Manchester’s Palace Theatre to celebrate 100th anniversary

Rosemary Lausier, Culture Editor

This spring, the Palace Theatre in Manchester will be celebrating its 100th anniversary. With a rich and extensive history, the Palace Theatre is the only remaining theater in Manchester. It is a landmark that went through extensive changes and sometime dark times; however, the theatre today still has a lasting impact and influence on the community.

In June 1914, 24 year old Greek immigrant Victor Charas, contractor Henry Macropal, and architect Leon Lemper began construction on what is today the Palace Theatre. It was considered the only first-class theater in New Hampshire to be both fireproof and air-conditioned.

The opening night was on April 9, 1914 with the musical comedy “Modern Eve”. The production, according to local press, was the “grandest social occasion of the century”. The theater joined a collection of theaters called “the Great White Way”, a series of 22 theaters in the downtown area.

The years 1915-1930 were the theatre’s prime. Touring vaudeville performers such as Bob Hope, Harry Houdini’s brother The Great Hardine, and the Marx Brothers performed at the theatre. The Palace Theatre’s success during the vaudeville era was due to the Keith Albee Vaudeville Circuit.

Keith Albee started a union as a marketing and promotion techniques to ensure the quality of theater shows. If the theaters wanted the best actors, they would get them from the union. In order to gain these actors however, the theaters had to uphold the standards of the union including proper management and conduct.

The Palace Theatre was the first theater to secure these actors from the union. These actors would eventually leave vaudeville and become stars in television and movies.

With the advent of silent pictures and ‘talkies’, vaudeville was out of public favor and the Palace primarily became a movie house form the 1930’s through the 1960’s.

It was during these changes in entertainment that many theaters closed and were torn down. Eventually, the Palace Theatre was the only remaining theater left in Manchester. It survived in part because it was well built, centrally located in the downtown, and its size.

Unfortunately by the late 1960’s, the theatre was no longer used for entertainment purposes but instead served as a classroom space for New Hampshire College and eventually as a meat-cutting warehouse.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Manchester lawyer John McLane and mayor Sylvio S. Dupuis started a restoration campaign and began renovations and adding orchestra seating. The theatre re-opened on Nov. 2 1974.

In 1984, a fire on Hanover Street ravaged the block where the theatre was located. However, due to the firewall built on both sides of the building, it halted the blaze and saved the theatre and remaining structures form burning.

Today, the theatre houses 880 seats and is a Manchester landmark being the only remainder of the “Great White Way”. Their mission is “to enrich the region’s cultural life and serve as a community resource through its stewardship of the historic Palace Theatre”.

Despite the theatre’s extensive history, the company did not have any records. As part of the 100th anniversary, theatre volunteer and usher Dick Hatin headed a centennial undertaking to gain and retrieve records which were compiled into a centennial book about the theatre.

The project started about a year and a half ago. The only historical records the theatre possessed were two photos, postcards, a 1916 newsletter, and a playbill. Hatin’s job was to organize a group to tract down records, interview individuals, and find media research on the company.

Hatin gathered student interns at the theater and they went through every article or advertisement in the Manchester Union Leader that had any information on the theatre itself or any artist who performed there. The company communicated to the public through television, radio, columns in the Sunday edition of the Union Leader, Facebook, and patron emails and spread the word to the public that they need help gathering information on the theatre’s history. Eventually, they started receiving phone calls and emails from people with information.

They reached out to Mayor Sylvio Depuis, past actors and directors, former marketing directors, and stage hands, and built up a network of sources for this project. In all, they clocked in around 3,000 to 5,000 hours on the project. Now all the information they found is digitized. They created the book, “The Palace Theatre: 100 Years of Performing Arts”.

The book contains significant highlights of the different eras of the theatre. The book contains many photos and old advertisements that represent the feel and flavor of the institution. Only 500 copies of the book were printed are sold directly by the theatre through their box office.

Alongside the centennial book, the theater is offering a year-long series of events to celebrate the anniversary. The shows will be bigger, grander, and more of a spectacle than the theatre’s previous shows. This year, the company is bringing Broadway shows such as “Les Miserables” and “West Side Story” alongside other famous visitors including author Jodi Picoult and comedienne Kathy Griffin.

The palace has made a huge social and economic impact on Manchester. According to Hatin, the theatre is poised to be an economic engine and influence in Southern New Hampshire with millions of dollars contributing to the New Hampshire economy.

Hatin believes that the theatre can also bring the community together and help reintroduce them to one another. People from other states such as New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey come to New Hampshire and make a point to see a show at the theatre. According to Hatin, this proves that “live theatre, music, and entertainment still have a place in the world. The theatre still has spontaneity and is doing better than it has in all of its history”.

The Palace Theatre has provided the Manchester area with quality shows and performances that have brought the community together. The next performance at the theatre will be
“West Side Story” from February 20th through March 7th. We should attend the theatre’s events as much as possible and support a landmark that is so important to the city’s history.