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Strand Theatre renovates space, rejuvenates Uphams Corner community

Posted by Liam O'Kennedy  December 14, 2012 01:00 PM

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On stage at the America Scores Poetry Slam at the Strand Theatre, student-athletes from elementary schools around Boston declared their American dreams.

“Our American dream is peace,” students from the John F. Kennedy Elementary School shouted between snaps, claps and stomps.

In the audience sat Susan Burchill, better known by the students as “Nurse Sue,” a school nurse and soccer coach at the Orchard Gardens School. “When you have 27 little kids walking in on a red carpet with flashing lights and mirrors,” she said, “it is just awesome.”

Five years ago the city began renovating the Strand, located in the Uphams Corner section of Dorchester. The idea is to transform the 1,400-seat theater into a center of popular art and community engagement following a period of economic distress and dormancy.

Less than a decade ago, the theater was in rough shape. A March 2004 article in the Boston Globe described the theater as dark and unused most of the time, beset by peeling paint and broken chairs. Now city officials hope the historic venue is on the way back.

Chris Cook, director of the arts, tourism and special events department for Mayor Thomas Menino, said that nearly $6.1 million was spent over the past five years renovating the theater.

Cook said that the restorations include a new box office, stage, restrooms and ticketing system, as well as a new sound and light package that will be installed soon as the last step before the major alterations are complete.

With the main renovations coming to an end, the focus for changing the Strand in the future is shifting to programming.

Cook said that the number of programs held annually at the theater is increasing, explaining that two years ago the Strand was active 76 days of the year, whereas last year it was active for 146 days. He said the number of active days in 2012 is expected to surpass that, even though the Strand was closed for four weeks to renovate the bathrooms.

Cook said the Strand is a “nexus for a lot of community groups,” explaining that organizations such as Uphams Corner Health Center, Uphams Corner Main Street and Bird Street Community Center each hold annual events there.

“We want an incredibly diverse line-up,” Cook said, “both in performing arts and in the community that we are trying to appeal to. I think the Strand is really positioned in a unique setting where it can be a lot of things to a lot of different people.”

Recently, employees at the Strand have asked members of the community to fill out surveys when they attend an event.

Alda Marshall books events for the Strand and is a part of Mayor Menino’s arts, tourism and special events department. She said there has been positive feedback about the events already held at the theater, but the acts are expected to grow.

“I’d like to expand into more of a comedy line,” Marshall said, “and probably more popular types of music such as some pop and R&B.”

Marshall said she was working with Chris Cook to try to organize a concert by the end of this year with a popular music artist to kick off the changes, but plans were delayed because the holiday season is too busy to properly promote the event. She said the show will probably be sometime in early 2013.

Marshall said the popular music act for this event is still being discussed, but options such as The Spinners or Stephanie Mills are being explored.

The transformation of the Strand is motivated in part by a larger project to change Uphams Corner into a cultural center.

The Boston Foundation coordinated a one-year grant from ArtPlace for $480,000 awarded in June this year to culturally enrich Uphams Corner, which will include programming at the Strand. ArtPlace is a partnership of various foundations, federal agencies and banks that awards grants to specific organizations and communities to support art and culture.

Ted McEnroe is director of public relations at the Boston Foundation. He said the grant from ArtPlace is dispersed among many community groups in Uphams Corner and no funds are directly earmarked to the Strand.

“Obviously it is something that we and the city share a great interest in—developing the Strand, the area around the Strand, the Uphams Corner area as a vibrant destination for arts and culture,” McEnroe said. “We are working together as partners in that.”

The grant from ArtPlace is a supplement to the Fairmount Indigo Planning Initiative, a Boston Redevelopment Authority project that began in 2010 to update the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s (MBTA) Fairmount Line.

The Fairmount Line had four stops and the lowest amount of riders out of any Boston commuter rail, according to the Fairmount Indigo website.

The MBTA is in the process of constructing three new stops along the 9.2-mile track in Newmarket/South Bay, Four Corners and Cummins/Blue Hill Avenue. As a part of the project, a fifth stop on Talbot Avenue in Dorchester opened this November.

One of the stops on the line is in Uphams Corner, easily accessible to those attending the Strand. At this time, there is no rapid transit T-stop in the general area of the theater.

When the additions along the Fairmount Line are completed, the initiative plans for the route to become a rapid transit line. This would reduce the fare to ride the train, increase the frequency that it runs and connect the line to the Orange and Red lines.

Maureen Dezell covered the arts community for the Boston Globe from 1994 until 2005. She said the theater will not be successful until there is steady programming and the area surrounding the Strand becomes a “destination” for people.

“Boston is not starving for theaters—especially not for theaters of that particular size,” Dezell said.

The Strand is a place of community engagement in Uphams Corner now, a role that has changed throughout time.

The theater opened on Nov. 11, 1918, the same day the Armistice was signed, with a celebration in the space commemorating the end of World War I. It originally opened as a vaudeville theater that also showed movies.

After the City of Boston purchased the theater in 1979, there were performances by the likes of Tracy Chapman, B.B. King and Phish in the 1980s and 1990s; however, the theater was plagued by economic trouble leading to inactivity with the new millennium.

Peter Kadzis, editor-at-large at The Phoenix, said he guessed there were probably two main reasons why the Strand became less active in the early 2000s: the demographics of the area and the economic realities of the music industry.

Kadzis said since the Strand is located in a predominantly black community, the popular artists such as Phish that performed there would probably not be successful today because they largely have a “white suburban following.”

Kadzis said the number of independent music promoters also declined, centralizing the industry in a way that favored the venues in downtown Boston. He said this is because promoters who brought the acts to the Strand have close ties and sometimes ownership in the nightclubs.

“While I don’t think you can ignore the racial component,” Kadzis said, “I don’t think it is the primary reason. The primary reason was the consolidation or the decline in independent music promoters.”

Now with the Fairmount Indigo Initiative, plans to revitalize Uphams Corner and renovations to the theater, those involved with the Strand will concentrate on marketing the changes.

Ryan McMahon, marketing and communications manager for Mayor Menino’s arts, tourism and special events department, said a main goal is “getting the word out” about the theater by reaching out to as many people as possible. She said a major setback for the Strand is that people do not know about it, so there will be increased electronic marketing.

McMahon said the MBTA initiative is huge for the future of the Strand because the theater will be more accessible to the public.

She said major attractions to the Strand are the distinctive aspects of Uphams Corner. McMahon said the area has many restaurants in the vicinity of the theater as well as free parking, drawing a comparison to the South End of Boston where a person might go out to eat, but parking is not available for free.

“I’m always looking at how the arts side of things drive a city or town, and this is just a gem,” McMahon said of the theater.

The Strand has already left an impact on people such as “Nurse Sue” Burchill of the Orchard Gardens School.

Burchill said the students were filmed when they walked into the theater for the America Scores Poetry Slam, giving them the sensation that they were in Hollywood. She said it gave everyone a feeling that “permeates in your cells.”

Remembering when the theater was less active, Burchill said, “In the last few years, when the lights came on, we knew it was alive again.”

This article is being published under an agreement between The Boston Globe and Northeastern University.

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