'Ruth Gordon is Quincy': Residents unite to save amphitheater amid demolition threat
QUINCY – Members of a group hoping to save the underused Ruth Gordon Amphitheater in Merrymount Park say they're working to start a nonprofit to restore and manage the venue, which was built to honor the memory of the Wollaston-born actress who brought fame to the city.
Sara Trainor Callard, a lifelong Quincy resident, said the Friends of the Ruth Gordon Amphitheater group will “put the theater back into the hands of the people.”
“Together, we can restore and manage the amphitheater, bringing a new season to this stage,” Callard said. “Imagine summer jazz, classical and rock bands, community theater, improv comedy, film festivals, poetry slams, comedy nights … puppet show plays for the kids and oldies nights for our seniors.”
The Friends of the Ruth Gordon Amphitheater will hold a standout from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at Quincy City Hall, 1305 Hancock St.
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The idea for the group follows outrage from city residents over the possibility of demolishing the outdoor performance center and filling it in to be turned into a playground. Those plans, which became the subject of social media posts recently, have since been shelved.
Construction drawings from Feb. 23 show the demolition work was to be part of the “Earthwork and Retaining Wall Project” for Merrymount Parkway. The bids for the work were first due March 9, but an addendum to the project plans filed before the deadline indicated the city “will no longer require the demolition and filling of the amphitheater.”
The possible demolition of the theater was first mentioned in a Department of Natural Resources parks division meeting last November.
"They were developing plans to repurpose the site. Those plans had yet to be approved by the mayor,” Chris Walker, the mayor's chief of staff, said.
The theater was included in the bid for the Merrymount Parkway project as a cost-saving measure in the event the plan was approved, he said. Had any formal plan been OK'd, it would have then gone to the city council for consideration.
In a statement emailed to The Patriot Ledger on March 7, Mayor Thomas Koch said no changes will be made to the amphitheater without public input.
“The matter was raised in the context of broader plans for improvements to Pageant Field, but those improvements can go forward without implicating the amphitheater," he said.
The renovations to Pageant Field are underway and include a new picnic pavilion, walking paths, bocce and horseshoe courts, updated restrooms and a rebuilt softball diamond.
Koch further addressed the amphitheater concerns in his March 16 “City View” podcast.
"The amphitheater has not really been formally used for stuff in a long, long time," Koch said during the podcast.
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He touted the yet-to-be-built downtown performing arts center, at the intersection of Hannon Parkway and Hancock Street, as an alternative entertainment venue, and has said famous Quincy names like Gordon's will be honored.
Koch said he has been working closely with Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dave Murphy to take a closer look at the amphitheater and potential changes. Koch said there's also a concern about children climbing the back wall and getting hurt.
The mayor said his office has been receiving a lot of phone calls and emails about the plans for the amphitheater and decided to “take a step back” until they have a “good discussion” with the community.
Group aims to 'revitalize' local performance venue
A group of about 30 current and former Quincy residents gathered in the rain at the amphitheater March 11 to discuss how to save the site, including Callard, whose father, T. Owen Trainor, was the architect of the theater, which was built in 1984.
“It’s our objective to revitalize it and use it. We don’t want to see it sitting here for another decade,” Callard said.
Some residents at the March 11 rally held signs that said “Save Ruth,” while others showed up with yellow roses to place at the venue’s granite marker bearing Gordon’s name.
Hélène Sansoucy, one of the organizers of the meeting, grew up in Quincy and now lives in Weymouth. She said she jumped out of her seat when she heard of potential changes to the amphitheater.
Sansoucy said she needed to take a stand for Gordon, especially during Women’s History Month, adding she will do whatever it takes to honor Gordon, whom she called “a local treasure.”
Gordon was Quincy's first Academy Award winner. At age 72, she won a best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in "Rosemary's Baby" in 1968. She also performed in films including "Any Which Way You Can" and "Harold and Maude."
“It is a historic site. Ruth Gordon is Quincy. She grew up here. She always had roots here. She’s just, to us, a goddess and we want to preserve her legacy,” Sansoucy said.
In the past, the outdoor theater has been used to stage Shakespeare and other theatrical productions, band performances, Summerfest concerts, Flag Day festivities and Pride events, especially during the summer.
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The grounds of the 39-year-old amphitheater are now covered with moss, and the stone is crumbling and the cement is cracking. Walker said there is a railing that needs to be replaced and the venue is “possibly in need of a spring cleaning like every other park in the city this time of year.“ The amphitheater has been scarcely used in the last few decades.
Looking out at the space on a rainy Saturday, Kathy Mason, a 20-year Quincy resident, said, “There is nothing that could compare to this. This is the way the old Greeks performed.”
Quincy Councilor-at-Large Anne Mahoney told the residents who attended the standout that there has been a lack of transparency from the city on the project. Mahoney said the city was ready to send out the plans to potential bidders for “repurposing” of the site.
“This came out of nowhere, like several projects, on Facebook, and we thought it was a rumor, only for us to find out that this was a real thing that was happening and they haven’t brought it to the city council,” Mahoney said.
Koch mentioned in his podcast the amphitheater may be "repurposed for other park needs," like pickleball courts, but he said nothing will change or be decided until city officials hold community meetings and the parks and recreation board, which consists of nine citizens, garners public input.
"There's no dump trucks up there filling it in as we speak here," Koch said.
"We are going to honor Ruth Gordon in an appropriate way regardless of the future of the amphitheater. Ruth Gordon made great contributions, representing Quincy so well in the national and international scene," he said.
Koch said his aim is to make changes that are "more appropriate for her contributions," such as a monument or statue. Walker said the statue will likely come before the envisioned performing arts center, and could be placed outside the Quincy High auditorium in the meantime.
The legacy of Quincy's Ruth Gordon
Gordon started her 70-year acting career on Broadway and appeared in more than 20 films. She was also a playwright, a screenwriter and an author.
She was born in Quincy in 1896 and lived in Wollaston. She frequently kept in contact with hometown friends and made occasional visits, long after she'd won the Oscar and Golden Globe awards. In 1984, the city honored her by naming the new Merrymount Park amphitheater for her. She died Aug. 28, 1985, at age 88, less than a year after the theater’s dedication.
"I think we can do better to honor her and her name," Koch said. "No matter what issue we talk about, change is challenging."
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Reach Joel Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Quincy plans to demolish Ruth Gordon Amphitheater under scrutiny