BURRILLVILLE – A charming vintage theater in the heart of Harrisville is about to attract your attention – at least if the members of a new board managing the venue have it their way.
Changes are underway that aim to raise the the Assembly Theatre’s profile in the community, and more than a dozen residents have come forward to help enliven the historic venue in the 2019 season.
The East Avenue theater was built in 1933 as a gift to the town by mill owner and philanthropist Austin T. Levy. The 354-seat venue has been used historically as a community space, a movie theater and of course, a space for live performances.
Levy established a Board of Administration to manage the theater, along with several other buildings he donated to the town of Burrillville including the current Town Hall, the town Annex and the American Legion Hall. Under Levy’s vision, the five-member board would include three members of the elected Town Council, with the president to serve as chairman.
Currently, that puts Council President John Pacheco in charge, with Councilors Stephen Rawson and Donald Fox also serving as members.
“We are responsible for those four buildings,” Rawson explained to NRI NOW this week.
But for many years, the board has relied on rentals of the theater by outside groups – including local theater companies – to pay the venue’s bills. With heating alone for the large building averaging around $1,500 in January, the meager rental fees barely covered the after show clean-ups.
Rawson joined the board in 2014 and after not too long, declared that something had to change.
“We were losing money and I said ‘this is not working,” he said.
A two year project aimed at revitalizing the theater began, the fruits of which are now set to ripen.
The board decided to model their efforts on the Friends of the Jesse Smith Memorial Library, a volunteer group that currently supports that facility. And last year, they put out a call to residents interested in helping out.
“Far beyond any of our expectations, the interest is overwhelming,” said Rawson. “The ideas, the interest, the enthusiasm is making the Board of Administration ecstatic.”
The new group – dubbed Patrons of the Assembly Theatre – began meeting in November. Since then, they’ve held four meetings, electing leadership and concocting a plan to raise the theater’s profile – starting immediately.
Among them is Pat DiLorenzo, a former corporate executive for AT & T who will serve as chairperson of the group.
“She has a good head for management,” said Rawson.
The other roughly 15 members includes a mix of volunteers young and old, bringing a variety of strengths to the table.
DiLorenzo said that she became interested after realizing that many town residents don’t know about the theater, or see it as they drive past.
“It’s such a nice venue and it’s so rustic,” said DiLorenzo. “The intent is to do a lot of marketing and to have people notice the Assembly.”
To do that, the group has already moved two trees that blocked the view of the building from the road.
Next comes a long-overdue project of creating a sign worthy of the venue. Rawson is now getting estimates for raised aluminum, lighted lettering to be placed on the front of the building above the windows.
They also aim to fill the theater with people starting with the spring season, a goal they hope to accomplish with a lineup of acts geared mostly toward children and families.
And the Patrons also have some other ideas to get the venue some new attention.
The group has contracted with PVD Food Trucks to bring in from ten-13 vendors to the Assembly’s court yard every third Sunday of the month starting in May, from 3 to 7 p.m.
The trucks will be complimented by some type of activity inside the theater, and while that element is still in the planning stages, they’re considering free movie marathons.
The Assembly Theatre’s spring season will officially kick off on Saturday, March 16 with nationally-known recording artist Jonas Woods, who will play following an opener by a local bluegrass band.
On March 24, Providence Big Band returns, an 18-piece brass orchestra that will also have an opening act.
In the first two weeks of April, Theater Company of Rhode Island will do a live production of the comedy play “Norman is that You?” with performances on the 5th, 6th, 7th, 12th, 13th, and 14th.
A youth performance group led by Gladys Coleman will take over the theater May 17 and 18 with a live show.
On May 19, ventriloquist Kevin Driscoll from Framingham, Mass., comes to town with a 45-minute act aimed at young children and families. Driscoll will perform until around 3 p.m., when the food trucks will arrive outside for their first official evening in Harrisville.
On Saturday, June 1 John Perrotta from the Comedy Factory will give an “adults only” performance, bringing with him two other local comedy acts.
“I know him personally,” said Rawson. “He’s a riot. He’s really funny.”
On June 15, Burrillville’s own “Live Music Band,” will hit the Assembly stage from 7 to 9 p.m.
On June 22, the patrons plan to host a fundraising craft fair from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with more than 100 vendors, raffles and food.
“I think the variety is a good thing,” DiLorenzo said of the schedule.
And Rawson says that’s just the start of a lineup that is filling up fast as he continues to speak with entertainers.
“I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” Rawson said.
This week, he and DiLorenzo will meet with management at the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket.
“If they get something that doesn’t work for them, they might send them our way,” he said.
He’s also in touch with a booking agent who is excited by the opportunity to bring performers to town.
“He didn’t realize there’s a jewel up here in northern Rhode Island,” Rawson said. “With his help we’ll probably be booking the spring season completely. We have a decent amount of money to use to pay these performers.”
The Patrons are also in the process of becoming a 501C-3 to make the theater eligible for grant funding, and are planning improvements for pedestrian street crossing. Supporters from the Levy Foundation have indicated they may also provide a marketing budget.
Rawson, who notes that he actually knew Mrs. Levy before she died in 1971, has been working day and night on the revitalization project with a passion and enthusiasm that seems to be contagious.
“It would be an abomination – an insult to Mr. Levy – if that theater were to close,” Rawson said. “We’re definitely not going to let that happen.”
As the newly-formed group moves forward, it seems there’s no telling just how much the Assembly’s audience could grow.
“Our last meeting, people were getting excited,” said Rawson. “I know as long as we stay positive and we listen to one another, I think we’ll be very successful.”
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