Town and gown at Palmer Auditorium
When the grand old Palmer Auditorium at Connecticut College raises the curtain in a couple of years on its $20 million redo, students and faculty won't be the only ones applauding.
As a campus performance hall, Palmer functions as a teaching and "creative research" laboratory, a rehearsal space and an experimental stage, all of which qualify it academically and artistically for the two $10 million gifts the college has just received to update the 1939 Art Deco building.
A theater isn't a theater, however, without live performances. It needs audiences. Foresighted college officials may have been thinking such thoughts back when they built the 1,300-seat auditorium with a student body of only 600. By 1939, the college had already been staging performances in buildings around downtown New London. It had established that one of its gown-to-town offerings would be live performances of a scale and a caliber not available anywhere else nearby.
Connecticut College has been chided here and elsewhere for failing to contribute significant cash to this land-poor city in lieu of the property taxes the college has been exempted from paying. This is not that, and ticket sales are a revenue source for the college, not a handout. The college still needs to examine its conscience on the topic of payment in lieu of taxes, known as PILOT.
It's welcome news, however, that the renovations to Palmer and the adjacent Castle Court are part of a master plan to turn the south campus vicinity into an arts destination, including the Cummings Art Center and the college's neighbor, Lyman Allyn Art Museum. Palmer renovations will include a new, more welcoming entrance, a "sprung" stage floor especially suited to dance performances — a major Connecticut College legacy — classroom and rehearsal spaces, better seating and accessibility and a rebuilt façade. Castle Court will be turned into a natural amphitheater and outdoor classroom.
The public that responded enthusiastically decades ago to the American Dance Festival and the original Concert and Artist Series turned into multiple generations for whom the performances were their main exposure to campus. After 80 years and however many generations that comes to, the name changed to OnStage Series and the offerings became smaller-scale but more cutting-edge as the college and the revitalized Garde Arts Center figured out their respective niches.
Refreshing is good. We shall see what the next version is. I'm expecting more prominence for student performances, fewer but better seats and rethought sightlines. They may even raise the roof. Campus legend has it that Palmer would have been a higher building except that the college president at the time didn't want it to block the view of Long Island Sound.
Culturally rich Southeastern Connecticut has many other institutions of Palmer Auditorium's age and older that need new roofs, digital equipment, handicapped access and other urgent upgrades. Most do not have alumni or even modest endowments, and the spigot of state money is dripping to a halt.
Connecticut College is fortunate to have able and willing donors of large-scale gifts and a professional development staff with the resources to cultivate them. Palmer's community audience has been fortunate, too. I hope student and professional performances open to the public will continue to star in the next act for Palmer Auditorium.
Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.
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