The Hippo


Jul 19, 2019








Old Sol Music Hall Visioning Session

When: Saturday, March 5, 9-10:30 a.m.
Where: French Building, NH Institute of Art, 148 Concord St., Manchester

Here comes Old Sol
Effort to revive shuttered theatre

By Michael Witthaus

Old Sol Productions, a nonprofit created by a Manchester couple, is trying to turn a dilapidated downtown building into a live music venue and community center — and they’d like local residents to help bring it back to life. 

Old Sol will hold a public forum on Saturday, March 5, to talk about how to make that happen. 
The Rex Theatre began its life as a 350-seat movie house in the heyday of serial films and sputtered to an end with the 1980s rise of home video. Most recently it was a nightclub. Club Realm closed in 2013, and the building is now owned by the city.
Matt Wilhelm heard about the place a couple of falls ago at a Guster show he coordinated for the volunteer group City Year at Manchester’s Palace Theatre. With his wife Jody, Wilhelm has spent close to a decade managing social activism and volunteer efforts for touring bands; he’s currently tour manager for Dispatch. The Palace shares an alley with the Rex; when Wilhelm went outside for some fresh air, Palace Executive Director Peter Ramsey pointed at it.
“Peter … suggested that it would make for a great mid-size concert venue,” Wilhelm said recently. “Jody and I had always passed by the building and thought the same thing.” 
Every couple of months until the next summer, he and Ramsey met to talk informally about possible ways to restore the place. 
In July 2015, Wilhelm and his wife decided to get serious about the idea and began putting out feelers. They found out a sale of the Rex was pending, and a few weeks later learned the buyer was the Manchester Development Corporation. In October, Wilhelm entered his vision for Old Sol Music Hall in the statewide Social Venture Innovation Challenge. 
Wilhelm contacted Manchester Economic Development Director Will Craig, who arranged for him to film inside the Rex. They made a three-minute video, submitted it to the competition and won. 
Craig spoke enthusiastically about Old Sol’s plans during a recent walk-though. 
“The easiest thing to do was another nightclub,” he said. “But nobody in the city thought that was the best and highest use of that building.”
In December, Wilhelm and Old Sol startup coordinator Alyssa Solomon showed the prize-winning video to a group at the Shaskeen Pub. 
Manchester native Alli Beaudry performed at the Shaskeen event and later waxed enthusiastic about Old Sol’s efforts. 
“It’s what all local musicians and artists dream of. … This will be a success for our community on so many levels,” she said. “It will attract local and national talent ... and the more-than-music concept brings opportunity and the community together. Combined with the healing power of music, it’s bound to be incredible.”
Old Sol Music Hall will indeed be about “more than music,” Wilhelm said. It will be “a venue that’s operated under the same values that guide our favorite musicians when they’re on tour … an institution that builds social capital.”
The MDC closed the deal for the Rex in January and issued its RFP in early February. At least three other bidders have responded, which doesn’t trouble Wilhelm.  
“Our approach is this: We’re eager to collaborate with people,” he said. “We want to make this great for Manchester. There’s no ego … if we didn’t put it out there, we wouldn’t have a chance to get feedback.”
Feedback is uniformly positive. Solomon spoke of a woman who watched the video “and talked about getting tears in her eyes, saying, ‘I’ve waited 25 years for this.’ It’s so exciting.”
 Wilhelm agreed. 
“We’ve been really inspired by the response of the greater Manchester community,” he said. “Close to 1,500 people watched the video on YouTube. We really feel like the vision is out there.” 
It’s so encouraging that they’re thinking of stretching out the process, and asking for donations of elbow grease in lieu of cash. 
“Instead of raising money from local businesses, we’d put together community service efforts, almost like Habitat for Humanity,” Wilhelm said. “We’d be engaging volunteers to do the renovations, so when it does open it’s a community effort rather than a construction project; the sweat of the community will be all over the walls.” 

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