By Joe Barron
With renovations scheduled for completion by November, Norristown’s venerable Centre Theater is poised to live up to its name at last. The folks behind an ambitious, full -building makeover hope the Grande Dame of DeKalb Street, where Mark Twain once entertained, will become the hub of a revitalized downtown.
Renovation of the fourth-floor performance space began in earnest over the summer as volunteers broke up and removed the old, makeshift seating platforms. Elements of the new seating arrived the weekend of Sept. 22.
Besides the quality of the productions, the prime recommendation of any theater is audience comfort, and the new, roomier seating layout, designed by Seiler & Drury of Norristown, will guarantee many squirm-free hours of comedy and drama. The renovated auditorium will accommodate up to 130, with wheelchair-accessible seats down front.
The renovations also include improved lighting and sound systems, as well as a drop-down screen for movie nights and children’s matinees.
Labor is being donated by the Keystone Mountain Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters, and the funding consists of a $60,000 line of credit from the Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Council, which gave its blessing to the plans Aug. 9 at a meeting with theater officials. IBEW 98 volunteers are donating all of their time for the electrical work.
“What we’ve decided today is in conjunction with a lot of the progress that is occurring in Norristown,” said Oscar Vance, chairman of the Centre Theater’s Board of Directors after the meeting, “and this will facilitate the attraction of people throughout Montgomery County to patronize our theater and hopefully the amenities and restaurants and other facilities in Norristown.”
Those amenities include Five Saints Distilling and the Timshel Coffee Shop, both on Main Street just around the corner from the theater. A little further afield, Norristown also offers jazz at August Moon, the summer concert series at Elmwood Park, and the innovative Elmwood Park Zoo.
With the recent rehabilitation of the first floor, and the heating and air conditioning system back online on the second floor, the Centre Theater is also poised to expand its role as a full-fledged community center. It is already home to the Centre Theater Music School, headed by cellist Steve Kramer; Expressive Path, which provides art education to at-risk youth; and CCATE, an after-school program for children. On weekends, members of a church group may be seen and heard through the street-level picture windows, raising their voices in praise.
“The main hope is to have the Centre theater be a focal point for entertainment, shows, music and arts and crafts, and social gatherings like small-scale wedding reception and fundraisers,” Vance said.
The original building opened in 1851 as the Odd Fellows lodge hall and public auditorium. From 1851 to 1873, the Odd Fellows auditorium provided the primary site for entertaining people who traveled from many corners of the region. Vaudeville acts performed in the early days.
In 1992, the Greater Norristown Corporation, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, formed the Greater Norristown Society for the Arts as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. In 1994, the building was acquired and renovated for a professional theater and educational programs. Renamed the Montgomery County Cultural Center, the building officially opened in 1996 with a seventy-five seat professional theater, The Centre Theater, on the 4th floor.
A new board was established in 2014 with Vance as president, Jeff Gingerich, former provost at Cabrini College as treasurer, and Stan Huskey, publisher of MONTCO.Today as the third member. Local Norristown attorney Joshua Chung replaced Gingerich in 2015.
A soft opening will be held Nov. 2 with The Perfect Dog, a Starving Artist Prevention production. The Perfect Dog is a musical adapted from the book of the same name by John O’Hurley, host of The National Dog Show Presented by Purina Thanksgiving Day special on NBC. The children’s musical production is part of National Dog Show Month in Philadelphia, which occurs every year in conjunction with the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s National Dog Show.
Ticket information will be available at The Centre Theater’s website.