Celebrating 100 Years at the Palace Theatre
“The crown jewel of the Queen City” shines brighter than ever at age 100. Here’s why.
The physical heart of Manchester’s Palace Theatre is the stage. But its spiritual heart is not so easy to locate. It exists in small precious pieces, distributed to those who know and love the place. It’s only when they gather to plan, observe or perform that it again begins its rhythmic beat – just as it has for 100 years.
“I was scared to death,” says Peter Ramsey, remembering his first day, 15 years ago, when he entered the Palace Theatre to begin his role as executive director.
“It smelled musty and I didn’t know where the lights were,” he says. But it wasn’t the dark building that frightened him; it was the responsibility he felt fall squarely on his shoulders. The theater had seen better days, and some much, much worse days, but once again the future looked as dim as the shadowy auditorium before him.
And the stakes were high, personally and for the city. It was 1999, a bad time for everyone economically and Manchester was feeling the bite. “There were rumors about how people wouldn’t come downtown anymore. There were empty businesses up and down the streets. There was no programming, no money in the bank. Oh, and there was a stack of bills,” he remembers.
Just the same, Ramsey got to work. His office for his first five years was a utility closet, right inside the entryway to the theater. He says he liked being there, so close to the people who really mattered: the patrons.
Since then things have largely been set right — downtown Manchester is alive again and millions of dollars have gone into improvements and new features to take advantage of the theater’s antique structure: red brick walls bolted together with riveted metal beams and furnished with sturdy oak. The walls and proscenium are still festooned with elegant turn-of-the-previous-century decorative elements. Thanks to good management and an extensive network of Friends of the Palace (both formal and informal), the theater is now equipped with state-of -the-art technology. More importantly, those charged with keeping things running have a clear vision and mission for the future.
Which, if the past is any indication, will still have its share of surprises.
When the Palace opened its first show, “Modern Eve,” to a packed house on April 9, 1915, it was a dream come true for Victor Charas, a Greek immigrant who had succeeded in real estate ventures and built the theater as a tribute to his new home: a “palace” of arts and culture. Actually the name for his theater was serendipitous — the result of a contest. Charas had advertised the plan, offering a $20 gold piece for the best moniker and attracting hundreds of such suggestions as “The Hanoverian,” “The Lollipopper” and “The Peacherino.”
The name picked (submitted by Maple Street resident Amelia Sansoucie), was prescient as the theater did present itself as a regal entity in the state’s Queen City. Early advertisements declared the Palace to be “the only fire-proof, first-class theater in New Hampshire.” It was also the only air-conditioned theater in New England for a time. Tunnels built under the floors around the perimeter of the building stored blocks of ice and air would be forced in to provide cool relief on summer evenings.
Those were bustling times in the early 20th century with the Amoskeag Mills operating at full bore. Thousands of residents, many immigrants like Charas, came to the Palace to be immersed in the music, drama, comedy, hopes and fears of a swiftly changing America.
As years went by, the fate of the theater rose and fell with the trends of the entertainment industry and the health of the economy. At one point there were more than 20 performing theaters operating in the city, all kept busy by a public hungry for entertainment and supplied by an active vaudeville circuit.
At the Palace, song and dance acts would tag team with local performers, traveling spectacles (like “Blackstone, the Greatest Magician the World Has Ever Known!”) and exotic fare (like “Weir’s Baby Elephants,” promoted in a 1924 newspaper ad), all competing for stage time but eventually yielding to the growing demand for movies.
The ultimate transition of the Palace to a movie house coincided roughly with Charas’ death in 1935, when management of the theater was assumed by his son George.
By the 1960s the movie industry, once the staple of entertainment for the common man, had itself succumbed to the proliferation of television to every home. The Palace had continued its role as community resource. It was a stage for recitals and politics for a time, but the spotlights and ropes and stage elements that were its soul were packed away collecting dust. Perhaps a low point came when the theater served as a showcase for “adult movies,” and even that low road led nowhere.
George Charas died in 1965 and soon the structure was deployed for other, more “practical” uses and began to disintegrate. It was sold, stripped of its seats and converted to a warehouse.
At a point, even this humble function seemed too grand. Some thought what downtown needed more than an aging theater was more parking space and there was serious talk of tearing it down.
Anyone who loves the Palace has heard the story of this near-death experience, and credit for its rescue from the brink often goes to Sylvio Dupuis, who was Manchester’s mayor at the time back in 1974.
“The real hero was John McLane,” says Dupuis, “the principal attorney at the McLane law firm. He was very involved in the arts and the symphony, and he came to me and said, ‘They are going to tear the Palace down, but I think I can raise the money to save it.’” Dupuis walked over from City Hall to survey what had become of the place. “The theater building was at that time owned by a Mr. Katz, who owned a meat market on the next street,” says Dupuis, but he was unprepared for what he saw. The orchestra section was dank and empty, and there on the cold stage were two large cutting blocks with butchering tools and the residue of the giant shanks of beef and sides of pork that were being processed for sale.
The 1970s were famous for lots of short-sighted demolitions under the heading of “urban renewal” so the momentum to tear down and rebuild for progress was strong, but the grisly vision he’d experienced was enough to rattle the mayor. McLane said he was going to ask the Bean Foundation for help and needed 90 days to raise the money, so Dupuis performed the mayoral equivalent of a pocket veto. He tied the application for the building’s destruction up in some bureaucratic red tape, slipped it into a desk drawer and forgot about it.
“John came back in about 85 days and said, ‘I’ve got the money,’” says Dupuis.
A newly formed Palace Theatre trust bought the building for $75,000 and began restorations.
The reopening of the Palace was a bit like a reunion. Many of those who had missed it, perhaps even given up hope, were stirred to reconnect. Most notably, the Opera League of NH arranged to resume performances there and in November of 1974 a performance of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” was staged by Opera New England.
And with a swing of operatic grandeur, the horrors of a stage turned into a butcher block were forgotten when, in 1980, the NH Symphony, rising to prominence under the direction of James Bolle, allied with a young theater director named Peter Sellars to mount a lavish production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with sets and costumes designed by famous illustrator Edward Gorey.
So the stage was set for a revival, but anyone who knows theatrical drama knows that the second act will bring its own share of pitfalls and narrow escapes.
“My time there was a very different era,” Bob Shea says of the years from 1983 to 1995 when he presided over the Palace as executive director, but many of the problems were the same as those that would be faced by Ramsey. “It was a key period for the whole community of Manchester. Downtown was hanging by a thread and the theater was basically falling apart.”
Shea knew that if the theater were a cat, it would have been running out of lives. In a story he wrote for the Manchester Union Leader at the time, he referred to it as a “philanthropic basket case” — having been revived so many times, it might not survive another trip back to the operating table. But back he went, devising an eclectic mix of programming that featured local creative resources like the American Children’s Theatre and the NH Symphony.
“The challenges were huge and we were a staff of young, idealistic professionals,’ Shea says. He compares it to the story in the classic “Babes in Arms,” where a group of small-town kids under pressure manage to put on a epic show using everything they’ve got.
“After about five years we had established a formula and developed our own production company, each year doing a major Broadway musical, a new American play and a classic by someone like [Eugene] O’Neill or Arthur Miller.”
Looking at downtown Manchester today with its bustling nightlife, it’s hard to remember the time when the only activity on Main Street after dark was teens cruising the strip. “The whole neighborhood was suffering a lot of crime and drug use. Empty buildings peppered the downtown and the Palace was the anchor,” says Shea. As the Palace came back to life, so did the city.
While Shea is quick to note that many hands were fighting for the same goal, “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Palace rescued downtown. It was the hero organization that created the optimism and hope needed for people to make long-term investments in downtown Manchester.”
The investments came and brought new ones, such as the development of the Mill-yard, the Verizon Wireless Arena and the Delta Dental Stadium. Today, Manchester is envied, a cultural melting pot with a growing cadre of creative and high-tech companies. By some estimates it rivals the hipper and more famous cultural hot spots of Portland and Portsmouth.
But none of that was certain when Peter Ramsey stood in the musty foyer of the Palace 15 years ago. And since then the drama and comedy that’s taken place on stage has often been matched by that taking place behind the scenes.
Ramsey has a litany of favorite memories, some that were not so funny at the time. For instance, the day there was a ballet performance with 100 little girls dressed in chiffon and frills and a sold-out theater full of proud parents and grandparents. The city sewers leading to the Palace were gravity-fed at the time and there had been “monsoon rains,” Ramsey recalls. Just as the show was about to start, the dressing rooms below the stage were flooded with five inches of raw, unfiltered city sewage.
They put down planks for the girls to navigate in and out for their cues. “What a disaster,” he says with a laugh. “But the show went on.”
And that phrase, hard-wired into every thespian, is Ramsey’s guiding motto. In this centennial year, he says his mission is clear: “My job is to make sure the Palace is still here 100 years from now.”
The stage is being set for this with dynamic youth programming, frequent full houses and numerous awards, including one high point in 2012, when the Palace Theatre received the Outstanding Historic Theatre Award from the League of Historic American Theatres. The next year Ramsey himself was recognized with a special Governors Arts Award for Community Impact.
But he keeps it all in perspective. The theater exists for those for whom it is home. At least one of those residents, Ramsey believes, is a ghost. Many tell tales of the presence they feel after hours. Ramsey has had up-close encounters, like the time he had just secured the upstairs bathroom doors open (a winter ritual to prevent pipes from freezing) when they both slammed shut, sending him out in the cold night in terror. But the usual image of the spirit is of a young girl in white, more charming than frightening.
Theories exist as to whose spirit might wander the fly spaces and lurk in the green room, but Peter says whoever’s ghost haunts the Palace, it isn’t really a story about death. It’s a reminder that the old building has a soul, just as active and vital as the steam that hisses through its 100-year-old pipes and radiators.
Shea agrees. “Theaters do have their ghosts,” he says. “I don’t mean in the fun-house sense. There’s something sacred and really holy about these cultural institutions, a theater like the Palace, a gallery like the Currier. Art is magic. It’s a secular religion in a way. They’ve hosted so many events and great creative work you just feel it emanate from the building itself.”
Famous local actor George Piehl, who is as much a part of Palace history as anyone, shares the sentiment. Quoted in the Palace’s keepsake book published for the centennial, he says, “The Palace Theatre has a soul. Part of it comes from the architecture, like being in a cathedral. And as you sit there, looking at the stage, you can’t help but feel the history.”
Asked for the theater’s greatest quality, Piehl replies, “That it’s still here: saved from demolition by people who cared.”
That’s a phrase that Ramsey likes to use as well, since the future will continue to depend on such people. He says that while most professional theaters need to raise about half of their operating budget from donors, the Palace does well enough with programming that they only need a 20 percent supplement to keep things lively. But that’s still a lot of money to raise each year and a lot of pressure for him.
But in the 15 years since he learned where the light switches were, he’s found his own place in the history of the theater. Peter’s office was in a larger upstairs space for awhile, but recently he’s moved it back close to the lobby. It’s not in a closet anymore, but it’s where he wants to be, where he can see and hear people arrive, buy their tickets and share their joy of anticipation for a night of magic in the Crown Jewel of the Queen City.
My Reign at the Palace
A local celebrity reveals his role as a cross-dressing confection in “The Nutcracker” and explains why this is a good thing.
By Mike Morin
To stand on the Palace Theatre stage is to share a moment in time with Sammy Davis Jr., Don Rickles and Milton Berle. I always felt privileged to occupy the same space decades after so many Hollywood legends delighted thousands of New Hampshire patrons.
Dressed in late 19th-century drag, I have played the part of Mother Ginger for several years in Southern New Hampshire Dance Theater’s “Nutcracker” production at the Palace. Stage moms apply massive amounts of theater paint to make me look like the bawdy and cantankerous character Mimi from the “Drew Carey Show.” The Dee Snyder wig is itchy and the hoop skirt makes my butt look big, but it’s worth every discomfort to watch the eight adorable Polichinelles appear from under my ample dressing. I have assigned alter egos to my character, depending on news events at the time. Mother has worn a Manny Ramirez Red Sox Jersey and, in 2013, a Duck Dynasty beard with camo. She even blew a bright red vuvuzela horn during the World Cup soccer craze. (I hope the live musicians weren’t upset with me.) Mother is always up to something sketchy and show director Patricia Lavoie lets me channel my inner goofball any way I see fit for laughs.
As a radio host, I’ve had great fun introducing many of today’s performers, like Hampton comedian/surfer dude Jimmy Dunn, now a prime time star on CBS TV’s, “The McCarthys.” Perhaps the most special moment came when the late New Hampshire rock star, Brad Delp, joined me and others for an impromptu conga line from the stage, snaking through the audience during a production of the WZID Christmas show nearly a decade ago.
I’ve never experienced a Palace Theatre ghost as many have claimed to over the years. But I’ve had a taste of what Sammy, Don and Uncle Milty must have enjoyed in their day.
Looking Back: 100 Years of Palace History
Throwback Thursday, for those not living half their lives on Facebook, is an online invitation to post a snapshot from the past, to show how fashions and hairstyles (and hairlines) have changed. That’s about all we could do in this magazine article with a subject as large and a tale as epic as the Palace Theatre.
Fortunately for those who want the rest of the story, the Palace has published a keepsake for their centennial year. Written and edited by theatre insiders Suzanne Delle and Richard Hatin, it’s a memory book packed with photos and art that truly span the century past, Along with details on the twists of fate and the cast of characters who have played critical roles along the way, it’s really a love story. In 100 pages it relates the highs and lows of the passionate affair between the Palace and its Granite State home.
Copies are available at the Palace Theatre box office for $29.50.