A $2.2-million fundraising drive will help with Garde renovations

Bobby Graham, costumer at the Garde Arts Theater Center, mends the main curtain on Aug. 11 in New London. The Garde is holding a $2.2-million fundraising effort for several large renovations that need to be completed over the course of this year, including updating curtains and renovating the HVAC systems.  (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Bobby Graham, costumer at the Garde Arts Theater Center, mends the main curtain on Aug. 11 in New London. The Garde is holding a $2.2-million fundraising effort for several large renovations that need to be completed over the course of this year, including updating curtains and renovating the HVAC systems. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

It was less than two months ago that comedian Kevin Hart decided to make an impromptu stop at the Garde Arts Center — a performance that was squeezed into his schedule just four days beforehand. The decision was largely made to complement his appearance at his birthday party at Foxwoods on the same evening. The news spread like wildfire. Sixteen hours later, every ticket for the Garde show had sold.

Executive director Steven Sigel says that was an exciting opportunity to bring a superstar act into New London’s historic theater. But, at the same time, it was also overshadowed by the many pressing renovations that are needed throughout the theater.

During Hart's less-than-two-hour visit to the Garde, the outdated Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems, which are nearly 10 years past their expiration date, couldn’t support a theater filled to capacity, Sigel says. Theater temperatures hovered around 74 degrees, which was 6 degrees higher than the set 68.

Hart spent most of his time in his tour bus and briefly in the outdated under-stage Green Room before coming out for his performance. Sitting in one of the antique dressing rooms, Sigel says, was out of the question. And many other acts over the years have also decided to stay in their own buses instead of sitting backstage before a show, Sigel says.

“In the winter, the rooms are freezing cold, and in the summer, they are far too hot for anyone to comfortably sit in,” Sigel says. Besides an overall renovation backstage, the 90-year-old steam-heat system has become unreliable and also needs to be replaced.

The theater’s ticketing software, which Sigel says is in need of a replacement, was another issue.

“Hart’s event organizers were very concerned about scalpers and scammers ripping people off. That can happen with unsophisticated ticketing software,” Sigel says. “And it’s a problem everywhere, but a new ticketing software could have helped with many of these concerns.”

Instead of using the Garde’s software, the theater worked closely with Hart’s management to use a third-party online ticketing company — allowing for the use of e-tickets and preventing others being purchased through scalpers and scam artists.

These are only a few of the problems that the theater is experiencing.

“We want to bring in bigger acts to the theater, but a lot of these issues are holding us back,” Sigel says while standing in the empty, balmy theater, which has been shut down for August because of the issues.

“It’s a long list of what we need to get done, but we’re hoping it will all be finished by the end of this year,” Sigel says.

On top of new HVAC systems, a new backstage heating system and new ticketing software, the main stage curtain and the asbestos fire curtain need to be replaced, along with a new sound system, among other renovations.

In an effort to do all that, Sigel and marketing director Jeanne Sigel, who is Steve’s wife, have launched a “Re-energize the Garde campaign” — a $2.2 million fundraiser to keep the 1920s-era theater in working order.

“It’s a leap of faith, but we think we can raise all the money that is needed to do this,” Jeanne Sigel says.

So far, the Garde has raised nearly half of those funds — in part to a $900,000 Urban Act Grant received from the state of Connecticut this year for the renovations. With money in hand, their first course of action will be to replace the HVAC systems on the roof, Sigel says. He hopes that will be completed by the end of this month.

Replacing the two units is no easy feat. Both are big enough to take up a common-sized bedroom, so a crane is needed to remove the two units from the roof of the theater. Those units are attached to a complex maze of ladders, raised walking platforms and meters of winding air-duct vents. The vents, which are wide enough for men to walk through in some parts, crisscross down into the theater to provide the temperatures needed to keep an audience comfortable.

Both of these HVAC systems are working inefficiently, namely due to 20-plus years of weather that the systems have been subjected to, not to mention the hordes of seagulls who use the roof and said systems for nesting each summer.

“As you can see, the seagulls have liked to peck their way into the vents to create nests,” production and maintenance specialist Shawn Cunningham says while pointing out various patch-jobs made to the vents. “And there is mildew growing through some parts of the air ducts, which is really affecting the air quality of the theater.”

The renovations will also include a thorough cleaning throughout the vents, while more damaged sections will be removed and replaced.

Down below, behind the stage, another set of issues exist. The green hue of the fire-wall curtain, which is made of asbestos, can be seen peeking through the layers of various other stage curtains.

It hangs mostly undisturbed in the rafters, 90 feet above the stage, and is brought down for repairs and maintenance work once a year. But doing so, Cunningham says, puts anyone working on the curtain at risk.

“That curtain was installed when the theater was built in 1926,” Cunningham says, pointing up to it. “There are tears and rips in it, and when it’s moved, it could release asbestos particles in the air.”

Replacing the curtain hasn’t been necessary until now, however. It is code compliant and perfectly safe if kept still, Sigel says.

Replacing both the main stage curtains and the fire curtain will cost a total of $225,000.

“It’s funny because, in the old days, they used to let the curtain down before a show to give the audience a feeling of security,” Cunningham says, referring to a common but now outdated theater practice.

In the past, many fire curtains around the world were ornately decorated to make for a pleasing pre-show viewing experience for the audience. Others were painted with advertisements, and many even had the word “Asbestos” across the front.

“If the audience saw ‘asbestos’ on the curtain, that would assure them of their safety even more,” Cunningham says.

The curtain at the Garde also has the word “Asbestos” plastered across the front of it.

“Now, if we were to let the curtain down before a show, the whole crowd would go running out of the theater,” Cunningham says, laughing.

This isn’t the first major renovation that the theater has needed.

In 2000, the Garde raised over a $11 million to fund many renovations that were completed throughout the 1990s. Some of those changes included the creation of the Oasis Room, which functions as a conference and catering area, along with a full restoration to the theater's original Moroccan décor seen in the original Garde lobby and auditorium. The 1,450 seats in the theater were replaced, and elevator and wheelchair access were installed, along with several other renovations.

In 2014, the Garde completed a $500,000 campaign to install a state-of-the-art digital cinema system and commercial sound system — all of which was raised solely through personal donations and pledges.

Raising the money as quickly as possible this summer is paramount in keeping the Garde running over the year, Sigel says.

“We have to get a new HVAC system in by the end of the summer because the theater can’t function like this any longer,” Sigel says.

For Jeanne Sigel, these many instances have proven that the community is dedicated to keeping the theater going. That alone, she says, has instilled a sense of confidence that this year’s fundraising will be accomplished.

“We have a million miracles here because of the millions who have come since 1926. When you come here, you leave the worries at the door. And when the audiences leaves, they then leave a piece of happiness here in the theater,” she says. “And that energy has been left, and we can still feel that. It’s that energy that persists, and that’s the magic of coming here — and, as the caretakers of this place, we are making sure that when we pass the baton on to the next person, the theater will still be here, shining.”

 

Jason Lucas, production manager at the Garde Arts Theater Center, pulls down the main curtain at the New London theater. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Jason Lucas, production manager at the Garde Arts Theater Center, pulls down the main curtain at the New London theater. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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