NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — After 100 years, a local theater is set to get a makeover.
The Zeiterion Theatre in New Bedford opened its doors in 1923 as a place of entertainment for those coming out of the isolation from the Spanish Flu pandemic.
“There were once 17 theaters, live theaters in the city of New Bedford. This was actually the last to be built and it is the last one remaining that’s still providing live performing arts,” Zeiterion Theatre President Rosemary Gill said.
Fast forward a century to 2023 and the theater is back open after the COVID-19 pandemic closed everything down.
“We were the first to close and the last to open,” Gill continued. “Our theater, for example, was closed for 19 months during the pandemic.”
The historic performing arts center has hosted countless headliners including Willy Nelson, Jay Leno and more.
Now the detail and opulence that have preserved its 1920s charm are showing their age.
“We have 1,200 seats and the seats that they brought in at the time were not brand new. They were used and they were meant to just kind of hold us down for 5 years, but the seats are still there 40 years later,” Gill explained.
In the wake of the pandemic and the community longing for live theater, now is the time to renovate while also keeping the charm and historical significance.
“The biggest wish list items started with patron experience,” said Nicole Downing Merusi, Vice President of Strategic Advancement at the Zeiterion Theatre.
“Brand new seats. All new historic restoration of this theater space that we’re standing in today, put all new concrete down below the new, historic seats, new paint, new tapestries that are significantly worn,” she continued.
The $31 million project is being funded in three ways — private donations, public funding in the form of state and city American Rescue Plan funds, and historic tax credits.
“It will increase the number of seats a small amount, 60 to 80 additional seats,” Merusi said.
The “Z” is home to the New Bedford Festival Theater and the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra but those programs won’t be going away when the building closes for renovations. Neither will the performances. Instead, they will be performed elsewhere.
Among the renovations is a new exciting feature — a 1920s speakeasy below the theatre.
“This will be an additional performance space that I would say most of us who are involved in the project are really excited about,” Merusi said.
Renovations are expected to begin in September and take about a year to complete.
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