Shubert boasts long legacy in city’s spotlight

The Shubert Theater sold tickets to its opening show in 1914 starting at 25 cents. Though prices have increased exponentially, the theater has remained a cornerstone of the arts community in New Haven for the past 90 years.

In celebration of its 90th anniversary as the “Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits,” the Shubert Theatre hosted an Enchanted Evening Gala Thursday night, attracting board members, city officials and New Haven residents alike. In a statement, Gov. M. Jodi Rell officially proclaimed Thursday Shubert Theater Day in honor of the event.

The evening featured a silent auction and sit-down dinner at which Mayor John DeStefano Jr. delivered a speech, followed by entertainment. The fund-raising effort collected money for the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit management team which has managed the Shubert Theatre since July 2001.

“This event is spectacular,” Shubert manager Michael Torre said. “It’s been a tremendous 90 years, and I hope to live to see its next 90 years.”

Though the Shubert has been financially stable for the past four years, the Shubert’s fate was far from certain a few years ago, mayoral spokesman Derek Slap said. After a major restoration in 1997 which included a new coat of paint and detail work, a state-of the-art sound system and all new seats, the theater ended the 2001 fiscal year with a $1.2 million deficit.

“We have experienced a period of revival in the last four to five years,” outgoing Shubert board chairwoman Carol Stevens said. “It has had some financial difficulties, and has been unable to discharge its mission to serve the community and university. But tonight celebrates a powerful economic comeback for the Shubert.”

New Haven has played a role in ensuring the Shubert’s continued presence in the city. Slap said the theater receives $458,000 in annual funding from the city. In 2001, the theater also acquired funding from the Greater New Haven Arts Stabilization Project. Each grant from the project is equal to 25 percent of the recipient’s 1999 operating budget, with a $1 million cap to be disbursed over four years.

Still, for all the change the theater has undergone — including closing between the years 1976 to 1983, and reemerging as the nonprofit Shubert Performing Arts center — it continues to occupy a place in theatrical history and, for many gala-goers, remains rich in nostalgia.

The Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” had its premiere at the Shubert in 1947, introducing the world to a then-unknown Marlon Brando. Half of the New York theatrical community vied with New Haven residents for seats to the engagement, the gala program read.

Gala attendee Nancy Bartels said she remembers attending the premiere of “My Fair Lady” in the ’50s.

“I’ve seen that play many times since, but I remember Julie Andrews,” Bartels said. “The Shubert was a very fine place.”

Sandy Harrison said her husband grew up in New Haven and shares many memories of the playhouse.

“His father owned a restaurant right next to the Shubert,” Harrison said. “It was where you went to eat before a show. All the actors and actresses used to go over afterwards, and he’d get to meet them. It’s a splendid place of great nostalgia.”

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