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99 Years Later, A New Shubert Era Dawns

by Paul Bass | Dec 11, 2013 1:39 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater, Business/ Economic Development, Downtown

Paul Bass Photos The “Birthplace of the Nation’s Hits” turned 99 years old Wednesday with a new lease on life—marked by a formal transfer of ownership and a ceremonial sharing of Claire’s Lithuanian Coffee Cake.

The dramatic acts took place in the lobby of the Shubert Theater on College Street.

A crowd gathered there to watch Mayor John DeStefano sign over ownership of the theater from the city to a not-for-profit called Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA), then break bread—or cake, actually—with CAPA chief John Fisher.

The Shubert opened on this date in 1914 and earned a reputation for previewing shows before they hit Broadway (hence the moniker “Birthplace of the Nation’s Hits”). It declined with the rest of central New Haven in the 1960s and 1970s. It reopened under private ownership in 1984 (by the Schiavone and Fusco corporations) as the centerpiece of a new urbanist downtown revival, this time featuring shows touring post-Broadway as well as concerts and other stage performances. A then-rising city government worker named John DeStefano helped shepherd the revived Shubert through birth pains at the time.

In 2001 the city took ownership of the theater to keep it alive and hired CAPA to run it. Wednesday the city gave the keys to CAPA to own the strengthened theater; the deal paves the way for an $11 million theater upgrade aimed at expanding the performance space and keeping the theater lit an extra 95-180 nights a year. The city sold the theater to CAPA for $1 and threw in $2.5 million toward renovation costs. (Click here and here for previous coverage of the deal to sell the theater.)

“This theater should not be a ward of the state,” DeStefano said before signing the closing legal documents with Fisher. He noted the Shubert’s “iconic” identity in New Haven, which has generated a loyal following; those supporters will have more reason to step up to keep supporting the theater under the new deal, he said. He noted that the Palace Theater across the street—a former vaudeville house which was also renovated and reopened in the 1980s, but under a new name without a similar sense of historic identity—closed years ago; it remains shuttered with no current hopes for revival.

After signing the documents, DeStefano and Fisher fed each other ceremonial first pieces of a Shubert birthday cake from Claire’s Corner Copia across the street, another beloved New Haven icon. It was Claire Criscuolo’s signature Lithuanian coffee cake.

A cast of supporting players in the Shubert’s re-revival hovered offstage during the ceremonies. They included the Shubert’s Sheri Kaplan and City Hall economic development chief Kelly Murphy, shown schmoozing above. The Shubert deal was one of numerous long-term projects Murphy has shepherded to approval in her and the DeStefano administration’s final weeks in City Hall. (Other credits include the Hill-to-Downtown project, the $395 proposed rebuilding of the old Coliseum site, and the Mill River District plan.)

A second drama played on a video screen in the background during the deal-signing and cake-eating: scenes from Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School’s recent production of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. The Shubert’s CAPA helps run the theater at Coop, a block away, an example of the kind of community partnerships that will need to be a central theme of the Shubert’s second century of operations.

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