A sweet song playing out in Westerly
Westerly — The good news keeps coming for downtown Westerly.
The project to create a regional center for the arts and art education across several downtown venues is gaining additional support in the second push of its $12 million fundraising campaign, collecting monies that will go toward the United Theatre/Knickerbocker Café collaboration to establish a multi-venue campus for the arts.
There are numerous other committed partners: the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School, the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals, Trinity Repertory Company, Robert Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust, the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery and the Salt Marsh Opera.
The plan is transforming the former vaudeville theater and a next-door building that once housed a Montgomery Ward store on Canal Street into a series of performance, meeting and classroom spaces. There will be a black box theater, a first-run art house and revival cinema, a micro-cinema, events space, fine arts gallery and classrooms.
Around the corner, at the storied Knickerbocker Café at 35 Railroad Ave., there is additional entertainment space for headliners and other musicians who come to perform in Westerly, as well as space for master class sessions with visiting musicians. To date, Jon Batiste, Deer Tick, Leon Russell and Robert Earl Keen have been among the big names at what is now called The Knickerbocker Music Center.
“The opportunities are endless,” said Tony Nunes, marketing consultant for the endeavor.
“This is a multifaceted project that will strengthen Westerly’s presence on the shoreline and in the region, and be a central meeting point for Connecticut and Rhode Island,” said Maureen Fitzgerald, chair of The United board of directors and president and chief executive officer of the Ocean Community YMCA.
When completed, the collaborations will provide myriad opportunities for people of all ages, and from all backgrounds, to find reason to come to downtown Westerly for the arts, arts education and entertainment, she said.
The venues, including the Westerly Library and Wilcox Park, will host movies, swing bands, stand-up comedy, fashion shows, live opera, classical recitals, lectures and panel discussions, art displays, classroom instruction and more.
Proponents like to say the multibuilding downtown campus will be a community center for the arts — or Westerly’s own mini Lincoln Center.
Charles “Chuck” Royce and his Royce Family Fund, who has been involved in many successful local projects including the Ocean House, Weekapaug Inn, a satellite campus of the Community College of Rhode Island, Savoy Bookshop & Café and the downtown skating rink, is deeply invested in The United project. He serves as vice chair of the board.
Many of The United’s board members, including Royce, also are on the board of the Knickerbocker, and the two groups share the parallel mission of developing Westerly as an arts destination.
Early on, they raised $6 million, including community pledges, historical state tax credits, cultural bond funds and support from board members. Now, they have just launched a capital campaign to raise an additional $6 million to complete the project.
The Artists’ Cooperative Gallery, which was housed in the old department store portion of the United property, temporarily has relocated to the Westerly Train Station in anticipation of more substantial construction starting soon on the theater’s interior space.
Train ticket sales still will be handled online and with cellphones but, with the relocation of the art gallery, the station will be reopened Wednesdays to Sundays, providing train travelers with an indoor waiting area, restrooms and access to the gallery. Opened in 1912, the station stopped selling tickets in 2016 but never ceased to be a place for dropping off and picking up passengers.
Back on Canal Street, the circa-1926 theater and next-door building have been joined and structurally reinforced, including a new roof. Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning work is being done and, as the fundraising gains momentum, interior work will proceed.
“It will be full-steam ahead with construction lasting about a year,” Nunes said.
'The Westerly Blues'
The theater, which opened its doors on Jan. 18, 1926, and operated as a vaudeville theater and later cinema, closed in 1986 and was purchased in 2006 by the Westerly Land Trust as part of its urban initiative. Three years later, the land trust bought the old Montgomery Ward with the intent of merging the buildings and creating an arts space. To that end, they created the Ocean Community United Theatre, a registered nonprofit.
Today, the theater is part of the Westerly Downtown Historic District of the National Register of Historic Places and, since 2014, has hosted occasional shows and events as fundraising and planning has proceeded.
The United partnered with the Knickerbocker in 2014, the same year the Knick collaborated with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School.
The affiliations have energized the youth music education component of the project, with more than 1,000 Westerly and Chariho students participating annually since the partnership was launched. Combined, The United and Knick will provide an educational learning center for more than 300 weekly lessons, classes and ensemble students with the Philharmonic Music School when the project is at its peak.
A longtime entertainment center in southern New England, the Knickerbocker, named after a train that passed through Westerly when the café opened in 1933, has hosted many great musicians and always focused on the blues. Many people associate the legendary Roomful of Blues, the band that started in Westerly in 1967 and regularly packed the Knick, with the Railroad Avenue property.
By affiliating with The United, the Knickerbocker Music Center will better fulfill its mission of preserving, cultivating, celebrating and teaching the so-called “Westerly blues” and all other forms of music.
The United recently has rebuilt and redesigned its website and its logo. It has reconstructed its board and is laser-focused on its capital campaign, intent on raising the final $6 million to bring the project to fruition.
“The sky is the limit,” Nunes said about the arts and arts education that will be available in downtown Westerly when the project is completed and fully up and running. “With these partnerships, there is a lot we can do. We will be able to bring artist here who otherwise would have bypassed this area.”
As an example, he noted Deer Tick appeared at The Knick in July while in the area for the Newport Folk Festival.
Regarding the collaboration with Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust, Nunes said eventually a film education center will be established and students will use footage from Ballard’s explorations in a pilot documentary film-making program.
“There’s great momentum right now,” Nunes said. “A lot is happening.”
“We need the community in both states (Connecticut and Rhode Island) to bring this project to fruition,” said Fitzgerald, The United board’s chair, emphasizing that while the physical location of the arts campus will be downtown Westerly, the draw for the arts and arts education will be from all of southern New England. “This is a very unique and wonderful opportunity and we need the time, talent and treasure of everyone to succeed with the vision and mission of the United Theatre.”
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