Garde ready for its third act

People enter the Garde Arts Center for a performance Wednesday, February 1, 2006.  (Dana Jensen/Day File Photo)
People enter the Garde Arts Center for a performance Wednesday, February 1, 2006. (Dana Jensen/Day File Photo)

The Garde Arts Center: a veritable monument of classic entertainment and culture. Lording over the downtown of New London from its hilltop perch on timeless State Street, it has stood there nearly a century. It was built during the fabled “Roaring Twenties” era, three years before the Great Depression shook America, and was witness to the latter part of a stunning sports decade that saw the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig powerhouse Yankees, along with boxing’s golden years of Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney fame.

The Garde stood firm and erect during the gripping years of the 1930s when iconic black athletes like track Olympian Jesse Owens and boxing’s beloved Joe Louis crushed the ego of a despot, Adolf Hitler. And the Garde remained structurally intact when the most savage hurricane to ever hit the northeast devastated New London County in 1938.

The grand old sentinel atop State Street survived countless other ravages of Mother Nature and also endured the political tumult of the 1960s that rattled an entire nation.

Yet, that decade and the ensuing ‘70s and ‘80s nearly took down this remnant of majestic old theaters. Time and wear had eroded its infrastructure, both physical and managerial. The Garde was crumbling into sad ruins, an evanescent ghost of its once stately self. It seemed headed in the direction of the very era from which it had been molded as it limped painfully on a path toward oblivion — not unlike a lumbering old elephant, magnificent in its youthful and middle-years splendor, but finally en route to an obscure graveyard to join the rest of its fading kin.

Then Team Sigel came to town. The late 1980s marked the resurgence of the Garde Theater, eventually to be renamed the Garde Arts Center. Headed by its new executive director, Steve Sigel, and a squadron of dedicated sponsors, businesses, private citizens and arts enthusiasts, the resurrection of this onetime gem began in earnest.

The gallant movement generated the unselfish aid of an entire county and rescued the crumbling entertainment giant from an ashy abyss. It regenerated in “Terminator-fashion,” minus the science fiction element.

Soon, those beloved shows of yore — classic films and touring Broadway plays — along with independent artists that included elegant dance troupes, renowned comedians, daring new independent works, children’s theatre, musicians… all returned. Seats previously vacated were filled again, breathing life back into a grand structure and waking slumbering ghosts that had slept for too long.

In the words of Garde Arts marketing director Jeanne Sigel (wife to Steve): “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (meaning tradition).”

The Garde was back, and so were the glory years.

But tack on another quarter-century and things start to show wear all over again. Time erodes even the mightiest — including the infrastructure of a giant like the durable Garde. Sophisticated heating and cooling systems having to accommodate capacity houses of over 1,400 eventually fail, while a roof that had seen far too many years of fierce snow, rain and ice storms, and had also held up under the fury of brutal hurricanes, finally felt the strain of the ultimate foe: time.

Add into the mix an aging fire curtain, strong and resistant for decades, that had crossed over into a new millennium showing the wear of one on the brink of a dwindling lifetime. The same was true of the house curtain.

Once again the Garde Arts Center needed an angel; more so, it needed an army of them. Once again the angels arrived, ready to pitch in.

A whole community answered the call, along with a chain of sponsors, including the State of Connecticut in the form of much-needed grants. All saw fit to help in a restoration effort to maintain the grace and physical majesty of a near century-old palace of the arts.

The work done thus far has been nothing less than magnificent. This past summer, the top of State Street was closed down several times for an entire day while huge trucks and heavy equipment were activated to refurbish the massive sagging rooftop of the Garde. Now that roof holds steady and firm once more.

Along with the state, those who helped finance this latest revitalization effort include Edward and Mary Lord Foundation, A Touch of Grey, Atlantic Broadband, Bob’s Discount Furniture, Dominion – Millstone Power Station, Olde Mistick Village, People’s United Bank, The Day, Blu-Prints Unlimited Inc., Charter Oak Federal Credit Union, Simply Majestic Jewelers, Valenti Family of Dealerships, Conway, Londregan, Sheehan & Monaco, P.C. (Others contributed anonymously.)

Marketing director Jeanne Sigel speaks glowingly of the Garde Arts Center’s second Return-to-the-Future.

“We’re absolutely thrilled with the overall support the Garde has enjoyed in its campaign to re-energize. Not only will our patrons find themselves a good deal cozier when they attend our shows and special events, they’re going to especially enjoy the variety of our upcoming packages!” she beamed.

“It’s more than just an entertainment experience here now,” Sigel added. “The Garde is, in essence, a marriage of commitment that combines arts and education with economic development. Our seasons have become a tapestry of mixed events that have been built effectively over time.”

She points proudly to the recent Garrison Keillor event in which an audience of over 1,400 strong rose onto their feet and sang along enthusiastically. Sigel also points to the PJ Mask show which was literally built — put together — right inside the Garde and tested there.

“This is a show designed in such a way that it can be staged either in the largest of theaters … or the smallest,” she explained. “And there’s so much more our audiences can now expect in a fully renovated Garde.”

That includes the theater’s more compact performance space for smaller shows that are every bit as dynamic as those on the main stage: the Garde’s exquisite Oasis Room.

Jeanne Sigel smiles with pride at the eclectic nature of the upcoming late fall and winter schedule — which include P n B Rock in November; while December kicks off with its Celtic Christmas special, “Cherish the Ladies,” followed by the iconic Melissa Etheridge. Spring promises the unique Popovich Comedy Pet Theater and then the touring Broadway stage version of a beloved classic, “The Wizard of Oz.”

It should be noted that the film version that embraced America (and later, worldwide audiences) so passionately, premiered in 1939, back when the Garde itself was still in its infancy. As “The Wizard of Oz” continues to weave its eternal magic,the Garde Arts Center, with public support and generous sponsorships, appears destined to do the same.

For further information, call (860) 444-7373 or visit gardearts.org.

Elementary school students from around the region attend one of two Young People’s Concerts with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Thursday, October 20, 2011 at the Garde Arts Center in New London, Conn.  A 60 piece orchestra conducted by ECSO Music Director, Toshiyuki (Toshi) Shimada will perform a program including Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra narrated by James Stidfole and other selections which highlight the different sections of the orchestra.  A group of dancers from the Eastern Connecticut Ballet School interpreted the Britten piece. Performances were made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut with the support of  Charter Oak Federal Credit Union which subsidized the ticket prices.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Elementary school students from around the region attend one of two Young People’s Concerts with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Thursday, October 20, 2011 at the Garde Arts Center in New London, Conn. A 60 piece orchestra conducted by ECSO Music Director, Toshiyuki (Toshi) Shimada will perform a program including Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra narrated by James Stidfole and other selections which highlight the different sections of the orchestra. A group of dancers from the Eastern Connecticut Ballet School interpreted the Britten piece. Performances were made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut with the support of Charter Oak Federal Credit Union which subsidized the ticket prices. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Bobby Graham, costumer at the Garde Arts Theater Center, mends the main curtain on Friday, August 11, 2017 in New London. The Garde  is holding a $2.2 million fundraiser 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 Friday, August 11, 2017 in New London. The Garde is holding a $2.2 million fundraiser 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)
Two members of the audience mimic the conducting of of Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshiyuki Shimada (not pictured) during the ECSO’s annual Young People´s Concerts on Tuesday, October 18, 2016, at the Garde Arts Center in New London. Sponsored by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, Chelsea Groton Foundation, Bodenwein Public Benevolent Foundation, and Charter Oak Federal Credit Union, over 1500 3rd-5th grade students from Norwich, New London, Groton, and other school districts were treated to, Chills & Trills. This 50-minute concert featured some familiar Halloween-themed music including Mussorgsky´s Night on Bald Mountain and Grieg´s In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt. The Eastern Connecticut Ballet joined ECSO with Saint-Saëns´ Danse Macabre and selections from Tchaikovsky´s Sleeping Beauty. The program ended with a tribute to John Williams that highlighted many of Williams´ movie compositions. New this year for these YPCs, ECSO offered in-school presentations of some of the material that was provided in study guides, and on the concert stage. A grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut allowed the ECSO Concertmaster Stephan Tiezan and Principal Cellist Christine Coyle to travel to Elementary schools in the region, performing excerpts and break down concepts musically to further prepare students to make the most of their YPC experience.  (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Two members of the audience mimic the conducting of of Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshiyuki Shimada (not pictured) during the ECSO’s annual Young People´s Concerts on Tuesday, October 18, 2016, at the Garde Arts Center in New London. Sponsored by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, Chelsea Groton Foundation, Bodenwein Public Benevolent Foundation, and Charter Oak Federal Credit Union, over 1500 3rd-5th grade students from Norwich, New London, Groton, and other school districts were treated to, Chills & Trills. This 50-minute concert featured some familiar Halloween-themed music including Mussorgsky´s Night on Bald Mountain and Grieg´s In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt. The Eastern Connecticut Ballet joined ECSO with Saint-Saëns´ Danse Macabre and selections from Tchaikovsky´s Sleeping Beauty. The program ended with a tribute to John Williams that highlighted many of Williams´ movie compositions. New this year for these YPCs, ECSO offered in-school presentations of some of the material that was provided in study guides, and on the concert stage. A grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut allowed the ECSO Concertmaster Stephan Tiezan and Principal Cellist Christine Coyle to travel to Elementary schools in the region, performing excerpts and break down concepts musically to further prepare students to make the most of their YPC experience. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
A crane lifts a new heating and cooling system earlier this year that was installed in the Garde Arts Center building. (Photo courtesy of A. Vincent Scarano)
A crane lifts a new heating and cooling system earlier this year that was installed in the Garde Arts Center building. (Photo courtesy of A. Vincent Scarano)
The Garde Arts Center building as seen from above. (Photo courtesy of A. Vincent Scarano)
The Garde Arts Center building as seen from above. (Photo courtesy of A. Vincent Scarano)

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