Build a theater, annoy the neighbors. Earlier this year, Branford residents were getting bent out of shape due to plans to reopen the legendary Stony Creek Puppet House. Arts groups had been trying to do this for years, but residents recall the venue’s previous owners, who let the place go to seed. Community theater endeavors led to poorly managed concert events that definitely pissed off the neighbors. While there had been official complaints about noise and other disturbances, the place was ultimately closed due to code violations. There have been numerous well-intentioned attempts to reopen the space as a professional theater space over the years, and this past year Keely Baisden and Legacy Theatre seemed to have pulled it off grandly, purchasing and renovating the building and gaining lots of community support. Some of the neighbors have long memories, however, and recall some of the wild carryings-on at, say, Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams concerts. Members of the Stony Creek Association have been vocal at town zoning meetings, even questioning the building’s rights to be a theater—a role it’s played for 112 years now. The latest chapter in the dispute involves zoning questions and even lawsuits from the allegedly aggrieved residents. I’d say that Puppet House revivalists are handling this delicate situation with grace and patience.
Any region has a faction that wants to keep the artists out. Let’s call it NIMBS: Not In My Back Stage. I remember with anguish the treatment given to a small community-based troupe, The Shoebox Theatre Company, which dared to have a walk-up performance space in a building that was a stone’s throw from the Branford Green. Calm, small-cast plays performed in front of small audiences, less noisy and less traveled than a lot of small businesses you could name. Support from some noteworthies in the Greater New Haven arts scene did not help. Artist was perceived as starving obnoxious scallywag.
Now we’re hearing about the Oakdale in Wallingford. It was opened as an open-air theater venue in the 1950s, a unique arena-style summer stock space that—like the Westport Country Playhouse and the Ivoryton Playhouse elsewhere in the state—offered big Broadway stars in touring versions of current hit musicals. The famous Oakdale revolving stage is best known now from the rock acts that played there—The Who, The Kinks, Tom Jones… In the 1990s, the Oakdale was lavishly renovated into a year-round indoor space. For years it had a “Best of Broadway” season that was in direct competition with the Bushnell and the Shubert for first national tours. The Broadway series faded away a decade or so ago, but not completely; a national tour of Jersey Boys was there this month, and the Oakdale remains one of the best places in the state to see theatrical concert spectacles such as Celtic Woman. It’s so ideal for lavish children’s theater shows as Barney the Dinosaur and The Wiggles that tours have been rehearsed and built there, and full-length videos of the shows have been filmed there.
But the Oakdale exists primarily as a concert hall, and when its auditorium seems too vast for a certain type of band, they use the theater’s large lobby area (which basically is the size of the Oakdale’s original arena) for those shows. A lot of those shows, lately, have been dance-pop acts which pump the bass to degree that apparently has nearby residents grabbing the paintings on the walls and trophies on the mantelpiece lest they be dislodged by the intense vibrations.
I’ve had noisy neighbors in my life, and also have seen properly zoned entertainment venues unfairly persecuted, so personally I am sympathetic to both sides. And I certainly don’t think it’s an easy fix. In this day and age, you can’t just assume that certain bookings will necessarily be less booming, soundwise, than others. Broadway tours can be noisier than pop concerts. Innovations in sound design may indeed be challenging the old soundproofing techniques. On the other hand, you can’t call the cops every time you hear a concert at the huge 50-year-old theater next door. Wallingford has train tracks as well as theaters—when those freight whistles blow, do people scream or just roll over and go back to bed?
The official Oakdale response to the cease and desist order rendered to the theater by the town of Wallingford last month is this:
Wallingford, CT (January 30). Connecticut residents have inquired regarding the cease and desist order from the Town of Wallingford to the Toyota Oakdale Theatre.
As that order is the subject of a current appeal, all events currently on sale or to be placed on sale at the Theatre will play as scheduled as we continue to work with the Town to correct any perceived problems at the Oakdale
President – Live Nation Connecticut
Here’s to debate, and negotiation, and compromise, and understanding. There is a distinguishable problem here that needs to be resolved. What seems to be lacking is an agreed-upon definition of what constitutes an unacceptable disruption and what remedies could reasonably be taken. Otherwise, this is just “Kids! Turn that music down!” writ extra-large.
Let’s set a tone that’s mutually constructive, not some stereotypical angry neighbors versus irresponsible artists scenario.