New direction for Opera House floated

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BELLOWS FALLS — Bellows Falls artist Charilie Hunter wants to turn the operation of the Bellows Falls Opera House over to a non-profit board.

Hunter told the Rockingham Select Board recently that he had been working on his proposal for months, and that he was now working with two other people on the project - Sean Long and Marty Gallagher.

"I have more than a few ideas," Hunter said.

He said his proposal had nothing directly to do with the recent forced departure of longtime Opera House manager Rick Angers and the problems involving the Main Street Arts' Cabaret set, which had been left inside the opera house after the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Last month, the Rockingham Select Board voted to order MSA to remove its set, over the arts organization's pleas for patience.

"The town should not be running an entertainment venue," Hunter said during an outline he gave the Rockingham board. "Aside from costing the taxpayers of Rockingham thousands of dollars a year, it distracts from the work of the town manager and the Select Board," he said.

"The wild card of COVID has forced opportunity upon us," he added, noting that the movie theater in the town hall had been run as a private business from 1927 until 1986. "The town only stepped in after that because nobody else wanted the task," he said.

"We would actively seek partnership with area organizations for live theater, concert and seminar events. We seek to staunch the flow of red ink from the Bellows Falls Opera House on the town ledgers," he said.

"If operations are successful, the town would share in the success, to the point where the Opera House would more than pay for itself," he said.

He said it was clear that management improvements were needed, starting with contracts for people or organizations using the town-owned theater. Hunter had been working on the plan while a member of the town's Opera House Committee.

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His suggestion was greeted openly by the board, with the exception of Select Board member Peter Golec who said he was "skeptical." He raised concerns about the shift away from town control. The movie theater is run as a division of the town's recreation department and is viewed as the town's effort to provide low-cost entertainment to town residents. Golec noted that the recreation department itself loses money in excess of $100,000 and the town is not thinking of privatizing it.

The theater has always lost money and has been subsidized by Rockingham tax payers. A survey showed that about 70 percent of the theater's patrons were from surrounding towns, and towns in New Hampshire.

And Select Board member Susan Hammond questioned if there would be complications because of the town's $3 million bond issue - which is still being paid off - that renovated the theater about 10 years ago.

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Hunter, in addition to being a painter, has been a music promoter himself and has rented the Opera House in the past for concerts. He was the founder of the Roots on the River music festival, which featured folksinger Fred Eaglesmith.

Hunter said he was researching other municipally owned arts facilities that are run by non-profit boards and he specifically mentioned the Woodstock theater, which is run by the non-profit arts organization Pentagle Arts Council.

Hunter said his idea had nothing to do with the recent departure of longtime Opera House manager Rick Angers. "Events just paralleled I guess," he said.

According to Gaetano Putignano, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, Angers was let go by acting Town Manager Charles "Chuck" Wise because he failed to write a business plan for the Opera House as requested. Angers had been working part-time since the Opera House closed, but had launched a curbside pickup service for the Opera House's popular "triple up" concessions - popcorn, candy and soda all for $5. Since Angers' departure, the curbside program has been stopped.

The Opera House, which showed late-run movies five days a week before the pandemic was declared, has been closed since mid-March. Since then, the theater has been used for the annual Bellows Falls Village Meeting but nothing else.

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At one point, Wise considered reopening the popular community movie theater, which would be allowed under public gathering guidelines at a reduced level set by Gov. Phil Scott, but Putignano said Wise opted not to because of concerns for public health. The lobby and ticket selling area would have to be re-designed to facilitate social distancing.

"Would you go to the movies?" he asked. "I don't think I would."

Putignano, in a followup telephone interview, said he had met privately with Hunter and that they had had "a great discussion." Affordable movies and `triple-up' would continue, he said.

Wise told the board that the town currently doesn't have "a real plan to move forward" during the pandemic. "We have a lot of unanswered questions," he said.

During last week's Rockingham Select Board meeting, Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox said the theater's ventilation system is controlled by an out-of-date computer system, leading to unforeseen problems. Hunter said that is a potentially serious problem.

"We envision the Bellows Falls Opera House as a place for excellent and affordable entertainment for residents, as a draw for visitors, that can be a partner with the town, downtown businesses and area schools and arts organizations to make everyone stronger and Rockingham an even better place to live," Hunter said.

The non-profit group would lease the Opera House, but it would remain accessible to the town and village for municipal meetings.

"It's an interesting idea; we need more information," Hammond said. "I'd like to hear more," said Select Board member Ben Masure.


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