New look, new life at Strand Theatre

Ruben Studdard, the 2003 ''American Idol'' winner, is the star of ''Ain't Misbehavin' '' at the Strand. Ruben Studdard, the 2003 ''American Idol'' winner, is the star of ''Ain't Misbehavin' '' at the Strand. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / April 9, 2009
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After a city takeover and a $6 million renovation, the Strand Theatre is preparing to host its biggest show in years: the 30th-anniversary national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical "Ain't Misbehavin'," starring 2003 "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard.

Sitting on the newly renovated stage during a recent visit to the 1,400-seat theater, Studdard gazed around. "I never thought at this point in my career I'd be doing a Broadway musical," he says.

Julie Burns, director of the Mayor's Office of Arts, Tourism & Special Events, which manages the Strand, might not have predicted the theater would be hosting one either. The show, which runs tomorrow through Sunday, is a major coup for the Dorchester landmark, which has been in disrepair over the last few years.

"Two years ago there was no way we could produce a show like this because the facilities weren't up to standard," Burns says, pointing out what once were shoddy and dark dressing rooms, grimy backstage bathrooms, and weak wood flooring on the stage. Now all that has been transformed. "No show would even look at us, so we are so excited about having this show here," Burns says.

The four-year, city-funded renovation has included a new stage floor and orchestra pit, new heating and ventilation systems, new orchestra chairs, improved sound and lighting systems, and the replacement of a crumbling stone marquee with a new one featuring LED lights. In the revamped backstage areas, paint has been removed, revealing beautiful exposed brick walls, and the spacious rooms are brightly lit.

Now that the physical infrastructure is in place, Burns says, the mayor's office hopes it will have a hit with "Ain't Misbehavin'," which is being presented by the Citi Performing Arts Center and the city of Boston. If it is, more top-notch programming will be invited to the theater.

Once a majestic vaudeville and movie palace, the Strand opened its doors on Columbia Road in the heart of Uphams Corner on Nov. 11, 1918. Over the years, stars such as Fannie Brice, Milton Berle, and Fred Allen often took center stage. The theater roared on through the '20s and survived the Great Depression, but fell into such a downward spiral of mismanagement and decay that it had to shut its doors for more than a decade in the 1960s and '70s. The city took over the building by eminent domain in the early '70s and began making some renovations to get it reopened in 1979.

The M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts handled the Strand's operations for years, but as time went on, the famous landmark not only fell into further disrepair, it suffered major financial problems.

"After several complaints about the mismanagement, the mayor took it back in 2004," says Burns. With that, he assigned a task force to determine the Strand's future. It invited Derek Johnson, then executive producer for programming at New York's Time Warner Center and former president of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, to weigh in on the planned rejuvenation.

Together, they came up with a mission and vision statement: The Strand should present major arts events, but primarily serve as an arts center hosting smaller neighborhood meetings, youth programming, church services, and events for seniors.

Soon afterward, the city launched the renovation. Because of the repairs, the Strand was closed for six months in 2005, seven months in 2006, and several months in 2007 and '08.

Burns says the Strand is now open for business full time, and she hopes to cram the schedule with programming.

As for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, he is eager to attend Friday's opening night for "Ain't Misbehavin'," a rollicking tribute to the 1930s Harlem Renaissance featuring the music of Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller. In addition to Studdard, the show features "American Idol" contestant-turned-Broadway star Frenchie Davis and 2003 finalist Trenyce Cobbins.

"There was a time when we had theaters in every neighborhood in Boston, and now the Strand Theatre is the last standing neighborhood theater in the city," says Menino, who declares a deep, abiding affection for the Strand.

"I've seen boxing matches there in the 1970s, I've seen recitals by kids, some hip-hop entertainment," he says.

"When we took over this building, it was really in terrible condition. There were 150 light bulbs out, the box office wasn't functioning, the backstage bathrooms were dirty and in disrepair."

The renovations are bringing the Strand a new energy, perhaps signaling its return as a neighborhood gem, Menino says.

"I have dreams for this place," he says. "It's not going to be easy, but we'll get there."

With an annual budget of $450,000, the Strand has hosted several community events over the past year, including dance programs, youth talk-back sessions about community violence, and Christmas and Halloween events for children.

It has shown films, mostly from Haitian and Brazilian artists, and rented its space to performance groups for rehearsals. It packed the house with a major celebration of President Obama's inauguration, and it hosted the East Coast premiere of "The Black List: Volume Two," an HBO documentary on black life, with two of the filmmakers taking questions onstage afterward.

Recently, the Strand hosted "Community Idol," a local singing competition whose four finalists will perform during an intermission of "Ain't Misbehavin'."

Studdard, the show's star, may be known for his singing, but he says learning the choreography was tough, and the discipline it took is something he plans to take back to the studio.

Another thing he's learned while on the road: Five minutes is actually five minutes.

"In the studio, five minutes could mean 15 minutes, a half-hour," he jokes. In the theater, when the curtain goes up, the show must go on.

Tickets to "Ain't Misbehavin' " are available for $28-$58. 866-348-9738,

Megan Tench can be reached at