Ask any kid to name the best part of a sandwich cookie. Doesn’t matter if it’s an Oreo, Nutter Butter or E.L. Fudge®, the predictable answer is “the middle.” For a group of civic boosters, this sweet spot also provided a perfect metaphor for their goal of reviving Franklin’s arts scene.
So in April 2009, Franklin Opera House became the Middle New Hampshire Arts & Entertainment Center. But the idea went well beyond Cookies 101.
“We are in the middle of the Lakes Region, the White Mountains, and what you could call the cosmopolitan area down in Manchester,” said the Middle’s marketing director, Chris Philion.
“Another idea is that what we’re trying to create here is not for the elite. It’s for the middle class. We want average people to think that they can come and enjoy a night out at an unpretentious venue and come and see great theater and great music and mingle with their friends and neighbors, and do something fun that’s local.”
Comedian Juston McKinney, who appears this Saturday, July 17, is perfectly suited for the venue. A veteran of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, McKinney recently released a DVD of his Comedy Central special, A Middle Class Hole. The New Hampshire native riffs on married life, being a father, and how some of his friends take the state’s motto a bit too seriously.
“We’re gonna live free or die and you’re not gonna stop us,” observes the comic, who once queried a friend about his refusal to wear a seat belt. “He said, ‘You only live once’ — EXACTLY! That’s why I wear mine, you idiot.”
McKinney’s July 17 appearance represents a new direction for the Middle, said Philion. “Honestly, we’ve only done one or two comedy shows in the history of our organization — well, since we closed down after the vaudeville era.” The Blanks, better known as Ted’s Band from the TV series Scrubs, perform humorous a cappella on Aug. 27. Rounding out the summer comedy series is Boston funny man Jimmy Dunn on Sept. 11.
“There doesn’t seem to be a comedy outlet north of Concord except for a couple of open-mike nights,” Philion said. “Especially in times like these, we need to laugh. It’s a great art form — if people gave it a shot they’d love it.”
The Middle aims to broaden its reach with music, theater and a “Showcase Series” featuring what Philion calls “New England acts or a little bit bigger, but still very much musical.” These include AJ Swearington and Jonathan Beedle’s tribute to Simon & Garfunkel on Sept. 24 and Maine writer/performer Susan Poulin performing A Very Ida Christmas on Dec. 11.
The Franklin Opera House was built in 1893, but for the late part of the 20th century it served as municipal office space, until construction of a new town courthouse in 1999 once again made it available. Renovation efforts continued through much of the ensuing decade; in 2005, the balcony was reopened.
In 2001, the Franklin Footlight Theatre, run by a local teacher, presented Oliver to a sold-out crowd. It was the first arts event at the opera house after 30 years of dormancy. The FFT continues to perform; in October they will present And Then There Were None as part of the Granite Series, which also includes the bluegrass band Swing a Cat on Sept. 18, and they’ll have two holiday shows in December.
A Headliners Series kicks off Oct. 9 with James Cotton, along with local heroes the Brooks Young Band opening. New Hampshire’s own Shaw Brothers appear Oct. 23. A series of community shows begins in December with the Granite State Ringers and will also include a Franklin High School production and a public talent night.
There are plans for a wine tasting event in October, and plans are already under way for a repeat of the Middle Marathon held last May, a volunteer effort that raised $24,000 for the venue. The 26.2-hour event included puppets, vaudeville, blues, bluegrass, a sing-along and plenty of great community energy.
True to form, this gets Philion thinking about cookies.
“To extend the metaphor, it’s all about what’s inside,” he said. “Franklin has a great heart, and we think that with the work we’re doing here we’re getting more people to come in and see what’s going on in. What we’re trying to do is build a brand here, where if there’s something going on people will recognize it,” he said. “If it’s at the Middle then they know it’s going to be a good show, comfortable and intimate.”