Hearthbeat: Reinventing the stage
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
My Uncle Bud lived in New York City, and when I was a child, my family visited him every year during school break. We went to see lots plays and musicals while in the Big Apple, and I caught the theater bug and never have been cured. As an architect, I was a member of the design team for the Carolyn Blount Theatre, home of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, and my primary responsibility was to design and coordinate consultants for the auditorium.
When I moved to the Eastern Shore in 2004, finding The Avalon Theatre thrilled me, and I was fascinated by its history. The building has undergone several renovations since its construction was completed in 1922 (for the unbelievable cost of $100,000). On opening day, patrons marveled at unique architectural details including the leaded glass entrance doors, the eighteen-foot-wide dome encircled by 148 lights, the 300-pipe electric-pneumatic organ and an electric player piano. For patrons who preferred dancing, the second floor contained a ballroom with panoramic views of downtown Easton.
Twelve years later, Schine Chain Theatres Inc. bought the property and began a complete retrofit of the building for moviegoers. They preferred the Art Deco design style prevalent at that time for public buildings. Unfortunately, many of the theater’s original details were lost in the renovation, and the ballroom was closed. The 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of movies, and many Eastern Shore fans saw many movie “firsts,” including three world premieres, one of which, “The First Kiss” starring Gary Cooper and Fay Rae, was filmed in Easton and St. Michaels.
In 1985, several factors, including competition from multi-screen movie houses, ended the Avalon’s 64- year run as Easton’s premier movie house. After its closing, the building deteriorated, mildew grew, and ceilings and walls cracked. The Avalon stayed closed until November 1987. Finishings and furnishings were in disrepair, and no one replaced rickety seats or stained carpeting.
Soon, a public-private partnership led renovations, which were completed in 1989. The Avalon Theatre became a performing arts center with its original proscenium stage, domed ceiling and splendid acoustics. The private partner, a restaurant group, redeveloped the rest of the building. The restorers added a third floor and incorporated finishes and fixtures reminiscent of the original construction in the 1920s, for a total cost of $1.36 million. The Avalon Theatre was then sold to the Mid-Shore Center for the Performing Arts which struggled to become profitable. With empty seats and no overflow into the restaurants, the building was auctioned, and the sole bidder was the Town of Easton.
In 1993, after much discussion and assistance from professional planners and members of the public, the Town of Easton leased the theater to the nonprofit Avalon Foundation Inc. and its Board of Trustees. Since that time, the Avalon Foundation has grown its programming to become one of the largest arts organizations on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
In 2003, the Avalon Foundation purchased the former ballroom on the second floor of the building. In 2009, a generous gift from Keith Stoltz transformed the second floor into an intimate cabaret setting for 60 patrons. The space was christened the “Stoltz Listening Room” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Keith’s parents, Susan and Jack Stoltz.
I am one of many patrons who enjoy a variety of performances with a full bar and table service in a truly unique and sophisticated setting. On the day I visited to research this article, it was midday and the daylight steaming though windows around the perimeter made this space completely different and would be a great space for a daytime function.
In 2010, the Avalon Foundation purchased the building’s third floor. The twenty-foot glass dome that was designed and fabricated in New Orleans was intact, and the exterior wrap-around deck offered panoramic views of the heart of downtown Easton. Currently, the foundation staff uses this part of the third floor as space for its offices and meetings.
Recognizing the need for extensive maintenance, the Avalon Foundation purchased the theater part of the building from the Town of Easton in 2015 and embarked on addressing the building’s most pressing deficiencies, including re-pointing every brick on the exterior. A master plan addresses the building’s future needs and the foundation acquired the rest of the building (excluding Banning’s Tavern) by 2018, setting the stage for a major renovation of the facility.
Beginning in mid-2018, the Avalon refurbished the basement restrooms, the lobby, auditorium and balcony. Master painters restored the gold leaf ceiling panels in the auditorium, the vertical floral panels behind the Art Deco wall sconces and the proscenium. From a distance, the gradation of light blues encircling the proscenium’s arch look carved plaster. In fact, the four shades of blue blend together in a trompe l’oeil effect. What is theater without a wee bit of magic?
The balcony seating was completely reworked, and the Foundation and its design team worked with the Maryland Historic Trust for approval to remove the former movie projection box to increase the seating capacity. The historic trust only asked that the ceiling of the former project box be preserved as a reminder of its former use. That worked well because the gold leaf ceiling panels stopped at the edges of the project box, and infill ceiling panels were necessary. The reconfiguration and spacing of the seating, addition of railings and great sight lines has made this the prime spot for watching performances.
The gold leaf ceiling and molding in the lobby have been restored, and the maroon and gold interior add richness to the space. Above the gold leaf chair rail, the walls are marbleized for extra depth. The maroon carpeting sparkles with the tiny stars, and the gold-and-maroon Greek key border along the stairs and the lobby floor is a deft touch.
The basement restrooms are transformed with gleaming white tile floors, white lavatory countertop with golden fittings, black toilet stall doors, including stalls compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act as well as abundant lighting to brighten the space.
Like the mythical phoenix, The Avalon Theatre has risen again as a venue for local community events ranging from plays and musicals, Metropolitan Opera simulcasts, performances by the Mid-Atlantic Symphony and other orchestras, and a wide variety of musical acts from nationally known performers to local talent.
It also offers a variety of activities for young children. For the past two years, my sister’s step-grandchild has participated in the week-long Avalon Children’s Theatre summer camp. She is the same age I was when I was part of the cast of my hometown’s theater guild production of “The Bird’s Christmas Carol.” I hope her experience will instill in her the same passion I feel for the theater. Whatever your entertainment passion is, you will find it at the Avalon.