It may flout conventional practice in the performing arts, but the entire Jaffrey community — and in particular the dedicated volunteers at its forefront — deserves to take a bow before the curtain is raised tomorrow at the town’s newly rebuilt Park Theatre.
The effort has been a labor of love for a prolonged period. The Park Theatre had been a central component of downtown Jaffrey for more than 50 years, beginning as a movie and vaudeville house in 1922. Eventually its role as an entertainment venue waned and the facility closed as a theater in 1976 and became a retail space and warehouse. Fast forward almost 30 years, and a group of community members came together with a vision of restoring it as a downtown performing arts space and formed the nonprofit organization that would purchase the building in 2006.
The 15-year road since then has been challenging, and the difficult decision was made in 2013 that long-term damage to the original structure meant it could not be saved. Instead, the group pivoted to plans to rebuild it on the original site, an eight-year undertaking of planning, fundraising and, ultimately, construction that will culminate Thursday with a ribbon-cutting at 11 a.m., followed by special showings of two classic movies for a quarter and the launch that evening of its ongoing programming of movies and live performances.
The new Park Theatre is a handsome enhancement of Jaffrey’s downtown historic district and includes more than a nod to its predecessor’s structure and its history, with an Art Deco exterior design that hearkens to its early roots and a display of four historic murals saved from the original structure. The facility features a 333-seat main stage and a smaller auditorium and meeting room and can be adapted to accommodate functions, fundraising galas and other events. In short, the theater will be a versatile film and performing arts center, offering movies, live music, theater and other performances and a site for community and business gatherings and private events.
And The Park Theatre brings promise of enhanced economic vitality in downtown Jaffrey as well as cultural enrichment. Keene witnessed the same when The Colonial Theatre underwent its restoration under nonprofit ownership in the early 1990s, and its renovation now underway and the new smaller-stage Showroom companion facility will bolster its role. For downtown Jaffrey, the multiplier effect that performance venues like The Park Theatre generate by drawing visitors from beyond — as well as from the community — will benefit and likely spur a strengthening of entertainment-related and other businesses there.
Most gratifying for Jaffrey’s townsfolk, though, should be the strengthening of community ties that the rebirth of The Park Theatre and the rallying of the community behind it signifies, a role it played in its prior life. Caroline Hollister, the longtime Jaffrey resident who until only recently headed the community effort to bring the theater back to life, says she was inspired by childhood memories of going to the theater and by its role as a gathering place for the community as well as for fun and entertainment. That, she told The Sentinel, she’s “hoping we will be able to duplicate here at The [rebuilt] Park Theatre.”
The stage for that resurgence, which the theater says involved the efforts of more than a thousand people, has now been set, and well set indeed. Hollister and the many community supporters and volunteers who have worked so tirelessly to bring The Park Theatre back to life have earned a curtain call — and should then sit back and enjoy the show.