When John Cavaliere bought a decrepit building on Whalley Avenue in Westville Village in 2006, he saw an opportunity to practice his craft as a restorer of antiques on a grand scale by bringing back to life the century-old edifice. He ended up doing that, and much more.
The building, which he named Lyric Hall, started out as a silent film and vaudeville theater in 1913. Since he reopened the theater in 2010, it has become one of the most eclectic performance venues in the city, hosting everything from plays and musical performances to circus acts and drag shows. With Cavaliere as its passionate visionary-impresario, the theater has helped foster a cultural renaissance in Westville Village.
Now Cavaliere, 53, is preparing to turn the next page in his life — and Lyric Hall’s. He’s putting the building up for sale.
“I want to find a good soul who will take this wonderful place to the next level, and keep the magic going,” he said.
“After 12 years, I feel I have done my job. I restore things, and this is the biggest antique I have ever restored. The universe is telling me it’s time to move on.”
At first, Cavaliere sold antiques in the retail space in the front of the building and restored furniture and picture frames in the basement. Then he started hosting shows and events in a 60-seat theater in the back. He obtained a tavern license three years ago, which allows him to sell wine and beer during events. The space is decorated with remarkable architectural elements, furniture, and artwork, making it a fun and comfortable gathering place for all kinds of people.
But Cavaliere, who sleeps at night on a couch in a loft at the rear of the theater, has also been beset by one problem after another — including flooding in the basement and soaring tax bills in 2015 that brought a city foreclosure perilously close to his doors. (Read about that here.) Friends helped him raise money to deal with his setbacks. The building requires a great deal of maintenance, and it takes a lot of energy and creativity to keep the business afloat.
Cavaliere’s decision to sell the property came as a result of a new challenge: Connecticut’s adoption of the national FDA Food Code, which places new requirements on businesses that serve food.
He said the new regulations would require him to spend up to $60,000 on a modern commercial kitchen. Right now, he has a small “warming” kitchen equipped with a 1936 refrigerator and a 1928 oven. Typically, caterers bring in food for events that they cook in their own kitchens.
Roslyn Hamilton, the New Haven health department inspector who broke the news about the new regulations to Cavaliere, said, “Historic ancient equipment won’t work. They want modern commercial equipment in these places.” The new regulations take effect early next year. She stressed she was not seeking to shut down Cavaliere’s operation.
Westvillians and culture mavens reacted with shock and sadness when they learned of Cavaliere’s plans.
“Lyric Hall is essential and iconic to Westville village, and Lyric Hall is John. He made it from nothing,” said Lizzy Donius, executive director of Westville Village Renaissance Alliance. She is trying to help Cavaliere find the right buyer for the place. “We want to make sure it stays a theater and his vision lives on,” she said.
Finding somebody who wants to operate a theater is going to be a challenge, admitted Jamie Cuzzocreo, an agent for H. Pearce Real Estate, which is listing the property. “It’s unique. It’s not every day that you sell a theater — especially one with all this history.” Yet he’s hopeful it can be done. The asking price is $550,000.
On a recent Saturday, Cavaliere and a painting crew scrambled to repaint the venue’s tiny kitchen before the place goes on the market. It’s there that Cavaliere hosts small gatherings of friends, preparing homemade pizzas, salads and fresh gnocchi at a tiny table in the middle of the room.
Travis Carbonella, a young videographer who lives and works nearby, said he treasures having Cavaliere as a neighbor: “I walk outside, I see John. He invites me over for lunch. He comes from an old-school Italian background. For me it’s very comforting. It feels like family. That’s his beauty. It’s one of his gifts.”
There have been all sorts of quirky and notable events at the Lyric over the years.
In 2010, after Cavaliere rebuilt the theater, he didn’t have to wait long for someone to bite. A local teacher and playwright, Gerene Freeman, wanted to stage her play, Incantation. But first she asked her director, Eddie Jackson, for advice. Eddie, a devotee of the religion of the West African Yoruba people, meditated in the space and concluded that it had a strong positive vibe.
“That was an auspicious start,” said Cavaliere. “Incantation was the first play put on here in nearly 90 years, and it set the stage for all the shows that would come.”
Later, Celeste Holm, the actress who won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement, got locked in a bathroom before a film screening. Cavaliere had to take out a window to rescue her.
On another occasion, for a screening of the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the star of the film, Keir Dullea, came to the stage afterwards to reminisce and answer questions.
Several people gave thanks to Cavaliere for hiring them to work on the place and for teaching them how to restore antiques. Liz Wrynn works as a painter, often in historic buildings. “He has mentored and trained many people,” she said.
Cavaliere said he could not have made Lyric Hall sing without a lot of help from his friends. Early on, Marge Basili not only urged him to buy the theater but sold an expensive piece of jewelry to raise money, which she loaned to him for restoration. “There are a lot of huge kindnesses like that, which have propelled me forward,” Cavaliere said.
While Cavaliere’s friends are sad to see him offer Lyric Hall for sale, they recognize that he has to do what’s best for him. “He’s like Don Quixote, in a way, always fighting the good battle,” said Wrynn. “He’s always working, and he must be tired.”
Cavaliere will continue to book shows and host events while Lyric Hall is on the market. After he sells the property, he looks forward to visiting a friend in Prague and relatives in Italy.
Then he’ll figure out what his next career move will be. “I have options, and it’s the first time in a very long time,” he said. “I’m pretty excited, but I’m just taking it slow.”
The public is invited to an open house at Lyric Hall on Friday, Dec. 7, from 5-7 p.m. There will be a live band, and snacks will be served.