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For the 100-year anniversary, Ramsey commissioned Richard Hatin to research and write a commemorative book, with historical photos, ads, news articles and interviews.




Ghost drama

Rumor has it the Palace is haunted — though some people will tell you it’s not a rumor.
“I’ve had probably a dozen people bring it up during research,” Hatin said. “They wanted to tell me their experiences. Some are actors. Some are stagehands. Some are staff who worked at the theater over the years.”
Many believe the ghost is Will Cressy, who performed vaudeville frequently in the 1920s. Ghost Hunters stopped by the theater in 2008, and Ramsey says the Palace has seen multiple ghostbusters and multiple ghosts. He’s among the believers, having experienced some freaky stuff one night at 2 a.m., and he told the story during a tour of the theater, right by the place it happened. 
Ramsey used to keep the upstairs bathroom doors open at night so the pipes wouldn’t freeze, and while he was jamming the second one open with a piece of wood, the first one slammed shut.
“That’s weird,” Ramsey thought as he walked back to prop the first door back open. “And then the other door closes. And I hear some creepy sounds. I ran out of the building.”
 
The Ostrich?
Palace builder Victor Charas offered a $20 gold piece to “any man, woman or child” who came up with a name for the theater during its construction in 1915. According to Richard Hatin’s research, the Union Leader ran the contest, and more than 1,200 entries came in. A handful of noteworthy submissions: The Titanic, The Hanoverian, the Revonah (Hanover spelled backward), The Ostrich, The Lollipopper, The Incombustible and The Peacherino.
 
Children’s theater
“Children’s theater, pretty much from the beginning, has been a constant,” Ramsey said. “It’s always done very well. The theory in my mind: Even if it’s a lot of money, you should do it because it’s a huge audience.”
He and Rajotte credit the theater’s growth in part to the youth programs. The youth are, naturally, the future of the theater, but the programs also create interest among community members, particularly those with kids.
“I think youth and professional theater go hand-in-hand,” Rajotte said. “And as the youth company grew, the professional one grew too.”
Nate Sawyer and Megan Quinn man the youth program under Rajotte’s guidance, while Rajotte directs the teen company shows.
“I’m very proud of [the teen program],” Rajotte said. “I think we started that about five years ago. It was just a youth program at first, for ages 8 to 18, but I saw some of these teens needed more training because they took it very seriously. And they’re not going to get that just doing a show. So I created the teen company and apprentice company.”
The teen program boasts alums Kaleigh Cronin, who recently replaced Emma Stone in Cabaret on Broadway, and Max Clayton, who is also on Broadway performing in Gigi. If the teens get to a certain level, Rajotte might put even them in a professional show.
 
Onstage at the Palace
Upcoming and mainstage events at The Palace Theatre (80 Hanover St., Manchester, 668-5588, info@palacetheatre.org, palacetheatre.org, facebook.com/PalaceTheatreManchester)
 
West Side Story Thursday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 7, at 7:30 and 2 p.m. ($15-$45)
A Wine & Cheese Affair Sunday, March 8, at 2 p.m. ($10)
Kathy Griffin Tuesday, March 10, at 7:30 p.m. ($39.50-$124.50)
The Official Blues Brothers Revue Friday, March 13, at 7:30 p.m. ($29.50-$49.50)
James Van Praagh Saturday, March 14, at 7:30 p.m. ($29.50-$49.50)
Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas Friday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. ($34.50-$69.50)
Table Talk: A Broadway Experience Friday, March 20, at 6 p.m. ($55)
Godspell March 27 through April 11 ($15-$45)
Les Miserables May 1 through May 16 ($15-$45)
The All New Piano Men June 5 through June 20 ($15 to $45)




Drama Center Stage
Backstage pass to West Side Story and 100 years of the Palace Theatre

03/05/15
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



It’s opening night at the Palace Theatre, and the air is buzzing.

Streets, restaurants and parking garages are crowded with theater-goers, even on this freezing February evening, and as they shuffle inside the 100-year-old building, they’re greeted by throngs of even more people clutching programs and proceeding to their seats.
Palace Theatre President Peter Ramsey wears a white suit coat and bright red tie as he smiles and welcomes people into the theater. Just before showtime, he steps onstage to introduce this month’s mainstage production: West Side Story
As the curtain rises to a smoky scene, lights just barely illuminating the actors against a blue and purple backdrop, Ramsey moves to the back of the theater, where he can watch the show and the audience’s reaction. Nearby, artistic director Carl Rajotte begins scribbling out what will be five pages of notes.
It’s been 100 years since Greek immigrant Victor Charas built the Palace, and as one of about 25 Manchester theaters at the time, its future was not always certain. It faced hurdles like fires, floods, debt, potential demolition and audiences of the film, television and Internet age, but on this night, there’s hardly a free seat in the house.
Credit a creative staff, passionate volunteers or smart business plan, but Ramsey says the Palace still stands because of the Queen City and its people.
“I’m so proud when someone comes in and buys a ticket. Because you know what? They don’t have to,” Ramsey said during an interview at his office. “It’s not about me. It’s not about Carl or the actors. It’s about the patrons. It’s about the people of Manchester taking care of the Palace.”
 
Filling seats since 1915
Getting people in the theater has been a mantra since 1915, when Charas set the Palace apart immediately with a few very important details.
First, he made certain it was equipped with state-of-the-art air conditioning. Deep in the basement, large fans blew air over blocks of Lake Massabesic ice delivered from ice houses in horse-drawn carriages. Upstairs, two large roof fans drew out the hot air.
Regionally, only a couple Boston theaters could boast such amenities.
“We’re talking about cities like Lowell and Lawrence who didn’t even have this,” said Hooksett author Richard Hatin, who, along with his wife Anne, spent the past two years compiling information and writing the Palace’s 100-year anniversary book, The Palace Theatre: 100 Years of Performing Arts.
Charas also insisted it be the safest playhouse in Manchester, so on a $60,000 budget, local Manchester general contractor Henry Macropol incorporated firewalls dividing the structure from abutting buildings. That foresight saved the theater in 1984, when a fire broke out and destroyed the buildings surrounding the Palace.
Doors opened April 9, 1915, to a crowd of 1,100 with A Modern Eve, a 50-person musical comedy. Those early years, Hatin wrote in the book, were devoted to vaudeville acts, but the Palace also housed famous performers at the beginning of their careers like Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Blackstone, Bill Robinson (Mr. Bojangles) and Ray Charles, among others. An ensemble of actors called the Palace Players performed a different drama or comedy every week. When Charas died in 1935, his son George transitioned the theater into a movie house, sprinkled every so often with music/dance recitals and political forums.
In the book, Hatin dispells some rumors —  no, Harry Houdini did not perform at the Palace, but his younger brother Hardeen did —  and confirms others, like how, in 1924, the Manchester fire department had to rescue an elephant whose foot broke through the Palace stage floor mid-performance. He also discovered some peculiarities, like a 1928 ad that described a kids’ matinee rabbit give-away, and the assortment of people who said they’ve made contact with the rumored Palace ghosts.
 
Near deaths and revivals
Ramsey remembers his first day in 1999. He had the keys to the theater but didn’t know where the lights were. When he finally switched them on, he found almost $300,000 in unpaid bills. The only booked gigs involved the New Hampshire Symphony, which at the time was located across the street (and has since disbanded).
“There were some rentals, but really, there wasn’t much going on. So I immediately worked with the board to try to make the Palace relevant again,” Ramsey said.
He had no staff, hardly any money — that first year’s budget was $300,000, compared to $3.5 million today — and to top it off, it wasn’t a great time in Manchester. Empty storefronts cluttered the streets.
The Palace’s board of trustees had hired Ramsey on a part-time basis. They liked his work at the Lakes Region Summer Theatre in Meredith (which he eventually sold after two years at the Palace), and they wanted to see what he could make of the theater that, time and time again, found itself on a roller coaster of near-death experiences and revivals.
But Ramsey had hope; it had, after all, survived the 1950s by showing second-run movies and the 1960s by becoming a New Hampshire College lecture hall (now Southern New Hampshire University). It survived its X-rated theater days (“Shh, not our finest moment!” the theater website reads), and it was saved, thanks to Mayor Sylvio Dupuis and local attorney John McLane, from demolition in 1974, when it also underwent major renovations. It got through a flood in 1980 and the fire in 1984, and under Executive Director Bob Shea in the 1980s and ’90s, it brought people in for a variety of programming. Even after all the pitfalls, Ramsey knew New Hampshire still had an appetite for theater.
He began hiring a collection of part-time people, including box office employees. For the first company show under his wing, Annie, he paid the directors and leads.
“We actually made some money. The board of trustees was amazed that we could actually make money, we could actually bring people in the theater,” Ramsey said.
That year, the Palace began performing A Christmas Carol, which has since become a Manchester tradition, in addition to The Diary of Anne Frank and a couple others. The New Hampshire Symphony and a variety of rentals also performed on the stage.
Ramsey worked hard getting the theater back on its feet and out of debt those first years. Whenever he found good employees, he tried to take them full time. And he was constantly researching: what do people want to see? What are they responding to? 
He’s still asking those questions, which is why today his office is adjacent to the box office. He used to work upstairs, but he prefers being where the patrons are. In those early days, talking with them and seeing them buy tickets gave Ramsey confidence he was doing the right thing. The nonprofit gained momentum.
 
New artistic vision
Those first few years, Ramsey hired theater directors and choreographers the same way the Palace hires actors today — for one show at a time. Having seen Rajotte play Andy Lee in the theater’s rendition of 42nd Street, he asked the young dancer, in his late 20s at the time, to choreograph the theater’s 2002 production of Singin’ in the Rain.
“I thought it was going to be a one-show, in-and-out type of thing,” Rajotte said in his Palace office a few days after the West Side premiere. 
Rajotte had been living in New York and touring the country for Swing Dance America at the time but knew his dancing days were becoming more and more limited due to a knee injury. So he took Ramsey up on the offer. Timing was also good personally; his mother had recently died, and his father had moved to Manchester because of its great resources for veterans. Rajotte wanted to be with his dad during this hard transition. Plus, he was having a layover for his tour.
“But then, for whatever reason, the director got hurt the second day of rehearsal. Peter asked me if I’d be able to put the whole show up,” Rajotte said.
Ramsey liked his work so much, he asked Rajotte to come back to choreograph and direct Chorus Line and Guys and Dolls —  two very dance-heavy shows. Shortly after, he offered Rajotte a nine-month full-time position.
“My method of hiring people has been pretty consistent. Try to get to know them. See what they can do. See how they fit in the organization. Can they fit it all in a budget? That’s very important. But most of all, do they have the chops to do it? Carl did,” Ramsey said. “An artistic director is basically a leader, an artistic leader, on many different levels.”
 
Talent is king
Rajotte and Ramsey got on well. From the very beginning they were on the same page about at least one major detail: talent is king.
“When I came in, they hired three professional [actors for lead roles] and the rest were community performers of all different levels who didn’t get paid much, if anything at all. But I saw they were paying for set designers and lighting designers,” Rajotte said. “I thought, give me a chance, and I will do all of that for you. Let’s take that money and bring in some more talent. … Yes, it’s great to have great costumes and great sets, but if you have fantastic talent, the audience sees that and enjoys that.”
Ramsey agreed. Rajotte was young, and all the energy he could no longer put into dancing he put into behind-the-scenes work. It was a massive endeavor. His dad helped out, and they spent late nights painting and building sets so the theater could bring in first-class performers.
Whatever elements were lacking in Rajotte’s theater education — costuming, set design, lighting — he learned fast.
“I didn’t know too much about lighting. I knew what looked good, but I didn’t know how to program the lighting board then,” Rajotte said. “But I was young and energetic, and I thought, ‘I can do this!’ So I stayed up all night trying to figure out how to program that board. And ever since then, it’s been a passion of mine. I love lighting the shows.”
For about four years, Rajotte was the only full-time employee on the artistic team. His office was a “backpack in the back of the theater,” but he made it work by revamping job descriptions. For instance, under his wing he took the Palace’s resident actors who worked in the box office.
“I thought, they hate being in the box office. They’re actors. They’re artists. So what else can they do? Can they do props? Can they do costumes? Can they paint? Let’s have them go and put their time into the shows, plus act, and that worked for many years,” Rajotte said. “And that’s what helped me get through a lot of those years until I could hire a full-time staff.”
Rajotte himself wonders how he did it without full-time help for so long, but deep in his heart he knew the work would allow his budgets and staff to grow. He also built himself up to be extremely versatile and, in a roller coaster business, extremely valuable. 
“Doing it all myself in the past has awarded me a better way of communicating with those helping me. I can communicate with a costumer because I can get behind the sewing machine and sew myself. I can talk to a set designer. I can draw. I can use the lingo to communicate better with them,” Rajotte said.
And when money is tight — as it was during the most recent recession — it’s helpful that the artistic team is multi-talented. Megan Quinn is the company manager and the youth administrator, plus she can act (and will be in the next production, Godspell). Jess Moryl (Anybody’s in West Side Story) is the costume designer and assistant director/choreographer, and she also acts and dances. (“And thank God for her,” Rajotte said. “I could be inspired at like 10 tonight for Godspell. … And she’ll get her dance clothes on, come in and we’ll start throwing some stuff out there. She’ll learn it and help me teach.”) Assistant youth theater artistic director Nate Sawyer leads youth programs under Rajotte’s guidance.
“When we went into the recession that first year, there were theaters closing all over the place. The North Shore Music Theatre closed in Beverly, Mass. That was like a dream place for me as a kid,” Rajotte said. (The theater has since re-opened.) “But that year, we didn’t lose any money. We tightened up our wallets. But what happens when you do that is you put more work on yourself. You have to work harder. And this team did. … We’re here because of the team and because of the support of the community.”
 
Two weeks till showtime
Rajotte has two weeks with actors before a mainstage production. 
He casts, accompanied by Moryl, during New York auditions in September and January. (There are local auditions as well, but it’s often difficult to find local triple threats who can devote 24/7 of their time for two weeks.)
The actors stay in the New Hampshire Institute of Art-owned building known as the “cast house,” which can house up to 30 visiting artists. It’s less expensive than putting members up in hotels, which is what used to happen, and it also means they can bring in more people.
Actors begin working as soon as they arrive Friday night.
First on the agenda: to sit and learn music for the entire show. Next: Block the dance scenes. At this point, Rajotte knows how the show will look. He makes budgets the summer before, and the crew begins building sets about three or four weeks prior to showtime. 
On these weeks, Rajotte and Moryl can be seen rushing about at high speed, he in jeans and a hoodie, she in cushy sneakers and colorful dance tights. After being with the company seven years, she knows exactly what Rajotte wants, and he trusts her to choreograph the big scenes, like the onstage rumble between Micah Wallace (Riff) and Michael Graceffa (Bernardo) in West Side Story. She was with the theater during its 2007 rendition of West Side Story and sees an amazing difference this time around.
“We’ve come a long way. We get to do a lot harder choreography. … And we’re able to have a bigger cast because we’ve grown, and our name in New York has gotten better,” Moryl said.
 
Balancing art and business
Running a theater is really hard. It requires not only passion, time and artistic talent, but also great balance between art and business. 
Lots of great New Hampshire companies didn’t make it — recently in Manchester, New Thalian Players and the Acting Loft signed off, and in Portsmouth, the Seacoast Repertory Theatre just stripped down its business plan and, with financial help from the community, is in the midst of building itself up again.
“It’s called show business for a reason. You’ve got to pay the bills,” Ramsey said. 
Most successful theaters have two sides. The business side is led by an executive director, officer or president, the artistic side by an artistic director. Trouble often occurs when those two roles become one.
“I think it’s more common to see someone who loves theater, who loves putting together a show, making the business decisions, and it’s hard. It’s really hard. Because think about it — the person making the business decisions is also making the ultimate decision: yes or no.”
With Rajotte and Ramsey, those roles exist to an extent.
“But the business side of theater interests me greatly. I love the numbers. I love understanding what goes on underneath the ceiling, not just the art,” Rajotte said. “Not enough that I want to be the theater manager, but I want to understand it. … And I love creating budgets. I don’t know why. I’ve just always enjoyed … figuring out how many seats, on average, we need per show. Every day, I’m constantly looking at those numbers to make sure we’re still trending.”
With Ramsey, it’s the complete opposite. He knows the business side but also loves the art. He says he was “brainwashed” as a kid — the home he grew up in was right beside the New London Barn Playhouse. He used to go to bed at night and wake up in the morning listening to Broadway music. He wants to please the patrons, but he also doesn’t mind taking risks, like with Rajotte’s original artistic productions (which normally do well anyway) or with lesser-known shows, like this January’s Mid-Life: The Crisis Musical. They work together on bringing in a variety of programming that will surprise, delight and also fill seats.
“We both have a great deal of respect for what the other brings to the table. And it’s nice to bounce ideas off each other. With a lot of artistic directors, they decide the programming. And sometimes you can get a little bit clouded on what you want to do, your point of view,” Rajotte said. “Artists are all very different with reasons of why they want to do art. For me, I need the audience. If I don’t have an audience out there, then why am I working so hard at this? Why are we slitting our wrists and bleeding and crying to put a show up if nobody’s going to come see it?”
 
One week till showtime
The Friday afternoon before the West Side Story premiere, Rajotte was working with Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso) and Tony (Jared Troilo) in the upstairs dance studio. Light from Hanover Street shone through the windows, and a damp towel to dry off snowy street shoes sat at the door. 
Rajotte sat in a chair at the front of the room, focused on the pair as they — over and over again — worked their way through difficult scenes. Rajotte simulated gunshots, read other characters’ lines and provided feedback after each take, carefully reminding the two of what’s happening around them. The pair had their lines memorized, the music ready, but this was the first time they were performing the scenes on their feet.
“Think about the intense grief you’re feeling, and make it more personal,” he said after one take. “Once you break down, they’re going to lunge at each other, and that’s when you’re going to explode. … Now, when you get shot, I need you to do that slower. You’re trying to stay up, but you can’t. … OK. Good! Let’s do it again.”
Grisso and Troilo got to know each other very quickly on the set of West Side Story. The first day they met, they sat and talked about the show for two hours. Grisso had been on the Broadway tour, and Troilo had been singing the music all his life. They’d each been rehearsing for an entire week already, singing, dancing and acting eight hours a day, and there was still so much to do. They were only days away from tech week, when all hands are on deck and crew members, Quinn said, are sometimes working until 5 in the morning. Sets move around, music gets tested, costumes are fitted and finished and the marketing team puts out its final tweets and Facebook photos before the big night.
So much happens in those two weeks but, “It doesn’t feel like two weeks. To me, it always feels like we’ve been working on it for three months,” said Troilo, a Palace alum who will also play Jesus in Godspell. His favorite moment in the process is dress rehearsal, when everything, amazingly, comes together somehow and it starts to feel like a show.
 
Getting it right
West Side Story has been, in Rajotte’s eyes, a huge artistic success. Three of the leads — Grisso as Maria, Michelle Alves as Anita and Emilio Ramos as Chino — were from the West Side revival Broadway national tour, and nearly the entire ensemble, save a few locals, were professionals.
Rajotte has a long-standing relationship with the musical; he’s performed twice as Riff, breaking his arm mid-fight in one show, working through knee injuries that would cause his dance career to end in another. It was the first show he directed, as an 18-year-old college student, and after that, he directed it six more times.
“But this time was so different from any other time. Maybe it’s because I’m older, wiser, whatever, but I really feel like, finally, all the pieces came together from my head,” Rajotte said. 
 
On to the next show
With West Side Story getting ready to wrap up, the rest of the season’s work is already well underway. During their interviews, Rajotte’s office wall contained headshots of the Godspell actors, while Ramsey’s had a calendar board with tentative 2015-2016 season plays. The artistic team was readying for the “artistic challenge of the season” — the Palace and New Hampshire professional premiere of Les Miserables. Sets were being designed and built, and Moryl had already begun costumes. 
There’s always movement.
Even with its success — in 2012, it was recognized as “America’s Outstanding Historic Theatre” — there are still things the Palace can’t do. It’s still a nonprofit. Kathy Griffin, who performs March 10, was incredibly expensive and difficult to book.
“We can’t have Jerry Seinfeld. It’s too much money. Even though we’d like to have him, we can’t do it. And there are some artistic people who have trouble with that,” Ramsey said.
They can take more risks, but there’s still little money or time for error or stagnation. Rajotte would love to eventually present an eight-shows-a-week run (and Ramsey hinted that shows may run four weeks next year). And he’d love to expand the size and success of the youth and teen programs. The challenge, as always, is to remain relevant and standing upright.
“If you believe in something, it’s not as hard as you’d think to do it,” Ramsey said. “Our job now is very clear. We have to make sure the Palace is here 100 years from now.”
 
As seen in the March 5, 2015 issue of the Hippo. 





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