A nearly 100-year-old theater in downtown Keene is headed for major renovations that will expand its footprint in the city’s core.
In a news release announcing the planned upgrades, Colonial Theatre leaders said the two-year project will feature the creation of a spacious ticket lobby, additional restrooms, a patron lounge and a dedicated concessions area. Among other changes, the expansion is also slated to include new elevators for wheelchair accessibility and a modernized stage for the existing 888-seat theater. The theater will also expand to a second location, with a smaller performance space, at a yet-to-be-specified site.
Executive Director Alec Doyle called the work “critical” and “overdue.”
“Based on conversations that we’ve had with other leaders in the community, it feels like the timing is right now to start to move on something like this,” Doyle said. “And it’s just very important that we’re here for the next generation because right now, we’re bumping up into stuff more and more where we just can’t do some things and remain relevant unless we get this work done.”
In addition to its own year-round offerings of movies and live performances, The Colonial hosts community and private events, ranging from Keene State College’s Holocaust remembrance each November to the Keene Lions Club’s annual winter musical and the Monadnock International Film Festival in the spring.
But the makeover is expected to change that part of Keene’s Main Street, as two establishments that are renting space in The Colonial complex — Brewbakers and The Barbery — will have to move out before renovations begin next spring.
Doyle said the theater project requires more square footage, particularly since the elevators are expected to take up significant space. The owners of both establishments found out about the decision on Monday.
Jeff Murphy, who owns the popular coffee shop, declined to discuss his plans Monday.
Barbery owner Shalem Bencivenga said in a text message that his barber shop has already outgrown its location at 93 Main St.
“We have already started looking for the next perfect spot, hopefully still downtown,” he wrote.
Doyle said Colonial staff will work with both proprietors to find other locations for their businesses.
In the meantime, the theater is gearing up for a fundraising campaign to help defray some of the costs of construction. In its news release, The Colonial declined to specify the project’s cost, saying the details have yet to be finalized.
It’s the right time for a major fundraiser, according to Doyle, because the campaign for the Keene Public Library’s addition has concluded, MoCo Arts’ new building is finished, and no other large-scale fundraisers are on the horizon.
And he said renovating the theater could bring a host of positive changes to the community. The Main Street theater draws roughly 50,000 people annually, more than a third of whom come from out of town, according to Doyle. An expanded theater could bring larger shows, such as Broadway productions, to Keene, he noted, and the upgraded amenities would make it easier to grow the audience even more. It could also draw additional out-of-town visitors, who would stay — and spend money — in Keene during a day- or overnight trip.
“There are lots of shows we cannot do because we don’t have the space or the technology,” he said. “What is back there is a lot of 19th-century technology, and it’s reached the point where if we want to be relevant into the next generation, we’ve got to make this big change.”
Doyle said the project will address several problem areas at the theater, beginning with the lobby. In its current configuration, the lobby fills up quickly during larger performances, and people have no place to sit while waiting for the show. The lobby fills again during intermission. Compounding the problem is the lobby’s small concessions area, near the bathrooms.
The project will enlarge the hallways and move the concessions stand to Colonial Corner, Doyle said. The concessions area will become part of a lounge, and the bathrooms on the first floor renovated. An additional bathroom on the second floor will also ease foot traffic to the first floor during intermission, he added.
The situation isn’t much better backstage, according to Doyle. The dressing rooms are beneath the theater, down a steep staircase. The ceilings there are low, and the dressing rooms are too small for larger productions. Beyond making these rooms and the stage wheelchair-accessible, Doyle said, the project will expand both areas with a small addition in back of the house that will create more room for a wider stage and larger performers’ quarters.
According to materials on The Colonial’s website, a second venue that could hold 175 seats and have standing room for 225, is also in the works as part of the expansion. The “second stage” will be an intimate, flexible space that could host emerging artists that “appeal to a younger demographic,” the website says.
Board member Michael R. Christiansen said the exact location for this venue is still in the works, though the goal is to have it downtown, near The Colonial.
Though there will be many changes to The Colonial’s interior, Doyle said the theater’s entrance, with its iconic marquee, will remain intact. Any updates inside, he said, will not damage the charm of the landmark, which is on the N.H. State Register of Historic Places.
“We want to keep that character alive as best as we can,” he explained. “ ... (It’s just that) it has become unworkable in terms of trying to grow our programs with the limited space we have up front.”