Rockingham Select Board orders 'Cabaret' set removed

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BELLOWS FALLS — Main Street Arts on Tuesday was given two weeks to remove its "Cabaret" set from the vacant Bellows Falls Opera House.

On a 4-1 vote, the Rockingham Select Board told the Saxtons River-based arts organization that it couldn't leave its set in place until January, when it hopes to be able to present "Cabaret."

Board members said the theater wasn't a "storage facility."

The board rejected pleas from Main Street Arts officials, who said the cost of tearing down its set would make it impossible for the non-profit to stage "Cabaret" at a later date, and would likely spell doom for the struggling non-profit organization.

MSA had to postpone the debut of "Cabaret" in March — the day before the show was to open, after months of preparation — because of the coronavirus pandemic. Shortly afterward, the Bellows Falls Opera House, which had been showing movies even with the "Cabaret" set in place, stopped operating as well.

Since "Cabaret" was postponed, Main Street Arts suspended all activities and laid off its small staff earlier this month

Rick Angers, the manager of the Opera House and a town employee, said he is in talks with a local arts promoter who wants to use the theater one Thursday a month, but he said there is nothing agreed to. He said some of the staging lights interfered with the movie screen, and Main Street Arts staff immediately pledged to remove the lights.

Angers said his plan "is to try and make money for Bellows Falls Opera House," investigating many different opportunities.

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The opera house, which is located in the Rockingham Town Hall, has always lost money and has struggled to attract performers. Taxpayers paid for a million dollar renovation several years ago in an effort to attract more arts to the area, and to continue offering the low-cost movies.

Gaetano Putignano, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, said the town hoped to get the Opera House operating soon and start generating revenue for the town. He said social distancing guidelines will be observed similar to the Bellows Falls annual village meeting last month.

He and other board members said the town hall is "not a storage facility."

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With several MSA supporters watching via Zoom, Putignano called on David Stern, the artistic director for Main Street Arts, and Gaby Kessler, the co-chairman of the MSA board, to address the select board. Both men pleaded with the board to allow the set, which Kessler said is "a work of art," to remain, unless the town had another production in the theater.

Stern said the lights could be removed so that they don't obstruct the screen.

Select Board member Susan Hammond urged her fellow board members to let the set remain in place until early January, pointing to a promise from MSA to remove the set if the town has another production booked for the theater and the new artist can't work around the set.

Hammond noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has put MSA in difficult financial circumstances. She urged the boards to revisit the issue in January. "I don't see the problem leaving it where it is," she said.

Stern said Main Street Arts made money from its Broadway-type shows in the past, but it lost money on its last production, "The Secret Garden," and did not make much money from the show before that.

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At the end of the year, he said, the organization "was ahead $10."

Area resident Katie Dearborn said Main Street Arts has a significant impact on the local economy, drawing visitors to Bellows Falls and patrons to its restaurants."At the end of the day, this is very sad," she said.

At one point, Select Board member Peter Golec suggested that MSA be allowed to leave the set in place for another three months, with the issue reviewed again at that point. But Golec later shifted his stance and seconded Select Board member Ben Masure's motion to order the set be removed.

While its home is in Saxtons River, which is a village in Rockingham, Main Street Arts' in-house theater is quite small. For its large Broadway-style productions, it has used the Opera House for the past several years, putting on shows such as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Chicago," to acclaim.

The issue was discussed last week at a joint meeting of the Rockingham Select Board and the Bellows Falls Village Trustees, but any decision was postponed until Tuesday since the select board has sole authority over the town hall.

Taking the set apart is expected to take longer than usual, Stern said, because of social distancing requirements, but he said volunteers are prepared to break down the set if necessary.

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