Westerly ‘a hub’ of the humanities: Music, theater, literature and portray have all thrived via the years | Westerly

Editor’s observe: This is the fifth in a seven-part collection chronicling elements of Westerly historical past in celebration of the city’s 350th anniversary in 2019. A shorter model of this story seems in Saturday’s print version.

WESTERLY — From theater to music and dance, and from portray to sculpture and literature, Westerly has been steeped within the arts since earlier than European settlers arrived within the mid-1600s.

The indigenous individuals who first inhabited the land — members of the Niantic and Narragansett Indian tribes — started the area’s wealthy cultural heritage hundreds of years in the past. They informed tales, created cairns, designed wampum jewellery, wove baskets and painted murals, based on Lorén Spears, the manager director of the Tomaquag Museum.

“It was utilitarian art,” stated Spears. “Today we consider it art, but back then it had a purpose. It was beautiful and purposeful. It was art, but it was useful.”

In these days, earlier than newspapers and books, storytellers would cross alongside the legends and the legal guidelines. Paintings within the type of pictographs recorded historical past, displaying scenes from battles, hunts and storms.

Stories and songs could have been types of leisure, Spears stated, however they have been additionally instructional and methods to doc what was occurring on the planet.

Since these early days, Westerly’s historical past has been chock filled with compelling individuals and vibrant organizations centered across the space’s wealthy arts and tradition scene. Certain names — Harriet and Stephen Wilcox, George “Bunky” Kent, Anne Utter, Nikki Bruno and Bucky Walsh, Sallie Coy, Jillian Barber, Arthur Pignataro, Al Copley, Simon Holt, Paul Lynch, Harland Meltzer and, extra just lately, Chuck and Deborah Royce — come up many times in tales shared about Westerly’s cultural life.

Certain establishments, institutions, organizations and occasions — the Bliven Opera House; the Memorial and Library Association of Westerly; the Center for the Arts; the Chorus of Westerly; Twelfth Night; the Knickerbocker Café; Virtu Art Festival and its predecessor, Art within the Park; the Morris Men; Salt Marsh Opera; the Dante Society; Musica Dolce; Westminster Strings; the Theatre Workshop; The United, Colonial and Granite theatres — are additionally vital strands within the colourful tapestry of Westerly’s cultural historical past, together with the ingenious fundraisers created to help them.

When Savoy Bookshop and Café opened in 2016, it opened the door for much more cultural exercise on the town.

“I have so many good impressions of the arts and culture in Westerly over the 24 years I’ve been in Rhode Island,” stated Randall Rosenbaum, government director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. “I know this time period is slightly less than the 350 years Westerly has been around, but it’s been instructive.”

Perhaps the oldest formal arts group on the town is the Westerly Band, which might additionally boast a nationwide distinction. At 166 years outdated, the band is the oldest civic group in steady service in all the nation.

According to historic notes, a Westerly Brass Band was giving live shows as early as 1852. In 1854 a band performed for the Westerly High School’s “rhetorical exercises,” and a program from 1859 broadcasts a “Grand Concert” by the Westerly Brass Band below the route of A.J. Foster.

Later that century, in 1885, Westerly native Courtland Bradford Bliven, “a man of commanding presence” and “great executive ability,” based on historic accounts, constructed the Bliven Opera House at 100 Main St., on the location of right this moment’s Avie’s Ski/Sport.

The Bliven Opera House was the primary main theatre to be inbuilt Westerly with a big, 37-foot-by-56-foot stage and seating for 1,200. While it was initially the place to get pleasure from opera and theater, it will definitely grew to become the house for touring vaudeville reveals and, finally, movement photos. Dances and balls have been additionally held on the facility, just like the First Grand Ball sponsored by the volunteer fireplace division of Westerly, held in December 1897.

“The old Bliven Opera House … held pleasant memories for many until it was destroyed by fire on Jan. 3, 1925,” based on a narrative printed in The Sun.

The Memorial and Library Association of Westerly

When the Westerly Library, with its excellent collections of artwork and literature, opened its doorways in 1894 — full with an artwork gallery and museum — it grew to become the brand new cultural middle of city. With its mission “to strengthen the community and enrich lives by stimulating intellect and sparking imagination through access to literature, information, nature, and the arts,” the library, as said in its imaginative and prescient, “strives to be one of the premier intellectual, cultural, and botanical assets in the region.”

One of the library’s many prized collections contains the papers of prolific kids’s e book writer Margaret Wise Brown, writer of classics reminiscent of “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny.”

The Margaret Wise Brown Collection contains typed sheets of paper with tales and handwritten corrections, illustrated storyboards of the e book “The Little Brass Band,” and two first-edition tiny books referred to as the “Little Fur Family” encased in rabbit-fur book-covers. There are private letters, diaries, “scraps of paper in Brown’s flowing cursive handwriting, and papers she wrote in college for creative writing classes,” based on newspaper accounts.

Outside in Wilcox Park, the 14-acre Victorian strolling park subsequent to the library which is owned and maintained by the Memorial and Library Association, a bronze Margaret Wise Brown Runaway Bunny sculpture sits in a mattress of soppy wooden chips, making it secure, comfy and accessible for little climbers.

A plaque embedded within the floor is inscribed with the phrases, “and to our ages drowsy blood still shouts the inspiring sea!”

Wilcox Park, the 1898 bequest of Harriet Wilcox, can also be a masterpiece. Designed by Warren H. Manning, who was as soon as an affiliate of Frederick Law Olmsted, it has been a nationally vital itemizing on the National Register of Historical Places since 2004.

The library’s first addition, in 1902, included an artwork gallery designed to showcase the artwork treasures of Stephen Wilcox, the native industrialist-inventor who donated the land on which the library is located. In 1928, a second addition was constructed that included a brand new kids’s room with the Hoxie Art Gallery above and a museum under.

The library collections embrace portraits of a lot of Westerly’s vital former residents, many panorama work and a set of silver, china, and collectibles gathered by Harriet Dorothy Rothschild.

The Hoxie Gallery, thought of to be one of many premier galleries within the area, reveals reveals that includes work of native artists and cooperative teams which change each a number of weeks.

“The gallery space at the Westerly Public Library is a great model for other community libraries,” stated Rosenbaum, of the state arts council.

Westerly native Lido Mochetti, a longtime volunteer who served on the library’s 2017 “Treasures Through Time,” exhibit, which was created to honor the one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of the library’s founding, stated for a time, the library even had a mortgage assortment, which provided cardholders the chance to borrow work or items of artwork from the library’s assortment.

“You could loan a painting or a sculpture like you could loan a book,” he stated. “It was a great idea and a cooperative effort.”

But it was the late, beloved Sallie Coy, the longest-tenured librarian and first library director, who was “instrumental in putting Westerly library on the map,” Mochetti stated. Coy, who oversaw library life from 1930 to 1960, was chargeable for many new issues, together with the event of the museum assortment.

In the Nineteen Sixties, Mochetti recalled, the Hoxie Gallery “was the avenue for traveling exhibits” from the Smithsonian.

Mochetti recalled one memorable exhibit of Contemporary Crafts, curated by the late Nancy Slozberg Klotz, a gifted Westerly artist, potter and businesswoman. Klotz opened Sun Up Gallery in Avondale in 1976. The gallery, which she ran till 2014, was recognized for its beautiful “collectables and delectables,” based on Westerly native Jillian Barber, a celebrated Rhode Island ceramic sculptor who studied with glass artist Dale Chihuly when she was a scholar on the Rhode Island School of Design.

For two summers within the early Nineteen Seventies, Barber and Klotz, together with weaver Alice Pickett and leather-based artist George Dailey, ran a small artists’ cooperative contained in the Ocean House appropriately named the Ocean House Artisans.

“Nancy had wonderful taste,” stated Barber, who would typically accompany Klotz on shopping for journeys for her store, which attracted craftsmen and girls and modern craft connoisseurs from across the nation.

Today, Avondale Arts occupies the previous Sun Up Gallery, an area that gives lectures, artwork reveals, and courses in portray, laptop visible arts, needle crafts and horticulture design.

In August of 2017, the library organized an exhibit referred to as “Treasures Through Time,” which opened to rave evaluations and super enthusiasm when a number of artifacts from the library’s Special Collections have been taken out of storage and placed on show in an exhibit match for the best museum. Items included a velocipede, a 6-foot-tall bicycle made in Westerly; a Stillman clock, which was just lately on show at Yale; and portraits of well-known individuals.

Noted artist Ian Newbury, whose work contains beautiful watercolors of native seashores, sunsets and storms, plus such iconic native spots because the library, Ocean House, and homes and streets all through Stonington and Westerly, created watercolors of the library and park to commemorate the one hundred and twenty fifth celebration.

Newbury additionally designed the invitation for the library’s one hundred and twenty fifth gala celebration, which occurred in Wilcox Park on an excellent summer time’s night in July.

Historically talking, added Rosenbaum, Westerly has “good bones.”

Westerly is a city filled with “important and committed arts organizations and individual artists doing interesting work,” he stated.

Fred Greene

One of the various artists who referred to as Westerly dwelling was a business artist and photographer named Fred Stewart Greene. A North Stonington native who was born in 1876, attended Westerly Public Schools, graduated from Westerly High School in 1894 and received a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, Greene went to New York and studied on the prestigious Arts Students League and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He then returned to Westerly to reside together with his household in its High Street dwelling.

In 1899, Greene, who taught on the New England School of Design in New London and was an honored member of the Noank Sketching Club and the Westerly Art Club, opened a studio in downtown Westerly, the place he taught courses in portray and images.

United Theatre / Knickerbocker Cafe

On Jan. 18, 1926, a 12 months after the Bliven Opera House burned down, the United Theatre on Canal Street opened as a vaudeville theatre, based on Tony Nunes, who directs occasions and advertising for the theatre. The opening-night gala featured 5 acts of Paramount Vaudeville, together with the Seven Rainbow Girls, Eddie Cooke and the Shaw Sisters, Bernard and Ferris, Exposition Jubilee and the Jean Jackson Troupe. That evening additionally featured the primary movie ever to play on the United, the now-lost May McAvoy silent movie “Tessie.”

The United noticed its share of big-name performers, starting from world-renowned opera stars together with operatic contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink and tenors Mario Lanza and Giovanni Martinelli to well-known vaudeville troupes just like the Will Mastin Trio, that includes Sammy Davis Jr.

The United was the one theater fitted with an organ, making it the go-to theatre for silent movies, and was the primary theatre within the area to showcase the “talkies,” according to Nunes. The new film technology drew such overflow crowds that two shows were necessary before the final curtain was drawn at three in the morning. As silent cinema began to fade, the theater would eventually transition into a full-time movie theater showcasing the biggest and best first-run features. When “Star Wars” was released in 1977, the film was such a hit that it played at the United for an entire year.

Three other movie houses popped up in Westerly over the years. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Wayfarer, next to what is now Amigos Taqueria Y Tequila, showed black-and-white films for a number of years, and in the 1980s and ‘90s, Hoyts Cinema on Granite Street showed popular movies of the day. In the early 2000s, the husband-and-wife team of Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian, opened the Revival House, a 55-seat cinema on High Street, which they ran until 2007.

Locals still have sentimental stories about the United, plentiful and packed with the powerful passion that happy childhood memories inspire. Mention the United and Westerly-area folks are ready to share memories of the movies they watched there, the people they went with, or their first kiss in the balcony.

The United was open until 1986 and remained shuttered until 2006, when the Westerly Land Trust purchased the theater as part of its Urban Program. The purpose of the program is to focus resources on the redevelopment and enhancement of commercial properties in the downtown area, particularly those in areas of historic significance to the town. Today, the building and adjoining space are about to undergo extensive renovations designed to transform the property into a multi-use arts complex.

For the last few years, the United has sponsored a Folk Festival in Wilcox Park which has featured well-known musicians, including Blitzen Trapper, the Barr Brothers, Langhorne Slim, Michael Nau, Woods, The Low Anthem, My Bubba, Elvis Perkins, Luke Temple, Little Wings, Barna Howard and Westerly’s own Wild Sun. The United also sponsored, with the library, a children’s movies series in the theatre and in Wilcox Park, a film festival and a number of open houses.

In the last few years, the United and The Knickerbocker Music Center have partnered, in hopes of “allowing for centralized programming, marketing, and the coordination of physical space,” based on Nunes. Located simply across the nook on Railroad Avenue, The Knick will create a multi-venue regional campus for the humanities.

The Knickerbocker Café on Railroad Avenue was inbuilt 1933, shortly after the tip of Prohibition, based on Knick Executive Director Mark Connolly. The Café itself is called after a practice that handed via Westerly station on the time of the café’s founding.

The Knick was first owned by brothers Albert “Aggie” and Paul Vitterito, who remodeled the Twenties Railroad Avenue ice cream stand into Westerly’s premier evening spot. The Knick grew to become an Italian restaurant of observe, and over time developed into the place for wedding ceremony receptions and an enormous band dance membership. By the Nineteen Seventies, it was all in regards to the blues on the Knick. In 1977, the sons of the homeowners, Salvatore Vitterito, son of Aggie, and his cousin, Paul “Junie” Vitterito Jr., took over the household enterprise.

Over the years, Junie booked the bands that not solely put the Knickerbocker Café on the map, however drew individuals from Providence, Boston and from as distant as New York to listen to the music and dance.

By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Junie was booking national acts like The Platters, Tiny Tim, The Drifters, The Belmonts, Carl Perkins, Danny and the Juniors. And in the years prior, big bands and swing bands came to play for the regulars who got their swing fix on Railroad Avenue. Floor shows, dance bands and other shows were often broadcast on live radio.

And then came the local blues musicians: Greg Piccolo, Roomful of Blues, Johnny Nicholas, Al Copley and Sugar Ray Norcia.

The club thrived as one of the leading entertainment centers in southern New England, Connolly writes, hosting regional and national bands with an emphasis on the blues. Some of the greats that played on the Knickerbocker stage include Big Joe Turner, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Leon Russell, Eric Burdon and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 1967, Roomful of Blues was born in Westerly, when guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley started a band that played tough, no-holds-barred Chicago blues. Making the Knickerbocker Café their home club, it didn’t take long before they started exploring swinging, jumping blues and added a horn section. Roomful would pack the house every Sunday and still plays their great brand of blues today.

Since 2014, the Knick has partnered with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School and has been offering classes to students in the Westerly and Chariho school districts.

Together, the United and The Knick plan to provide an Educational Learning Center for weekly lessons, classes and ensemble students of the Philharmonic Music School.

Connolly said both venues plan to build on attracting national headliners that, to date, have included such musicians as Jon Batiste, Robert Earl Keen, Deer Tick and Leon Russell.

Chorus of Westerly

“There has always been a big interest in the arts in Westerly,” said George “Bunky” Kent, a professor of music emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and the man largely responsible for the creation and staying power of the Chorus of Westerly. “There has always been something going on.”

Kent, who co-founded the Chorus of Westerly in 1959 when he was a graduate student at the New England Conservatory, is the celebrated organist and choirmaster of Westerly’s Christ Church. A recipient of a number of awards, he was honored with a Governor’s Arts Award — Rhode Island’s highest honor within the arts — in 1988.

For a few years, Kent stated, earlier than the refrain was based and earlier than the Colonial and Granite theatres got here into existence – even earlier than the Theatre Workshop, the Center for the Arts or the Dante Society, which is devoted to preserving Italian tradition — the general public colleges served as facilities for the humanities.

Kent, who grew up in Pawcatuck, stated he remembers the drama golf equipment from each Westerly and Stonington excessive colleges providing glorious productions for the neighborhood.

“They were doing things like Gilbert and Sullivan” stated Kent, who additionally recalled the affect of lecturers reminiscent of Poppy Valentine and Henry Lawton.

“Westerly always had amateur groups,” added Mochetti, “And there were productions at the American Legion and Granges,” even reveals that right this moment could be thought of tasteless and offensive, he stated, like minstrel reveals, which remained well-liked on this nation via the Nineteen Fifties.

Mochetti stated there have been additionally plenty of native dance venues, referred to as casinos, the place individuals would collect to bop to the sounds of the large bands.

The Arts Commission of Christ Church has additionally sponsored arts applications over time, stated Mochetti. With the church’s spectacular C.B. Fisk organ, plenty of notables have performed there over time.

“There was a men’s chorus, a group called the Westerly Singers, that got interrupted by the war,” Kent recalled, “and there was a woman’s chorus also, called the Pawcatuck Valley Singers.”

But it was whereas Kent and his spouse, Lynn, have been attending the marriage of Tony and Angie Trovato within the Nineteen Seventies that Kent first heard the acoustics contained in the outdated Church of the Immaculate Conception {that a} seed was planted. The stone and the wooden mixed to create a unprecedented sound, Kent stated.

“We recognized that it was unusually special,” stated Kent. “It was our first time in the church and we were blown away. They don’t build them like that anymore.”

Years later, when “the building was in trouble,” Kent stated, “we established the Center for the Arts” to assist create a car to buy the constructing.

The “we” Kent referred to included his spouse, Lynn, and the late Anne Utter, who died in 2006, forsaking a legacy of creative accomplishments, most notably the extravaganza referred to as “A Celebration of Twelfth Night.”

What these two girls created in Westerly, stated Mochetti, was “remarkable.”

From 1964 to 1972, the Center for the Arts, led by Utter and the Kents, sponsored innumerable live shows and different arts-related occasions all through city.

Donna Celico of Westerly, a longtime champion of the humanities herself and well-known and well-respected for her personal artistic and intelligent fundraisers, referred to as Utter and Lynn Kent her mentors.

“The impossible is what they tackled,” stated Celico one latest afternoon as she and Mochetti shared their recollections of Westerly’s cultural traditions. “I learned how to do things from Anne and Lynn.”

“They were two extremes,” stated Mochetti. “Anne was always quiet and reserved and Lynn was always enthusiastic.”

Celico, who is essentially chargeable for a collection of profitable Westerly Library fundraisers — together with the award-winning “Naughty & Nice Children in Literature,” which concerned lots of of native individuals — stated the Center for the Arts/Chorus fundraisers have been occasions to recollect.

Utter was the visionary power behind “A Celebration of Twelfth Night,” together with the Kents. The first “Twelfth Night” was produced in 1972 and included a efficiency by the well-known Cambridge Mummers. “Twelfth Night,” which coincided with the Christian Feast of the Epiphany, was a novel theatrical idea that integrated conventional medieval music, dance and drama right into a communal efficiency that concerned the viewers, who typically sang and danced with the forged. The present concerned individuals of all ages and the forged members numbered within the lots of — along with the 200-member refrain. With a lot of the performers being native residents, it grew to become referred to as the most important neighborhood arts presentation in Southern New England.

Utter, thought of the matriarch and guiding spirit of the extravaganza, wrote a brand new script for the manufacturing yearly. The storyline centered round a European-court rendition of the final of the twelve days of Christmas and included a traditional good versus- evil plot with new characters and twists annually. But there have been at all times the pot kids and the little pink devils, which have been autos to incorporate the smallest, youngest members of the forged.

“It was as a showcase for the arts,” stated Chorus Executive Director Ryan Saunders.

Jillian Barber, the ceramicist, remembers creating huge beasts and puppets manufactured from papier-mâché for the reveals.

“Whatever Anne Utter wanted, I made,” stated Barber. “If she wanted a 40-foot dragon, I made a 40-foot dragon. If she wanted a giant 7-foot boar’s head, I made a giant 7-foot boar’s head.”

There have been unicorns and legendary birds and woodland creatures of each measurement, Barber stated.

In 1981, The New York Times included “A Celebration of Twelfth Night” in its checklist of the “Twelve Best Things to do at Christmastime.” It was a beloved custom that lasted for 40 years.

In January of 2015, in an emotional and bittersweet night that combined “merriment and memories, laughter and tears, the young and the old, the ancient and the new in a dazzling tapestry of dance, song, music and fun,” the refrain offered its remaining manufacturing of “A Celebration of Twelfth Night.”

But it was additionally, based on a narrative printed in The Sun the subsequent day, “one glorious tribute to the folks who made the show into the extravaganza it has become – namely Anne Utter and George Kent — and a very fitting farewell to the Epiphany tradition that had involved roughly 4,000 people since its inception.

There were other fundraisers too, Celico said, fundraisers that were more like full-scale productions, included a now legendary haunted house and the Christmas Houses, when an entire house was transformed and each room was decorated in Victorian style one year, German the next, and Dickensian the third.

“Lynn gave each group a room to brighten for a fundraiser,” said Celico, and the outcome was exquisite.

“The Victorian one included 655 volunteers,” said Celico. “And there have been 29 totally different musical teams.”

Saunders remembers being in awe of the dragon’s castle fundraiser and the haunted house as a child.

One year, Celico recalled, there was an indoor Christmas pageant with large and vocal live animals.

“I bear in mind some gassy sheep and a hilarious mule,” said Celico with a hearty laugh, “It was very tough. There was a crying child and the mule … they could not get the mule up the steps.”

In December of 1974, she said, pulling out a yellowed copy of a story that ran in the Groton News, which was written by the late Gloria Russell, a longtime Sun columnist, there was a fashion show that included dozens of locals.

“About 30 volunteers, with a lot aplomb, modeled fashions from the Blue Mitten Thrift Shop, a classy second-hand retailer, and received the monthlong Festival of Christmas actions off to a very good begin on the Center for the Arts final week,” the story said. “The Center was the setting for the Fish and Fashions luncheon, throughout which a whole lot of good sports activities offered a program entitled ‘Famous Moments within the Future of the Center for the Arts.’”

The story was accompanied by photos of Dorcas Van Horn in the role of Quilting Bee, Joseph McAndrew as a travel agent and cook, Tony Travato as a bell-ringer and Leo Moroso as a peddler.

Whatever the event, Celico said, “Bunky at all times performed the piano.”

The community was so “thirsty for the humanities,” Kent recalled, that things came together. People with ties to the broader world of the arts jumped in to help. People like the late Henry Moses, an attorney who was general counsel of Mobil Oil Company and a vice president of Mobil Oil Corporation responsible for the firm’s interests in the Middle East. He was instrumental in bringing the great Yo-Yo Ma and the late Rudolf Serkin to play at the former Immaculate Conception church. Serkin was said to have commented on the building’s stellar acoustics, Celico said.

“He informed Bunky that the church was a miracle of acoustics,” Celico said.

The Center for the Arts purchased the historic church for $40,000, the name of the building was officially changed to the Center for the Arts and the building was named to the National Register for Historic Places. In 1991, the Chorus of Westerly purchased the building from the receiver for $165,000 with money raised from board members and a few other “particular associates of the Chorus.”

For the next 20 years, Kent led the chorus — the only multi-generational chorus of its kind in the country. The chorus has become nationally recognized as unique in its practice of having children sing a full concert season of challenging repertoire with adult singers.

In 2012, he handed his baton to Andrew Howell, his former student and a “refrain child.”

Aside from “Twelfth Night” and the annual Christmas Pops concert, the Chorus of Westerly also hosts one of Westerly’s most remarkable musical events. Each June, in what has become the traditional kick-off to summer for Westerly residents, thousands of people flock to Wilcox Park to hear the 200-plus members of the chorus, along with members of the Boston Festival Orchestra, present a concert that has come to be called Summer Pops. It includes its celebrated and popular grand finale, a choral version of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” complete with the booming cannons from the Artillery Company of Newport, ringing church bells from Christ Church, and fireworks by Grucci. Some estimates claim that close to a million people have experienced the music and magic of Summer Pops.

The pops concert actually began on a warm summer night in 1981, when a couple of hundred singers, a huge orchestra, and one very enthusiastic crowd crammed into Westerly’s Dixon Square for a special “one-time-only” concert,” forward of the refrain’ European tour.

“There have been a lot of people over the last 40 years that have made the chorus what it is today,” stated Saunders. “Bunky, of course, but we can never forget Doug and Jean Rayner.”

“The Chorus of Westerly was my first introduction to your community,” stated Rosenbaum, of the state arts council. “My background is in choral music, and I was fascinated by the Chorus’ model of community engagement. Then I attended a concert and was blown away by its quality.”

“The Chorus is just one example of community-committed arts organizations in Westerly,” he added. “I’ve been impressed with the Artist Cooperative Gallery of Westerly.”

Artists’ Cooperative

The Artists’ Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, based by artists Bruce Goodsell, Sandi Gold and Ginger Mitchell in 1992, was first situated within the Brown Building on High Street, which was owned by Bill Griffin of Stonington.

“The Co-op would not be what it is today without Bill Griffin,” stated Gold, a Westerly resident. “He was a lifesaver. A gift.”

Downtown Westerly was “dead” again within the early Nineties, Gold recalled, and Griffin provided the fledgling arts group six months of rent-free area to get began.

Around the identical time, Gold stated, she and the late Webster Terhune, an artist who was, for a time, the curator of the library’s Hoxie Gallery, coordinated the Wednesday “Westerly Arts Stroll.”

“The library was open on Wednesday nights,” Gold stated, and the 2 artists thought it could be a technique to improve consciousness of Westerly’s rising artwork scene.

In 1993, Gold and Terhune collaborated on a challenge referred to as “Temple of the Soul,” which resulted in nationwide protection from the New York Times, People Magazine and ABC’s “20/20.”

The challenge introduced greater than 10,000 individuals to the library, stated Gold in regards to the 10-foot-by-60-foot pastel mural she painted contained in the library. The mural was “full of everyday sights — sunsets, trees, flowers — that most people take for granted,” based on People. Gold labored on the mural from the start of September till its completion on Nov. 30 that 12 months. On Jan.1, she returned to the library, this time with cleaning soap and water, to erase her work.

“Her message was that, as she has discovered, nothing can be taken for granted — not life, not art,” based on the People story.

In February 2010, the cooperative, with roughly 50 artist members and a devoted group of associates, associates, sponsors, and volunteers, moved into the previous Montgomery Ward Building on Canal Street.

It was largely due to Kelly Presley, the previous government director of the Westerly Land Trust, Gold stated.

“Kelly and I had become friendly,” Gold recalled. “We needed more space and the land trust was looking for someone to use that space.”

“They were wonderful to us,” stated Gold. “They renovated the space and enlarged it.”

Last August, the gallery moved into the Westerly practice station in an uncommon collaboration that concerned the state Department of Transportation, which owns the constructing and parking zone, and the gallery, which wanted new quarters whereas its High Street area is renovated as a part of the United Theatre renovation challenge.


Artist Nancy Young of Westerly could have been solely 6 years outdated, however she remembers her father, the late Robert Young and forged members from the Theater Workshop, rehearsing performs in the lounge of their Beach Street dwelling.

“We had all kinds of personalities,” stated Young, whose dad based the theater firm. “They were like family to me.”

Young notably remembers rehearsals for “A Shot in the Dark,” and “You Can’t Take it With You,” and actors like Arthur Pignataro, Bucky Walsh, Janice Gulluscio and Vinnie Silvestri.

“They did a ton of shows,” recalled Young who has additionally acted in lots of native productions over time. “My dad did everything from lights to sound to acting and directing. He was brilliant.”

David Jepson, creative director for Westerly’s Granite Theatre, can nonetheless bear in mind the message on his answering machine left by the late Paul D. Lynch shut to twenty years in the past.

Lynch, who died in 2011, was legendary for his help of such native establishments because the Ocean Community YMCA, the Westerly Hospital, and the Colonial Theatre.

“If you want to talk to me as much as I want to talk to you, then give me a call,” Lynch stated in his message.”

“So we met at Billy Holiday’s restaurant, and he requested me if I’d be loopy sufficient to run two theaters on the similar time,” said Jepson with a laugh.

At the time, Jepson and his wife, Beth, were living in Pawtucket and running the City Nights Dinner Theatre. For two years, they were crazy enough to run two theaters, Jepson said. Then they relocated to Westerly, and have been producing plays at the Granite ever since.

According to a Sun story from 2003, the Musica Dolce performance, “Classics by Candlelight,” was the 150-year-old building’s first program “since Paul Lynch, Thomas Black III and Stuart Pucci purchased it from Rose and Martin Meltzer for $150,000 in January after which spent one other $85,000 for enhancements. The newly refurbished and reincarnated Granite Theatre, previously the Colonial Theatre and earlier than {that a} church, debuted Saturday evening to rave evaluations throughout a chamber music live performance. The consensus of these readily available: Westerly’s arts neighborhood has a brand new jewel on the hill above Wilcox Park.”

“It’s been an important run,” said Jepson, who is entering his 18th year at the helm of the Granite.

The Colonial Theater was founded by New York native Harland D. Meltzer in April of 1985.

“Harland introduced fairness theatre to Westerly,” said Celico.

The performances were held in what is today’s Granite Theatre. In 1991, The Colonial introduced its Shakespeare Festival in Westerly’s Wilcox Park, which ran consistently for more than 25 summers. In 2001, The Colonial initiated its “Shakespeare-To-Go” program in public schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Most recently, Meltzer helped launch a groundbreaking partnership with the Westerly Public Schools that will not only establish a permanent acting curriculum for Westerly’s high school students, but will also provide a “skilled pathway” for students to engage in vocational skills training through professional theatrical productions. Meltzer stepped down from his role earlier this year, returning permanently to New York to care for his aging parents.

Stage Door Theater Company, under the direction of Eugene Celico, began around 1986. At first, Celico said, the company did mostly small productions, until 1991. It was then the company produced perhaps its most ambitious project in the park Celico calls “probably the most stunning park in New England.”

“Stage Door Theater Company produced ‘The Passion of Christ’ in Wilcox Park,” Celico stated in an electronic mail. “It was attended by two thousand people, and gave Stage Door recognition in the community.”

“We found an audience,” stated Celico who continues to stage productions starting from comedies to classics to authentic works when he can.

Westerly continues to be a spot the place the performing arts “can thrive, inspire and educate,” stated Celico, the place they “have become a staple in our diverse and talented community.”

Virtu Art

Virtu Art Festival, a trademark annual occasion sponsored by the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, attracts roughly 20,000 artwork lovers to Wilcox Park every Memorial Day weekend, based on chamber president Lisa Konicki. It additionally provides near $6.6 million {dollars} to the native economic system, she added.

“It’s good for the economy, good for the artists and good for the community,” Konicki stated. “The arts are good for the economy.”

Although the competition celebrated its twenty second anniversary final Memorial Day weekend, it truly has roots that return greater than 40 years in the past.

In the Nineteen Seventies, the Westerly Art Festival, an out of doors artwork present sponsored by the chamber, was held in Wilcox Park. It ran for plenty of years however was deserted when many artists returned to their autos on the finish of a protracted day to seek out parking tickets pasted on their automobile windshields.

The following 12 months, artists boycotted the present, Konicki stated, citing the absence of accessible parking and a scarcity of city cooperation.

“When I was first hired, I had to rebuild the art show,” she stated. “I hit the ground running and I started with the police department.”

Since then, Konicki stated, increasingly more individuals have come to know the financial worth of the humanities and the affect the humanities can have on a city.

“The arts have gained tremendous momentum over the last 25 years,” she stated.

“I think that’s being demonstrated by the pledges received for the renovation of the United Theatre, the Chorus of Westerly and the Shakespeare in the Park,” she added. “In general, I think the citizenry has gained an appreciation of the value of the arts and has embraced it.”

Konicki credit former state Rep. Peter Lewiss and state Sen. Dennis L. Algiere for ensuring that laws was handed to make Westerly a tax-free arts district.

“If you make, sell or buy art in Westerly’s art zone, it’s tax-free,” she stated. “That was long term foresight on Peter and Dennis’ part.”

Konicki stated it is at all times the dedication and energy from volunteers that makes issues occur.

For occasion, she stated, there are two individuals who surrender their Memorial Day weekends annually to make Virtu potential.

“Without Angela Smith and Michael Benevides, there would be no Virtu,” she stated. “They have been doing this for the last 22 years. They best exemplify the spirit of selflessness that sustains the arts and all the activities.”

She cited the Bricks and Murals occasion, which introduced lots of of individuals to Westerly- Pawcatuck to color colourful murals and old style wall commercials on the perimeters of space buildings, the butterfly challenge now underway in downtown and plans for the Harmony Trail as examples of the super volunteer spirit that exists in Westerly.

The tasks add “whimsy and art” to the city, she stated, “and people really like how it differentiates us.”

But it isn’t one particular person or one occasion or one factor that makes Westerly a novel arts vacation spot, she stated.

“It’s the culmination of everything,” she stated, “and a lot of volunteers working together.”

“We have an incredibly vibrant arts community,” stated Saunders, of the Chorus of Westerly. “It’s exploding.”

“There’s a very European cultural feel,” he added. “And I think the heart of it is here at the chorus.”

“From the Salt Marsh Opera, to Kathy Monroe’s Westminster Strings, to Musica Dolce, a lot of artists have been nurtured here,” Saunders stated. “I think we are a hub … a vital organ.”

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