Colonial Theatre, The
Phone:Box Office: 413-997-4444; Administrative Office: 413-448-8084
Address:111 South Street Pittsfield, MA 01201
The Colonial Theatre’s mission is to enrich life in Pittsfield and the Berkshires by presenting, producing, and hosting a wide variety of quality performing arts events, accessible to all, while fostering artistic collaboration and performing arts education in a restored national historic landmark building.
The Colonial Theatre, a non-profit organization, is one of America’s finest turn-of-the-century theaters to survive intact. Designed by a firm of theater architects called J. B. McElfatrick and son, the Colonial Theatre’s stage and audience chamber were a class above most playhouses of the day. McElfatrick designed hundreds of theaters throughout North America during the latter half of the 19th and first few years of the 20th centuries, including approximately 51 in New York City alone. Still, The Colonial is one of only a handful still standing.
The Sullivan’s later erected The Colonial in Pittsfield utilizing the same designs. In 1903, The Colonial Theatre was built, in only five and one-half months at a cost of $70,000. Though that fact might be marveling, it was a normal procedure for that time period. As was sometimes the custom in that day, the exterior of the theater was designed by a respected local architect named Joseph McArthur Vance who also designed Pittsfield’s Masonic Temple, the Christian Science building, the superstructure of the Wahconah Park Stadium, Mount Greylock’s Bascom Lodge and the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington. Over the proscenium arch, in a “sail vault,” is a sounding board decorated by a mural representing Art and Music. The proportions of the theater, the sounding board, the curved room elements and the articulated plaster detail are design signatures of J.B. McElfatrick. They are thought to contribute to the superior natural acoustics of the theater.
The Colonial Theatre opened on September 28, 1903 with a production of the operetta “Robin Hood” by the Bostonians, a famed touring group, to a sold-out house. Since then, The Colonial began to draw renowned entertainers to its performances, including acting siblings John and Ethel Barrymore, jazz pianist Eubie Blake and composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.
The proportions of The Colonial Theatre were enhanced with intricate plaster work and rich finishes. After extensive renovations in 1912, state-of-the-art theatrical technology, electric footlights, border lights and a switchboard by the General Electric Company were added.
The Colonial closed in 1934 due to the economic strain of the Depression, only to reopen three years later. In 1937, a new marquee, projection room and two retail stores were added to the front of the building, dramatically altering its classic lines. It operated primarily as a movie theater, although some community performances continued until the day the theater closed.
December 31, 1952, The Colonial was purchased by George and Sally Ruth Miller, who moved their business into what had been the orchestra level. To accommodate a retail paint and art supply business, the orchestra floor was leveled and a drop ceiling was added, concealing and preserving the balconies and elaborate architectural details. The Miller family is credited with maintaining the structural and decorative integrity of The Colonial Theatre until the community was ready to bring it back into service as a community entertainment center.
In 1997, The Colonial Theatre was allocated with $2.5 million in funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Convention Center Bond Bill for the Colonial Theatre Restoration Project. In 1998, after many years of effort by the Friends of The Colonial Theatre Restoration, Inc., The Colonial Theatre was designated a National Historic Treasure by the Save America’s Treasures Program of the National Park Service. Reinforced by a visit to Pittsfield by then First Lady Hillary Clinton, this designation provided national credibility to the plan to restore and operate The Colonial Theatre. In 2001, the theater was purchased from the Miller Family and The Colonial Theatre Association began the process of restoration by removing the temporary walls and ceilings and having the layers of paint analyzed to confirm that the original ornamentation matched its description in news reports from its 1903 opening. After years of design, planning, and community fundraising, the rehabilitation of the historic Colonial Theatre and the extensive renovation of the adjacent Berkshire Auto Garage were undertaken.
In 2006, the theater reopened to the public. The 22-month construction process preserved and reinstalled all historically significant architectural and design features while creating a modern performance center equipped to handle the needs of artists and audiences alike. Audiences were awed by the vaulted gilded entrance, the elaborately decorated boxes and balcony, the meticulously crafted custom plasterwork and the exquisitely painted ornamental detail. The upper Gallery level preserved the original rare high-backed “pew” seating from which the view of the original “sail vault” over the proscenium, complete with its restored central mural featuring the muses of art and music, could once again inspire all who saw it.
111 South Street, Pittsfield MA, 01201