A rich history: Behind the scenes at the Academy of Music

  • Debra J'Anthony, standing, leads a tour of the Academy of Music in Northampton. For The Recorder/Jerrey Roberts

  • For The Recorder/Jerrey RobertsDebra J'Anthony, center, leads a tour of the Academy of Music in Northampton.

  • One of two stained glass windows in the lobby of the Academy of Music in Northampton. For The Recorder/Jerrey Roberts

  • For The Recorder/Jerrey RobertsDebra J'Anthony, center, talks about a spiral staircase in the backstage corner that leads to a walkway to the opposite side of the stage, during a tour of the Academy of Music. She is the executive director.

  • A dressing room is named for actor Richard Burton at the Academy of Music. Burton and Elizabeth Taylor watched movies at the theater when they were in the area filming "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf".

  • Debra J'Anthony, right, leads a tour of the Academy of Music.

  • Debra J'Anthony, center, talks about a spiral staircase in the backstage corner that leads to a walkway to the opposite side of the stage, during a tour of the Academy of Music.

  • Detail of a grandfather clock at the Academy of Music in Northampton. It came from the estate of songwriter and composer Cole Porter.Detail of a grandfather clock at the Academy of Music in Northampton. It came from the estate of songwriter and composer Cole Porter. For The Recorder/Jerrey Roberts

For The Recorder
Published: 6/22/2016 2:47:02 PM

Behind the triple doors at the front of the Academy of Music in Northampton, beyond the plush, deep-maroon walls of the foyer and into the peach-hued theater “house,” lies a rich, textured 125-year-old theatrical history.

From the decades-old playbills and pictures of past performers that adorn the back hallways, to the 1970s-era green-and-purple floral wallpapers and red-and-purple-patterned carpets, the past has been imprinted, it seems, in virtually every floorboard of the grand old theater.

The Academy’s debut performance, on May 23, 1891, was a sold-out concert presented by the Boston Symphony, which played Beethoven’s “Consecration of the House.”

Since then, the theater has been a live-performance venue, as well as a movie house for silent films and “talkies,” as well as for independent flicks and Hollywood blockbusters — its ups and downs seeming to mirror the changing cultural world in the Valley, and beyond.

“It has a rich history, not just by the names of the people across this stage, but because it’s a place in the community,” said Debra J’Anthony, the executive director of the theater.

Today, after a past of varied use, the 800-seat venue again features mainly live performances, hosting some 50,000 audience members a year, J’Anthony says.

On a day in late March, in an annual tradition, J’Anthony led a public walking tour of the theater. A reporter and photographer joined J’Anthony, and 15 others, for the behind-the-scenes peek. Here’s what we saw and learned:

The theater was built in 1891 by Edward H.R. Lyman, a Northampton philanthropist, and after the first performance, quickly became a favorite stop for touring troupes and big-name performers, among them French actress Sarah Bernhardt, film star Mae West and escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini.

Lyman wanted to deed the Academy to Northampton, and the city accepted the gift four years after its completion, making it the first municipally owned theater in the nation.

Our tour started in the foyer, near a stairway that leads to the theater’s balcony. Above us was a brass-armed chandelier, whose bright light exposed the white oval-shaped dome of the ceiling.

Not far away, near a concession stand, is a 6-foot-tall grandfather clock that J’Anthony says is “on loan” from the estate of 1920s and ‘30s songwriter Cole Porter. Nearby we saw a portrait of Lyman, the theater’s founder.

Changing times

Before the Civil War, it seems, the rewards of philanthropy in this country went mainly to churches and schools, but in the late 1800s, that was changing, J’Anthony said. Monied folks, like Lyman, began to turn their attention to the arts, and to the quality of life, in general.

Lyman, a partner in a silk- and tea-trading company, was interested in the arts; he was involved with the group that developed the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the first of its kind in the country.

So, in 1888, when his trading concern was liquidated, Lyman was left with cash in his pocket — enough, he decided, to build a theater for his hometown, Northampton. It cost him in the neighborhood of $100,000.

When Lyman died in 1899, four years after deeding the theater to the city, his son, Frank Lyman, became the manager.

At the time, J’Anthony told the group, the quality of touring companies was hit-or-miss.

“Frank Lyman was a theater buff, so he wanted to see more refined plays on stage,” J’Anthony said. “He was disappointed with the kinds of touring companies that were coming through.”

Lyman brought on board The Northampton Players, a group of local actors, who produced plays at the Academy from 1912 to 1929, when Lyman retired.

“It was in the [theater’s] interest to have control over what was put onstage here,” J’Anthony said.

An intimate theater

Our tour moved on — into the theater proper, where we took seats in the first few rows of the orchestra section — 400 upholstered red chairs, facing what J’Anthony calls a “mid-size” proscenium stage that measures 34 feet from its front edge to the back wall. Its width, from wall to wall, is 63 feet.

“I really enjoy the Academy stage because … its quite intimate,” J’Anthony said. “You’re very close to your audience and it’s a warm and easy feeling onstage.”

Between the audience and the stage is an orchestra pit that can fit “about 22 musicians, tightly,” she said.

The theater’s curtain of green velveteen with gold brocade is the same one Frank Lyman installed during the theater’s first round of renovations, in 1917. It is raised and lowered using a rope-and-pulley system controlled from the rafters above the stage.

Opera boxes

D’Anthony pointed out the theater’s opera boxes, decorated with strings of green bay laurel leaves. Historically, these seats were reserved for those of high class and wealth, J’Anthony said. Ironically, she added, “They are the worst seats in the house.”

Upstairs is seating for another 400, including the loge (the seats closer to the stage) and the upper balcony. Because of the expansive view of the stage from the loge, J’Anthony says, that is her favorite place to sit. But, she added, “There’s not a bad seat in the house.”

Dead center in the theater’s ceiling is a golden dome that once was illuminated by a chandelier that boasted 76 points of incandescent lights — at the time, a novelty; the theater was lit mainly with gaslights. Because electric lighting was so new, the theater brought in Thomas Edison to inspect the chandelier’s safety, J’Anthony said.

When the shiny gold dome is lit, as it was in the past, the colors are “absolutely stunning,” she said, adding that she hopes to have a new chandelier mounted in the dome soon.

Next, we stepped onto center stage, where we found a trapdoor, taped shut.

“Story says, when Harry Houdini came through here, the trapdoor was made for one of his tricks,” J’Anthony told us. But, she added, “Can’t prove it. Or disprove it.”

The silent era

By the later 1920s, under the new management of Frank Shaughnessy, the Academy was showing mainly silent films, which were all the rage. Indeed, J’Anthony says, the Great Depression had little effect on the Academy’s operations, and it eventually, successfully, made the switch to “talkies.”

Mildred Walker looked after the theater for a year in 1940, when Shaughnessy was sent off to World War II. She was the first female manager of the Academy and didn’t last long.

The story goes that a film company that was leasing the building took exception to a woman running it and actually brought the case to court. Walker is the subject of a play, “Nobody’s Girl,” by Harley Erdman, which premiered in 2014 at the Academy.

In 1941, Clifford Boyd became manager and ran the theater, mainly as a movie venue, into the 1960s — a time J’Anthony calls “The heyday of the Academy.” “That’s what we did on weekend nights,” she said. “We went out with the family and out with friends — you went to see films.”

Legend has it that even actress Elizabeth Taylor and actor Richard Burton saw some flicks there when they were in the area in the mid-1960s to film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” There is a dressing room with Burton’s name on it in the theater.

Boyd also supervised the second round of renovations to the theater, in 1947, changing the colors on the walls to maroon and gray, and adding new seats.

Dwayne Robinson succeeded Boyd’s 30 years as manager. He came onboard in 1971 and managed the theater through the ups and downs of its film era: by the 1980s, things were looking bleak, J’Anthony said, as the Academy and other single-screen movie houses had to compete with the new multiscreen megaplexes that were springing up.

It was not an easy task: many smaller-scale theaters were forced to either divide up their venue or close their doors completely. Rather than throw in the towel, the Academy board of directors decided to get out of the film business and to reinvest in the performing arts.

Eye on the community

Enter J’Anthony. She became manager in 2009 and began to create live programming, with an eye toward community involvement.

“All the performing … provides a social context of something that’s important to its patrons or that is in collaboration with other community-based organizations,” she said.

For example, the theater hosts educational programs in July for youth; they produce musicals for children and a “Valley Voice Story Slam,” an event in which anyone can tell a story.

Resident companies are all local, including the Pioneer Valley Ballet, Eggtooth Productions (formerly known as Old Deerfield Productions), Greene Room Productions and The Pioneer Valley Symphony.

“I get a lot of joy from bringing in programs that our audience likes to participate in, whether it’s a folk concert or the children onstage in one of our youth productions,” J’Anthony said. “I enjoy seeing the artists and audience members participating in art.”

From October 2013 to December 2015, J’Anthony led the theater through its first-ever capital campaign, raising $750,000. That it was a success, she says, is due to the vibrancy of the arts in the local community.

“There is an interest and value placed on the performing arts across the nation,” she said, “but Northampton is especially passionate and supportive of the arts.”

The funds were used for the latest round of renovations, including painting the walls and repairing the moldings, windows, doors and the stage roof. Also added were refurbished seats and LED lights to the aisles. The work was completed in three weeks in 2014.

In 2009, a new LED light marquee was installed above the theater’s main entrance.

A final stop

At the end of the tour, Mike Shaughnessy, 66, Denny Nolan, 72, and Bill O’Riordan, 66, had a request: it seems they had been itching for years to get into the ladies powder room.

“One of our nuns, before she became a nun, was an opera singer,” Nolan explained. “She performed here many times and her picture was in there, but we could never go in to see it.”

Unfortunately, J’Anthony told the trio, the picture is long-gone, and what was once the ladies’ powder room is now a handicapped-accessible restroom.

Oh well ....

Shaughnessy did have had another story to tell: “My uncle was a manager here back in the ’30s and my parents were actually ushers,” he said. “They met here.”


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