The Legacy Theatre opened in Branford Friday after a $4 million renovation years in the making. In its name, the theater acknowledges the 120-year history of the building it now occupies but the newly opened theater space, last known as the landmark Stony Creek Puppet House, is also charting a new course.
The new Legacy opened Friday night with a Broadway-style concert and will offer a mix of locally produced plays and musicals and children’s theater with tours by national performers.
The space has been entirely remodeled inside. The formerly flat, ground-level auditorium is now steeply raked, the back row on a level with a sound booth area that used to be a balcony. There are upper level box seats. A few of the seats in the auditorium are designed to be wider than the others. The ceiling has been styled with shaped wood pieces (”inspired by nautical themes,” a staffer offered), to hide the speakers up there.
The theater was built in 1903 as a silent movie house, then was expanded to include a theater stage in the 1920s. It became a professional summer stock theater, hosting the world premiere of what became one of the biggest theater hits of the 1930s, “Death Takes a Holiday.” In 1938, Orson Welles shot film footage to accompany a production of the comedy “Too Much Johnson” — the “Citizen Kane” director’s first exercise in filmmaking.
During World War II the playhouse was converted for wartime production needs; parachutes were made there. From 1961 until it was shuttered in 2009, it was known as the Stony Creek Puppet House, housing one of the most impressive and complete sets of Sicilian marionettes in the country. These 4-foot-high puppets were the steadiest attraction for decades at the theater, which also hosted community theater shows, band concerts, improv comedy and other events. The theater was closed over a decade ago due to fire code violations.
Legacy’s co-founder and board chair Stephanie Stiefel Williams says creating the theater has taken a decade, from the formation of the company in 2011 to the purchase of the building in 2015 to the fundraising and renovations.
Kelly Baisden Knudsen, Legacy’s artistic director and co-founder, has launched an ambitious inaugural season which currently lists over two dozen different shows — some one-nighters, some multi-week runs — between now and mid-December.
The theater’s first show was just hours after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a concert by Broadway star Telly Leung which sold out the socially distanced hall. Leung’s set included “West Side Story”'s anthem of optimism, “Something’s Coming” and a shoreline-friendly medley of “The Water is Wide” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
The Legacy will continue to program concerts by Broadway performers but is also producing its own shows, a season that varies from Neil Simon (”Barefoot in the Park,” April 28 through May 23) to Sophocles’ (”Oedipus Rex” July 28 through Aug. 22), plus the world premiere of a “musical bake-off” called “Just Desserts” June 2-27, the relationship musical “The Last Five Years” Sept. 4-26 and an original adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” Dec. 1-12.
Legacy is also developing its own family programming, with a production of the anti-racism kids’ musical ”Polkadots” and a biographical musical, “Joan Joyce!” about Connecticut’s legendary softball star of the 1960s and ‘70s. The diverse schedule also offers an “Expanded Voices” performance series on social issues and an avant-garde multimedia performance from Chicago, honoring Orson Welles: “Orson Rehearsed” by Daron Hagen, Aug. 29.
At the ribbon-cutting, Branford First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove said “I can’t believe the transition that has occurred,” and suggested that any delays due to the construction and negotiations with the town “gave Legacy an opportunity to strengthen their bond with the community.”
State Rep. Robin Comey said she had “spent a lot of time in this space when I was a young adult,” including as a performer. Another state representative, Sean Scanlon of Guilford, recalled that he “used to hang out here watching ska and punk shows,” and how he used to “show the creepy puppets in the back” to visitors.
“When I was with five or six kids watching punk bands coming through town, that not a public service,” Scanlon said. “This,” he said, gesturing to the new Legacy Theatre, “is a public service.”
Christopher Arnott can be reached at email@example.com.