By Derrick Perkins
The hardest decision Rob Kaufman made in the nearly yearlong effort to restore the Old Town Theater was one of his earliest.
“The biggest hurdle was … the change from not doing a theater to doing a theater. If there was anything that caused any heartburn that was probably [it],” Kaufman said after reopening the King Street landmark to theatergoers and local luminaries earlier this week.
When the previous owner, Roger Fons, opted to sell the 800 block King Street building last winter the theater’s future seemed bleak. After an unsuccessful nine-year stint trying to run a movie theater in the nearly 100-year-old venue, Fons gave up and sold the property to Kaufman.
And Kaufman thought the location was perfect for a retail outlet.
Within days the story of the theater’s impending demise made national news. People began approaching Kaufman, pitching ideas to revitalize the historic building as a theater.
Still, Kaufman hesitated. In January, he told the Times the option of letting the building remain a theater was on the table — but hung on whether a potential tenant could present him with a viable business plan.
Though workers began renovating the structure soon after it sold, the theater’s future hung in the balance until July, when Kaufman announced he had found a partner to run the former movie house’s day-to-day operation.
Enter Tom Kennedy. After running a standup comedy outfit for years, Kennedy wanted to expand his oeuvre.
“What we’re doing now is the natural progression of what we’ve done,” he said. “This is the next step to taking it to a new level.”
While Kennedy began working on the theater’s stage revival — moving from film to vaudeville — Kaufman launched an extensive restoration project. It was, at times, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, from rediscovering the second floor’s former dance hall to a main staircase, all hidden by previous renovations and expansions.
“We assumed we were going to renovate what we knew we bought and ended up restoring something we did not think we had bought,” Kaufman said. “It’s like going on a trip to California, but you don’t have a GPS and don’t have a map — you just head west. That whole building was one of those trips where you just head west.”
The journey ended Monday night, when Kaufman and Kennedy threw open the doors to a curious crowd. A short dance routine played out on the stage as theatergoers took their seats and patrons watched from the balcony above as Kaufman officially rang in the theater’s new era.
“Fun is not the word; fun is definitely not the right word,” said Kennedy as he greeted people at the door. “Everybody asks, ‘are you excited?’ and that’s the furthest thing from my mind right now. [I would use] a word closer to anticipation — more of a sense of anticipation. I can’t wait to get started.”
Kaufman and Kennedy spun Monday’s celebration as one for the building – not the theater. Their first show runs on Wednesday and Kaufman plans for a slow start as they work out the kinks. Theater lovers can expect three or four performances a week throughout December: variety shows, stand-up comics, lectures, music and dramas.
The eclectic mix of entertainment is designed to ensnare everyone from the 25-year-old to 65-years-and-older crowd, said Kennedy. Their target audience might be families with young children one day and women the next.
They’re not out of the woods yet, Kaufman admits. Running a theater is not like leasing a building to a retailer, he said, but despite the heartburn, he doesn’t regret the decision.
“It’s very different from what I have done in the past, but I’m extremely confident it can be a venue,” Kaufman said. “I’m very positive and I’m also excited for the community. I hope they embrace it as much as I have. My goal is to make it a centerpiece for activity in the city.”