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New theater owners say 'it has good bones'

Cary Ashby • Jun 12, 2019 at 9:30 PM

The Norwalk Theatre, built in 1941, is now under new ownership, the Norwalk Arts Center LLC.

“It has good bones; it just needs help inside,” said Vanessa Cook, co-owner with Theresa Barcus. “We are not architects, but we do know the value of that place and what it could be. I mean, who knows how much money it’s going to take.”

Having the building inspected will be the owners’ first step.

“We are reaching out now to construction (experts) and to architectural people,” Cook said. “At the beginning, I think a lot of it is cosmetic; I don’t think it’s structural at this point. … There is standing water on the roof, so a roof repair will hopefully, you know, mitigate that (leaking issue).”

On Jan. 1, 1974, Towne and Country Players Inc. purchased the theater from Leonard and Thelma Jefferson. The Norwalk-based arts organization had various musical and theatrical performances in the downtown building.

Towne and Country founder and current volunteer Ronn Koerper once had a quote of $40,000 to replace the roof. He has said “you better have deep pockets” in order to bring the theater back to running order.

“They’re going to have to have a half-million dollars … and a cash flow,” he added, noting it might not be worth the investment. “It takes two boilers to heat that place.”

The Norwalk Theatre originally had 1,111 seats — 901 on the main floor and 210 in the balcony. It currently features 924 seats due to the addition of an expanded stage, orchestra pit and theater organ.

“With any old building” and no matter its age, Cook said the technology and equipment are “archaic” and will need to be updated “for us to function and succeed,” especially since technology progresses so quickly in the fine arts.

“You have to be current and you have to replace those things, probably every 10 years is not abnormal,” she added.

The Norwalk Theatre was built in 1941 for the Schine Theatres chain. 

About a year ago, Barcus and Cook began contacting Joe and Kim Cerri. The Cerris purchased the theater in 2012; it closed in late 2011.

“(We are) so grateful for Joe and Kim Cerri for saving this historic site. They did the best to preserve the theater. When we opened the door, it was like time stood still; most of the original fixtures, signage and equipment (are) there. It is amazing to see (and we’re) so thankful they did not gut the place,” said Cook, who believes the Cerris did they best they could to maintain the theater.

“There are rumors they have gutted it; that’s not true,” she added.

“And they have been amazing,” Cook said, referring to the previous owners. “They bought the property to rescue it from a wrecking ball; that was what they told us. They had no intention of really ever reopening it up; that’s not their gig. They are architects and they love historical buildings.

“So when we came to them and said, ‘Hey, we want to actually reopen it as a theater.’ They were like, ‘You are the people we’ve been waiting for.’ And they have been so patient with us.”

 

PULL-OUT BOX

Here is a history of the Norwalk Theatre, 57 E. Main St.:

1938: James Williams, the first Norwalk mayor, sold his former homesite to the Schine Theatres chain. 

1941: Completion of Norwalk Theatre

1969: Schine Theatres Chains old the theater to the Realty Equity Group of New York

1972: Sold to Leonard F. Jefferson, of Sandusky

1974: Sold to Town and Country Players Inc.

2006: Sold to Steve and Teresa Lafountaine

2012: Sold to Norwalk Theatre LCC (Joseph and Kim Cerri)

2019: Sold to Norwalk Arts Center LLC (Theresa Barcus and Vanessa Cook)

Source: Norwalk Arts Center LLC

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