The Beacon Theatre Sold

Parties say the show will go on

By Brian PJ Cronin

The Beacon Theatre, located on the east end of Beacon’s Main Street, may have new owners, but the lights in the restored historic facade won’t be dimming any time soon. In fact, if Brendan McAlpine of McAlpine Construction and Patrick Manning, the managing director of 4th Wall Productions, have anything to say about it, their lights will keep shining for many years to come.

“This makes sense in the long run,” said Manning, of 4th Wall’s recent sale of the building to McAlpine in July for an undisclosed sum. “The McAlpines’ reputation is unquestionable; in terms of their love of Beacon, their ability to do quality projects, and their tendency to think outside the box. For 4th Wall, the stress of being an artistic company, and also being the landlord of an 80-year-old building, for a volunteer company was quite heavy. We all have other jobs.”

Brendan McAlpine in front of the Beacon Theatre (Photo by B. Cronin)
Brendan McAlpine in front of the Beacon Theatre (Photo by B. Cronin)

The Beacon Theatre was first built in 1934, a time when Main Street in Beacon was thriving and theater held a very different place in society than it does now. Back then there was no Netflix, no Xbox, no iPhone that the person sitting next to you in the audience can’t seem to go for more than five minutes without checking.

The 800-seat theater was packed with performances and movies almost every night. But as the age of grand old theaters began to draw to a close in the 1970s, its doors were shuttered. The building sat vacant on Main Street, further deteriorating, causing countless Beaconites to wonder what could be done to restore it.

4th Wall Productions decided to take the plunge back in 2010. They bought the building from developer William Ehrlich with grand plans of renovating it, via an unconventional deal in which Ehrlich retained the note to the building and 4th Wall paid the mortgage to him. And as they worked out a plan to first restore the lobby of the building in order to begin doing small-scale performances, they found an ally in the McAlpine family, who were in the process of restoring the factories on East Main into the complex currently known as the Roundhouse, which is considered to have been the catalyst for the transformation of Beacon’s east end.

“We had actually looked at the theater back in 2007 and thought, ‘Man, this is a cool building, it would be great if something happened here,’” said McAlpine. “So when we found out that 4th Wall was buying the building, we went down there and said, ‘If you need help, we’re here to lend our expertise.’ Because having a theater in the middle of town is a great draw. And if you remember back in 2010, Main Street didn’t look anything like it looks now, particularly on this end of Main Street.”

For the next few years, McAlpine Construction donated time, materials and work in order to help restore the theater’s facade and lobby, and build out two commercial spaces on either side of the lobby. 4th Wall built an audience in Beacon. That allowed to them to clear the first financial hurdle they faced: the issue of taxes.

“There were some taxes that we agreed to from the previous owners, but then the tax-exempt status of 4th Wall was not filed in a timely fashion to the City of Beacon,” explained Manning. “And that laid out tens of thousands of dollars in more taxes to the city. We wound up saddled with over $75,000 in taxes. But you know what? We sucked it up and we paid the taxes. It was a climb. But it was because of the support we have from our patrons that allowed us to pay those taxes on time, and it made the city whole. We may be tax exempt, but I think we’ve been one of the biggest taxpayers the City of Beacon has had for the past couple of years.”

With the taxes to the city paid off, 4th Wall began planning an ambitious campaign to raise $2 million in order to restore the theater’s main space. But during the planning they began to have second thoughts.

BeaconHistFacade
The Beacon in its heyday (Courtesy of Beacon Historical Society)

“We are one of the few theater companies around here that runs in the black,” said Manning proudly. “We’ve never been in the red. But we started questioning the sustainability of the space. We started to really look at this and ask ourselves, ‘What is going to make sense in the year 2034, as opposed to 1934 when this theater was built?’” And what the company decided wouldn’t make sense was attempting to renovate a space designed to cater to audiences of the 1930s.

“Theater used to be a meeting place,” said Manning. “It was a place where you could pack a thousand people in there. That made sense back then. But does that make sense for us today, with the current economy and how difficult it would be for us to raise $2 million for interior renovations? Because if we won the lottery tomorrow and put $2 million into the renovation of that space, which could easily be spent, we’d immediately be behind the eight ball.

“Now we’d have to run the facility at a certain temperature all the time or it would get musty or it would deteriorate. We’ve seen this a few times. The Paramount in Peekskill changed hands not because they didn’t have a great location and a beautiful space, but because they couldn’t sustain the heat and electric bills. We’re bursting at the seams right now in terms of audience because our 100 seats aren’t enough. But we don’t need 800 seats.

“This is sustainable now. But it would have become unsustainable if we had continued on the path we were going, both financially and artistically. We don’t want to be stuck having to do My Fair Lady every other year in order to pay the bills. So we said that in order to keep doing good quality theater, we have to always be able to pay our bills.”

Manning thinks that the decision 4th Wall has made — to abandon plans to renovate historic theaters and instead focus on building small, flexible multiuse spaces — is where theater companies will all be headed in the future. With that in mind, 4th Wall approached McAlpine in the spring with the idea of selling the space to him, maintaining the two commercial spaces and transforming the rest of the space into a multiuse performance space with a residential aspect.

McAlpine admitted the process ahead will be an uphill climb, but he’s ready for it.

“When we looked at what we wanted to do with the Roundhouse, the first 15 people we told our plans to said we were out of our minds,” he said. “I can tell you that the first 10 banks we told about our plans also said we were out of our minds. But what makes this project interesting is the theater component. A typical developer would walk in, make their money, and get out.

“But Beacon is home. I’ve been sitting at a desk on Main Street for eight years now. I talk to everyone and I see everything that’s going on. So we wanted to figure out how to not only make this work economically, but also culturally so that all of Beacon benefits. The residential part of it will allow us to have a theater in the building. We could have just put 75 apartments in there, and Beacon really needs that housing, but this is better.”

Specifics are still being drawn up, but McAlpine hopes to move ahead as quickly as possible, even if he’s not quite sure how it’s all going to work out yet.

“Pat [Manning] doesn’t even know yet about the latest concept I have to show him, which I hope makes his eyeballs pop out of his skull,” said McAlpine.

“Like in a cartoon?” asked Manning cautiously.

“Yes, in a positive way!” said McAlpine, and the two men erupted into laughter.

4 Responses to "The Beacon Theatre Sold"

  1. Cabot Parsons   August 21, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Sorry that so many of the facts in this article are false. Fourth Wall has been in the red since they bought the theater from Erlich, where they paid no money to him after their initial deposit to get the space in the first place and had been foreclosed upon when McAlpine bought the space. And they also owe McAlpine over $200,000 for the work initially done which led McAlpine to get a judgment against them. All a matter of public record from the Dutchess County Clerk.

    The very idea that they will pay their lease to continue their programming when they have not paid what they agreed to before is questionable at best. And while SOME housing in the space would be fine, the current plan in place will rob the city of a larger performance space which is badly needed, though a small space for tiny theaters like 4th Wall could be squeezed in as well. Real estate on Main Street is at a premium and the city needs a real workable plan for performance and film for ALL the groups in the city that could use it. If this plan goes into effect the city will be robbed of that opportunity, forever.

    It is sad that a paper formed to be different from some of the other news outlets in the area and committed to real reporting, and a writer who I personally know and respect highly, have gotten inadvertently used as a PR shill for this piece. I hope that Mr. McAlpine and his company will revisit their plan ideas and come up with one that preserves a modified larger hall of at least 450 seats in addition to another smaller performance space so that Beacon can have facilities that will help the city continue to grow and prosper in both the visual and performing arts and boost our local economy as well as provide space for acts that will bring more tourists to our Main Street shops, galleries and restaurants. They have done so much good for this city. This is an opportunity to make another lasting contribution to the residents of Beacon and the entire region. I hope they reconsider.

    [Cabot Parsons is the chair of the City of Beacon’s Arts and Cultural Development Committee, and a theater professor at SUNY Orange.]

  2. Hollis Bogdanffy-Kriegh   August 21, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    Sounds good. But I would really like to know what is defined by multi-use performance space. We need theater absolutely but we could also use MOVIES in this space and stand-up comedy and cabaret and maybe even dance and burlesque.

    Beacon is cram-jam full of families with kids and even seniors who would enjoy matinees on weekend afternoons, art house and documentaries for the adults in the evenings, all sorts of things. BIFF could use a home too. How about live radio broadcasts from the Ground alá Garrison Keillor? The possibilities are endless. But we need to hear what you guys are planning in order to support it. Please don’t delay garnering the community’s support.

  3. Christina Jensen   August 21, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    The community would like to know the exact plans. People are saying that the interior of the main theater will be gutted and I’ve heard anywhere from 6 to 30 residential units will be put in. Is that true?

    In many other communities across the country of Beacon’s size, historic theaters have been transformed into centers for the community for a combination of a variety of arts – dance, music, theater, and movies. Visiting acts could perform as well as resident groups. A well-programmed and well-run space would be a draw for this city and a boon for all of the restaurants and shops on Main Street. Turning this historic theater into a primarily luxury housing space is shameful and against Beacon’s image as a city that actively celebrates its history and the arts.

    I also wonder whether there is any conflict of interest in a non-profit organization, 4th Wall Productions, selling the space to the son of one of their own board members.

  4. Bill Peckham   August 24, 2015 at 11:28 pm

    I couldn’t agree with Mr. Parson’s comments more. What a shame it would be to see this fantastic opportunity for a public performing space be cut up into apartments, leaving a tiny space for 4th Wall to continue with their work. The ultimate solution would be to provide a theater space of 300 to 400 seats in the front and do what you may with the excessive space to the rear. Don’t ruin Beacon’s chance to thrive culturally.