United in the Community
For 60 years the United Theatre provided entertainment for generations of people who lived in Westerly. But changing times forced the downtown theater - which had opened with vaudeville acts in 1926 - to close in the mid-1980s. Now there is a move to transform the United and an adjacent building into an arts complex aimed at drawing residents from southern Rhode Island to nearby Connecticut. Jim Hummel introduces us to some of those leading the effort.
For more information about the United Theatre, click here.
If you grew up in Westerly back in the day, there was a good chance you saw your first movie - and maybe had your first kiss - at the United Theatre. For decades, the giant marquee on Canal Street trumpeted the most popular entertainment at the time.
Algiere: “The United Theater was always a staple as part of our lives growing up. There wasn’t a day or a week that passed that we didn’t come here to watch a Walt Disney movie, or any movie for that matter. Many memories of the United theater and a lot of people in town have memories here.”
Dennis Algiere grew up on Westerly and was a patron of the United of as a child.
“I can vividly remember coming here, buying candies, sitting with friends and family and watching a Walt Disney movie. That was entertainment, we enjoyed it and those were very good memories.”
But the multiplex theaters and changing entertainment habits forced the United to close its doors in 1986 and sit vacant for more than three decades.
Now - The United is undergoing a transformation to look like - this.
The newly-christened Ocean Community United Theater plans to renovate the main theater building and the former Montgomery Ward department store adjacent to the original United, creating an arts complex.
It will include two theaters of varying sizes, a flexible space for live performances, a professional community music school, an art exhibit area and studios for music, film and the performing arts.
Algiere: “We’ve been focusing on arts, entertainment, and bringing the educational component into the art venue is going to be very beneficial, it’s going to provide a center of excellence.”
Royce: “A theater of any type can be a wonderful magnate for activity. It happens to be located, here we are, spot in the middle of downtown.”
Philanthropist Chuck Royce, a longtime summer resident here, and Algiere are co-chairing a $12-million capital campaign to create what they describe as a mini-Lincoln Center.
Royce: “It is the most ideal location for an arts center, a cinema, you couldn’t make this up. I’m thrilled to be part of trying to get it restarted again.”
Although the bulk of the work won’t begin until the United raises 80 percent of the total amount, the old theater already is somewhat of a construction zone. They have raised $6 million so far.
Algiere: “The people in the community - artists and non artists - are very supportive of this. And it’s going to be regional in nature. This is going to be a center of excellence for art and education with various partnerships throughout our region and state, all going to come together very nicely at the end and provide that cultural, artistic center of excellence.”
Those partnerships include the Rhode Island Philharmonic, which plans to run classes in the adjacent Montgomery Ward building. The United is also in talks to partner with Trinity Rep.
Royce: “This town has great bones, look around. Everything is tight, they did not rip down a lot of buildings. Usually in a downtown , somebody comes in and has a bright idea to rip out and make everything back from the street to create a really absurd-looking shopping mall downtown. And it destroys the aesthetics, it destroys the streetwalking. That didn’t happen here. So here we have a downtown that’s next to the railroad station, 10 minutes from the beach, that is on the train tracks to New York and Boston - it has all the bones you would want.”
Nunes: “As a kid, because I’ve always loved movies, I used to walk by this place because the marquee was up until maybe 10 years ago, so I’d walk by the place always wondering what’s inside.”
Tony Nunes was 4 years old when the theater closed its doors.
Nunes: “It was a kind of a ghost in my childhood, I’d walk by wondering what is this place, what was it. The more I learned about it I used to have a dream: If I hit it rich and win the lottery someday I’d love to buy this place and make it a movie theater.”
Nunes now oversees programming and marketing for The United, which is trying to reach people living South County and nearby Connecticut who might not be inclined to go to Providence.
Nunes: “We’re going to show a lot of movies, but when we have the opportunity we want to take all of the events we do and tie in a bit of an experiential model to them. We want people to feel like they’re part of the show by bringing on filmmakers or writers or actors when we have the occasion to have conversations with audiences afterward.”
Some of that has been happening already in the black box of the old United - from piano recitals and opera to a swing dance event and a jazz performance.
Nunes: “It can fit a capacity of more than 600 people, because the space is versatile you can take all the chairs out and have a standing-room only concert, you can set up in the round seating. You can set up - and we’ve done this - a runway in the middle with seats facing it to do a fashion show.”
Hummel: “Or have everything up on stage.”
Nunes: “Or do a traditional, and then the balcony will have seating that’s fixed at all times, as well.”
Last month Jon Batiste, who played both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals stay in the region during the week in between and held a sold-out concert and master class with half a dozen musicians before the show at the legendary Knickerbocker Café, another of the United’s partners.
Nunes said it is part of the momentum the downtown is picking up as a place to go.
Nunes: “Businesses are staying open later - restaurants are staying open later. If you come down here on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday night even in the winter there are people all the streets. The United Theater is going to be an anchor for that and its going to help bring people in at different hours.”
Royce, who discovered Westerly during summer visits decades ago, said he is working hard to have his fellow seasonal residents support the United.
Royce: “The pitch to the summer community is very simple: we are all in this together. The summer community should feel an allegiance and understanding of how cool the downtown is. And I believe they should be part of it. They all come from different parts of the country. They arrive, and they leave. They’re not historically deeply involved with downtown, but I think this can change that. And their support is critical.”
Hummel: “What are you looking forward to most once it’s completed?”
Algiere: “The community, the people in our area coming here to enjoy a good night, a good day out, and also providing the education to those who want to be involved in the arts, so they can dive in and get a good sense of what’s available in the artistic world. Overall just have people enjoy this center we’re going to have. And that’s what it’s all about.”
Royce: “This awareness of what we’re doing is really two months old. I’d say it’s going very well. We’re not there, but I want to get there.”
In Westerly, Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.