After $8 million in renovations, Strand site unused 10 months a year; bustling '90s now a memory
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino says the proudest moment of his political career took place last year at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester when more than a thousand people, of all races, faiths and ages, locals as well as out-of-towners, turned out over two nights to attend the play “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
The mayor has given two of his State of the City addresses at the Strand and his commitment to the theatre goes beyond the rhetorical. He has channeled $10 million in city funds in an effort to return the Strand, the last neighborhood theatre in the city, to its early 20th-century glory.
But Menino’s enthusiasm for the Strand has not extended to his administration’s stewardship of the Uphams Corner fixture – even though it has become one of the city’s costliest neighborhood initiatives.
Despite the extensive renovations, usage of the theatre has fallen dramatically in recent years.
Paradoxically, its schedule was full during much of the 1990s when it was in sub-par condition and run by a local non-profit organization. One financial reason for the decline: Without patron groups to support programming at the Strand, the city is forced to charge cash-strapped community groups $3,200 a night for the full use of the facility.
Since 2004, when the Menino administration took over its operation, the Strand has been open for performances little more than two months — on average— every year, according to data provided by the administration to the Reporter.
And that number is declining. In each of the last three years, the theatre has been open for events, from community meetings to a handful of commercial performances, for only about 40 days. For the rest of the year, it is locked up, staffed by a single city employee trying to do the job that four or five used to carry out.
The state of programming was not always so moribund at the Columbia Road landmark. In the late 1990s, when it was managed by the nonprofit M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts, the Strand was bustling.
The Center was founded in the early 1970s in a community attempt to restore the abandoned Strand to greatness. Although the building was in a much-deteriorated condition, several people from the Center worked on the premises, which, by the late 1990s, were open nearly every day, accommodating a schedule packed with events from commercial productions to church services, and performances by a range of community and Boston-area theatrical groups.
Even when tickets weren’t being sold, the Strand was alive with activity: A major theatrical group booked the site for weeks on end to rehearse its productions; a program was begun that brought dozens of neighborhood teen-agers into the building to learn what it takes to put on and be in a theatrical show.
The decline in the level of programming that has taken place at the Strand has been felt deeply by local residents and businesses. “It’s not vigorous,” said Edward Grimes, longtime executive director of the Upham’s Corner Health Center. “There are bookings here and there, but it’s not active.”
The dimming of the Strand’s lustre can be measured by the lack of buzz generated by the site. While just a dozen years ago, Boston newspapers were filled with listings and reviews of many of the events at the theatre, it wasn’t even included on a list of the “1,000 great places to visit” in Massachusetts put out this summer by the state’s tourism agency, a listing that included the Eire Pub in Adams Village and the First Parish Church on Meetinghouse Hill. More startling is the omission of the Strand as a center for Boston youth programming at the city’s own portal for summer and after-school activities, youthzoneboston.org .
Few doubt that even under the best of circumstances, making the Strand a vibrant, profitable entity presents a difficult proposition. The building is located in the middle of one of the city’s most crime-challenged neighborhoods, and nearby parking space sufficient for its 1,400-person capacity is woefully lacking; the theatre doesn’t have its own big-screen projector; and despite the millions that have been poured into renovating the building, the bathrooms are still in need of upgrading.
Menino acknowledges that he and his administration need to do a better job of filling the theatre with performances if it is ever going to get close to realizing his dream of making it Boston’s version of Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. “We can do more, yes, we can,” he told the Reporter. “I’ll not be satisfied until I am able to bring more theatre companies to the Strand. I think it’s a place with great possibilities, great opportunities.”
What caused the decline in activity at the Strand between the late 1990s and today cannot be blamed on any one individual, group, or a single failed initiative. Instead, several weeks of reporting that included interviewing more than a dozen current and past officials either involved in operating the Strand or putting on events there, show that human and institutional failings have led to the Strand’s lackluster schedule, with a key failure being a lack of any concentrated drive from City Hall to keep the theatre active during the economic decline of the past several years.
The road to the down times at the Strand began in the early years of the new century when production groups, vendors, and neighborhood groups began complaining about their dealings with Victoria Jones, a former broadcasting producer who was managing the theatre for the McCormack Center’s board. Concerns about what many saw as arbitrary decision-making and a penchant for employing too many friends and family at the theatre prompted several producers who had long booked their shows at the Strand to look for other venues.
Even when the city was calling all the shots after taking control from the nonprofit in 2004, it was evident that the Strand’s future was murky at best. The decrepit building was in dismal condition and in need of many millions for repairs. A task force report  commissioned by Menino in 2004 recommended that another non-profit be brought in to manage the venue and raise private funds from well-heeled donors who were committed to seeing the arts encouraged in Boston’s poorer neighborhoods. But no one stepped forward, compelling the Menino administration to take over.
Soon enough, conflicts began to arise among the key personnel at City Hall responsible for running the theatre. The Strand’s manager, Michelle Baxter, complained that her boss, Julie A. Burns, a top Menino deputy who had taken over as the city’s Arts chief, was not sufficiently supporting minority, community-based projects that she booked at the theatre. Burns fired back that Baxter was doing an inadequate job in both managing the Strand and recruiting neighborhood arts initiatives.
In a recent interview, Burns defended her oversight of the theatre’s operation. The combination of a sluggish economy and an intense renovation project — which meant closing the building for extended periods, including one stretch of 11 months in 2007— accounted for much of the Strand’s empty calendar, Burns said.
“In my own personal mind, I felt that we needed some time for renovations,” Burns said. The theatre was “going to be dark” during the renovations, Burns said, but the payoff would be “quality, legitimate, community programming for people so, people knew that we were stable and had a future.” Burns announced earlier this month that she was leaving as city arts chief to take a top-level job at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.
But the improvements to the building have not brought a surge of new bookings. Rather, in the last two full years that the theatre has been open, it has booked performances a total of 80 days, or less than one a week. By contrast, the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, a Lowell-based community operation, put on performances on 164 days in 2009 and 161 days in 2008.
One principal reason for the decline in events at the Strand is a personnel shortage: there is a marked difference in the energy focused on booking events at the Strand during the 1990s in contrast to the approach under the city’s administration.
“Our mission was to serve the community by providing arts and cultural events there, and there were four or five of us at the theatre every day,” said Richard Wood, former production manager for the Strand, who left in 1999 after working at the theatre for 14 years.
Wood said that a team comprised of McCormack staff led by Geri Guardino, the theatre’s manager during its heyday in the 1990s, worked hard to attract smaller production companies such as ballet and other dance groups, jazz players, plays and even performances by Boston school students. To maintain activity over the weekends, the McCormack staff opened the theatre to the Evangelical Church of God in Dorchester for its Sunday services and established a training program for teen-agers to learn the theatre business, from the front office to backstage.
“Most of these performances didn’t make any money, but the McCormack Center was committed to this mission, so board members and staff and Geri, were out all the time raising money to make sure that if it was a worthy enterprise, it would go on,” Wood said.
Church services are no longer held at the Strand, and the teen players are no more. And they are not the only casualties that the decade of decline has wrought.
The Chamber Theatre Productions group, which rented the theatre for as much as a month at a time in past years, reduced its rentals to three days last year and none in 2010 because of scheduling conflicts, according to Burns and Melodie Greene, the current Strand manager. And BalletRox, a Jamaica Plain group that has staged the successful and immensely popular “Urban Nutcracker” around the city for more than a decade, has not put on a show at the Strand since 2005. Tony Williams, founder and artistic director of BalletRox, cited lack of sufficient nearby parking as a reason for his leaving the Strand. But he said he has been in discussion with Greene in hopes of bringing performances of the “Urban Nutcracker” back to the site.
Today, Greene works alone at the Strand, trying first to attract and book events for the theatre, and then working to figure out their production needs, a cumulative responsibility that three or four people handled a decade ago.
But Greene says it’s not the lack of helping hands that undercuts her ability to book more shows into the Strand. It’s the lack of money. It takes a minimum of $3,200 to rent the Strand for a single performance, and that cost scares off producers, especially those with smaller or community productions.
Greene said she tells these event organizers that it costs the city nearly $200,000 a year to maintain the building. And even though the theatre received a grant of $234,000 from the state last year, that money — like the $10 million appropriated by the Menino administration since 2004 — is used for building renovations, not programming.
“A lot of the community groups that want to come in here are non-profit and, of course, they have no money. Nobody has any money,” Greene said. Still, Greene was able to bring in more than $142,000 by renting the Strand for 40 days during this fiscal year, measurably more than the $86,000 taken in for the 41 rental days a year ago.
There was a time, however, when the city was presented with an opportunity to establish a fundraising strategy for the Strand and also augment its management team. Three years ago, Guardino, now the executive director of First Night Inc. , submitted a proposal to Julie Burns to have First Night’s management team, which includes several others who, like her, worked at the Strand in the 1990s, take over operation of the theatre.
“First Night has the respect of both the philanthropic and cultural communities, and would expand the potential for grants, contributions, and collaborative programs for the Strand,” according to the May 2007 proposal. The document also cited First Night’s longstanding partnerships with the arts and community organizations whose support would have been valuable in such a venture.
Guardino declined to be interviewed about the three-year-old proposal. However, Burns said she rejected it out of concern that adding the Strand to its responsibilities might jeopardize the financial well-being of the First Night organization, which has successfully overseen Boston’s New Year’s Eve celebration since 1976.
But Menino said he liked at least one element of the proposal – the reaching out to corporations and foundations around the city for private donations that could help financially-strapped production companies perform at the Strand. “It’s a good idea,” he said last week. “Try to raise the money through private foundations, private corporations, and banks. “Some of those folks who’d love to get involved in the cultural life of the city of Boston.”
Stephen Kurkjian is the Senior Investigative Fellow and Pat Tarantino is a reporter at the Initiative For Investigative Reporting in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. Their work for the Dorchester Reporter is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The foundations are committed to supporting investigative and watchdog journalism by community news organizations in the Boston area. More on the initiative can be read here . Listen to a segment about the Reporter's partnership with the Northeastern University School of Journalism's Initiative for Investigative Reporting on WBUR's Radio Boston.
Since 1918 debut, Strand has seen its ups and downs
1918 — Strand Theatre opens on Armistice Day — Nov. 11— as part of a nation-wide chain of vaudeville houses.
1938 — As vaudeville loses popularity, the Strand stays current by introducing “talkies” with a series of Marx Brothers movies.
1958 — Poor ticket sales force management to screen second run films.
1968 — The Strand is shuttered amid financial difficulties and competition.
1972 — Thomas McKenna and other Dorchester residents form the M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts (MCA) with the goal of refurbishing and reopening the theater.
1979 — The City of Boston gives the MCA a 25-year lease at the Strand, charging the organization a dollar a year for rent and covering utility expenses.
2004 — The MCA lease ends amid allegations of mismanagement. The City takes over operations and hires Michelle Baxter as an interim manager until a suitable non-profit can be found.
2007 — Mayor Tom Menino pledges in State of the City address : “Tonight, I tell you proudly: we are going to save The Strand.”