extensive renovations required and open the curtains again on December 30, 2012.
Holyoke once had seven theaters, including a 3,000-seat circular opera house that predated the old Metropolitan in New York City. Many of the greatest opera singers of the day said it was the finest such theater in America. It survived until the early 1960s.
Still standing is the Victory Theater on the corner of Suffolk and Chestnut streets, built by the Goldstein Brothers Amusement Company in 1920. The brothers, Nathan and Samuel, were responsible for many of the largest and most magnificent theaters in Western Massachusetts, including the Calvin in Northampton, the Garden in Greenfield, the Paramount in Springfield, the Mohawk in North Adams, the Casino in Ware, and the Colonial in Pittsfield, to name a few. The Victory, though, was considered the flagship of the company. The business had begun elsewhere in Holyoke, but after building across the Valley, they wanted the best for their home city.
“The best” included sweeping stairways of Vermont marble leading up to the immense, double-tiered balcony, the rare Brazilian mahogany paneling that lines the walls, and windows on the second floor made by Tiffany. Silk paneling on the walls was likely made at the Skinner silk factory in Holyoke. On either side of the stage are two giant paintings done by renowned Works Progress Administration (WPA) muralist Vincent Maragliotti that represent different aspects of the theme “victory.”
Much of the painted detailing throughout the theater is Art Deco in style—especially magnificent is the ceiling of an oval room beneath the balcony—but there are flashes of a classical aesthetic at work, too. The curved wall behind the ivory drinking fountain has touches of the original 24-carat gold gilding, and gold detail in the robust proscenium frames the entire stage.
The Victory was opened originally for theatrical productions and concerts (a projection booth was added a few years later). In addition to the immense Art Deco theater, the building included a floor of shops on the street level, office space on the second floor, which had housed a music school, and, on the third floor, a series of small efficiency apartments for the casts and crews of traveling productions.
“It is the last theater of its kind between Boston and Albany and down to the Shubert,” Donald Sanders, MIFA’s executive artistic director, said in a recent interview with the Advocate.
When asked the inevitable question about why the group would attempt such an undertaking in a city that many see as teetering on ruin, Sanders and Kathy McKean, MIFA’s managing director, smiled, ready.
“The fact that the theater is here, and that it’s survived, means it has to be restored. It’s like having the Parthenon in your town. You can’t say tear it down just because you don’t believe in pagan religion any more,” Sanders said. “The Victory needs to be restored to its original purpose. That purpose might seem distant to people living here, but it isn’t in the cities around Holyoke. The real, physical, sensual pleasure of seeing a live performance at a magnificent theater has become distant. It’s simply not as available to people.”
“I think the area and Holyoke is primed for some sort of renaissance,” McKean added. “We were part of last summer’s planning sessions for the city’s arts and entertainment district, and we’re smack dab in the center of that.”
Citing Holyoke’s geography and the recent announcements of the return of Amtrak service and the planned high-performance computing center, she added, “There will be a need for space to hold large gatherings. Even if we’re not always bringing audiences from outside, it will be a gathering place for everyone in Holyoke. Most people alive today remember it as a movie house, and in addition to theater, we want to have movies here, maybe on Saturday afternoons.”
Throughout the interview, preserving the theater as a community resource was a regular theme.
After MIFA had become the owner of the theater, it opened the doors for a brief open house in the cold, dark building last year on October 24. “One of my favorite things that happened then,” Sanders said, “was that during one of the tours there was this very spry lady going around, looking at everything very closely. During the question session at the end, she announced, ‘I saw my first talky here.’ Someone hollered from the crowd, ‘That must have been The Jazz Singer, 1929.’ She said, ‘No. 1928. I’m 94 years old, and I had my high school graduation here.’
“She was just amazing. And she said, ‘My son is here, and my grandson is here.’ The son later said how wonderful the experience was, hearing her reminisce about the space we were in, and having his son hear his grandmother, so he will have that memory in the space that will be. That kind of continuity doesn’t happen in a lot of communities.”
“1938 was the last class to hold the ceremony here,” McKean said. She hopes that, when the theater reopens, that might happen again.
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