The dream of a West Chester theater is becoming a reality
● By J. Chambless
Marilyn Parsons, Holly Brown and Angela Scully of the Uptown Entertainment Alliance are looking forward to the start of construction.
Uptown Entertainment Alliance [7 Images] Click Any Image To Expand
By John Chambless
If you spend 10 minutes walking through the empty National Guard Armory building with Angela Scully, you too will be envisioning a stage in the gym, dressing rooms on the dingy lower level, and community meetings taking place in vacant rooms where the carpeting has seen better days.
The 1916 building, which sits across from the Chester County Historical Society on North High Street, has been a West Chester fixture for so long that residents may not even give it a second thought. It's not a place many people ever visited if they weren't connected to the National Guard. But its location -- just a block north of the hub of restaurants and attractions on Gay Street, and within easy walking distance of West Chester University and senior citizen housing -- makes it an ideal spot for plays, concerts, community meetings and gatherings of the arts community.
But the theater isn't just a dream. It's going to be a reality.
For phase one, to open the building, about half of the funding of $3.75 million is in place, sponsors are on board, a resident theater company has signed on, local government representatives are excited about the idea, and the zoning should be approved in the next couple of months. Ideally, the new theater could open in 2016, which would be a nice reincarnation to mark the building's 100th year.
"Six years ago, there were 16 Pennsylvania armories on the auction block," Scully said as she led an informal tour of the building last month. "In 2010, the Uptown Entertainment Alliance started looking for spaces for a theater in downtown West Chester. They connected with Sen. Andy Dinniman, and they looked at the Courthouse, and the old post office. When Sen. Dinniman saw that this was among the places on the auction block, he and Rep. Truitt set it up, and Gov. Corbett signed a bill that said we could purchase the armory."
The non-profit Uptown Alliance has a board in place, has paid a deposit, and has everything it needs to make the theater happen once zoning is approved.
The building could have been torn down and turned into housing or another business, but the theater project will preserve its grand exterior for another century and beyond. The site has been vacant for two years, but considering the age of the building, it's in remarkably good shape. The architecture inside is utilitarian. The woodwork and brick is pretty spartan, and walls have been put up to suit whatever needs arose over the decades, without much thought to aesthetics. But that's all about to change.
To the right of the front door will be a box office and office space for the Uptown Entertainment Alliance, funded by WSFS Bank. To the left of the front door will be a concession area where after-show parties could be held.
In the large Drill Hall, there are already chairs lined up on the wooden floor, facing an end of the room that will hold a 24-by-30-foot stage and steel lighting truss that the renowned Clair Brothers Company has committed to install. A permanent, raked seating area will be built, with moveable seating on the floor.
In the balcony overlooking the hall will be sound and light equipment. The second floor will be outfitted with a second bar/reception room. Univest Bank has funded a large room that could be used by businesses and community groups, or as a secondary performance space for smaller concerts or other events. That still leaves room upstairs for rehearsal space and other offices.
In the lower level, which once held the munitions storage locker and a shooting range, there will be a green room (named for CTDI, Communications Test Design Incorporated), dressing rooms, and stairs leading up to the stage on the main floor. The large central room will be left open as gallery space or rehearsal space.
Once an elevator and outside ramp have been added to meet building codes, the building's sprawling expanse of 17,500 square feet will be utilized by a wide range of arts organizations, including the Resident Theater Company (RTC), created by Kristin Mitchell, who relocated to West Chester from New York City.
"This building is so uniquely suited to be repurposed as a theater," Scully said. "Around our core programming of theater, music and movies, we can rent to community theater groups -- like the Brandywine Singers, or the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. There are so many smaller theater companies that are looking for a venue. We are the missing piece."
With West Chester University on the southern end of town and the new theater coming to the north end, the borough will have an unprecedented appeal to residents and visitors.
"The university has been so supportive of us," Scully said. "They love the idea that, no matter which end of West Chester you come into, you find culture. They envision their faculty coming here to perform, where they could have recitals. They see our patrons coming to their events, and their patrons coming to ours. We don't see it as competition, we see it more as complementing."
With a projected timeframe of nine months -- "Like a baby," Scully said with a smile -- the new theater should be ready to open its doors to a wide demographic.
"We're so centrally located that, if you're a teen, you could walk here," Scully said. "There's no place where a teen in West Chester can come and hear live music and make music that's not a bar. We want to be that meeting place for everyone."
Marilyn Parsons, a board member with the Uptown Entertainment Alliance, accompanied Scully on the tour, and said that the theater is an easy walk from downtown. "Once you're in town, you can go to the restaurants and walk here. About 10 years ago, I had said to my husband that what the town needs is a movie theater. So when I heard about this project, I met with Tom McEvoy [board president], and he asked me to join the board. Then it was, 'How would you like to do programming?'"
Holly Brown, who formerly owned Kaly's on Gay Street, is also on the board and is the co-chair with Parsons for booking events. They have been busy for a couple of years, with Sara Michaels scheduling jazz and Ben Green bringing in contemporary music to raise funds for the Uptown Entertainment Alliance. "For the community, we're a cog in the wheel that brings everybody together for great stuff to do," she said. "A lot of times, university students don't go off campus, but there will be plenty of things here for them to see."
The remaining $2 million in necessary funding isn't as daunting as it might seem, Scully said. "For us, it's been a question of making people aware, and we've done that through our programming so far. We have enough money to get started, so once we get the fencing and the sign up, people will say, 'Oh, they're serious.'
"I really think it's doable. You know why? Because it's needed," she said. "People really recognize the need for a community gathering space."
For more information, visit www.uptownwestchester.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.