'100-years-old legacy': Sacred Heart's community theater readies for next act in Fairfield

FAIRFIELD — It’s been a long and much-anticipated revival, but soon the curtain will once again rise on downtown Fairfield’s consummate historic entertainment landmark.

The Sacred Heart University Community Theatre begins a new act this spring, thanks to a partnership between Kleban Properties, which is renovating the space with tax-abatement assistance from the town, and the university. SHU has a 10-year lease and intends to make this venue a nonprofit creative, educational and culture center.

“It’s quite literally the prime location in town,” said Bill Harris, the theater’s director, as well as an adjunct professor in the Media and Communications Department and the producer in residence at Sacred Heart.

“Construction is all but complete,” he said, with just a few design items being finished up in the coming weeks.

While there is already a virtual theater presence in place, he said a “soft opening weekend” on March 19 will shepherd in the new era for the venue.

The date, he said, coincides with the state’s loosening of some COVID restrictions, with performance arts venues finally being allowed to expand to 50 percent capacity.

“I suspect that the audiences will grow slowly as they become more comfortable,” Harris said. “My hope and belief is that by the end of March, the doors will be open in earnest.”

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick welcomed the renovated theater.

“It has been a long journey to see this historic landmark in the heart of our downtown restored, and we are grateful for the work of many in getting us to this important milestone,” she said.

Coupled with the Fairfield Theatre Company and Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts, she said the new venue “further cements Fairfield’s reputation as a hub for arts, culture and entertainment.”

The community theater first opened around 1920 as a vaudeville stage, then later became a cinema house with both commercial and independent ownership, Kupchick said.

For close to a decade, following a seemingly final closure in 2011, the building was empty before Kleban’s purchase and restoration as the Kleban Family Building.

Harris said a wide range of work has been completed over the past year.

“Everything, from the foundation to the roof, is brand new, state of the art,” he said.

Along with reconditioning the iconic marquee, the inside was gutted and revamped with an expanded stage and a new balcony that includes a “skybox” conference room available for parties or classroom use.

“We are very excited about the opening of the SHU Fairfield Community Theatre,” said Beverly Balaz, president of the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce. “The restoration of the iconic building and venue is stunningly beautiful.”

She said it will attract people from surrounding towns, as well as Fairfield.

“Ticket holders may decide to dine before or after a show, or walk around to enjoy an ice cream or shopping along the way,” she said, praising the various events and activities that will become available to augment commerce downtown.

The theater offers opportunities for recorded media and live performances, as well as, educational opportunities for all ages, including potential master classes from Broadway and industry professionals, Harris said.

They’re considering unique opportunities, like viewing real Broadway rehearsals or private performances, as well as free after-school programming for young people.

“The vision that we have really is a multi-purpose venue,” Harris said, with both first-run and classic movies part of an ongoing initiative to celebrate 100 years of cinema.

“It’s really going to be quite, I believe, dynamic, and will bring a lot of variety of entertainment choices,” he said.

He also noted the theater’s history within the community.

“We’re stewards of a 100-years-old legacy,” he said. “So many generations have grown up with the theater as part of their entertainment (and) everyone wants this to be a success. Everyone is looking forward to reliving some of that.”

Among them is Marie Muhvic, president of the theater’s foundation.

“I’m nostalgic, so I love the idea of this central building keeping the proscenium and keeping its location, but bringing it up to the modern day and saying, ‘Let’s go another 100 years,’” Muhvic said. “And clearly Fairfield (has) the type of people who seem to appreciate arts, culture, music, performance, spoken word — whatever it might be — coming together in the center of town.”

This story has been updated to correctly identify the part of the theater Marie Muhvic said will not be moved during the renovation.