When John Farr was first introduced to the idea of spearheading a grassroots effort to restore and renovate the Bedford Playhouse, he was certainly enthusiastic, although not entirely optimistic.
“I had no expectation that it would actually happen,” Farr said. “But I thought I should try.”
First opened in the town in 1947, the former two-screen theater was acquired by New York City-based developer Alchemy Properties in 2013. After the theater’s tenant, Ridgefield-based Bow Tie Cinemas, chose not to renew its lease in January 2015, Alchemy Properties explored the idea of converting the Bedford Playhouse into a retail space.
In order to halt those plans, a deal was struck between Alchemy and a group led by Farr. For any negotiations of Farr’s proposed nonprofit playhouse to move forward, the group needed to raise $2.5 million by a March 1, 2015 deadline. Community support poured into the initiative, with more than 850 donors rallying to meet the fundraising goal in just a few months.
Today, Bedford Playhouse Inc., a group led by Farr and a board of directors, has raised more than $4.7 million to fund the project, nearing the $5.2 million total necessary to begin construction on the building at 633 Old Post Road.
At its completion, the theater will be home to three theater screens showing documentaries, first-run features, art house films and classic movies. A café on the street-level floor will serve prepared foods as well as wine and beer to both the public and moviegoers. The playhouse will also serve as a venue for special events and educational programming.
While crowdfunding and locavesting is seen as an alternative means of raising capital, for Farr, the community fundraising strategy was a seemingly obvious way to save a town landmark.
Soliciting donations from Bedford residents was “the only thing we could do,” said the playhouse’s board chairman Sarah Long, adding that it was “a last-ditch effort to save the community.”
“It really has been, frankly, having prospect lists and (asking), ‘Who do you know and who do they know? Who else can we talk to?’” Farr said.
But it’s not just about building a theater, Farr said. It’s about revitalizing the town.
“This is about investing in the community,” he said. “I’ve had very, very senior real estate (professionals) involved in this effort because they say they’re having a hard time, because the perception of young people who might be moving here with their families is that there’s nothing going on in Bedford.”
The goal of the renovation project, Farr said, is to make Bedford a destination. “Right now, there’s not a lot to stop for, quite honestly.”
Because the capital-raising model that the playhouse employs is risky, Farr said it is important to “test your way to success.”
“We have to see what the market will bear. We know what people say they’re interested in, but will they come?” he asked.
To better gauge community interest, the Bedford Playhouse has hosted a variety of cultural events in the community, from film festivals to author series. The group has also solicited the town’s notable residents to assist in its fundraising efforts, including actors Glenn Close and Jeffrey Tambor, comedian Robert Klein and musician Paul Shaffer.
“We’re showing people that this is the kind of stuff we’re going to be doing,” Long said. “Now we know what the community will come to.”
For the next round of funding, which aims to raise $1.5 million by the theater’s projected opening in fall of 2017, Farr and his colleagues will focus on expanding their pool of donors outside of Bedford.
“The opportunity that we have is that most of the money has come from right around here (in Bedford), and now we have the opportunity to extend our reach,” he said. “Basically any community that is going to use this theater actively, we’ve got to get to those folks.”
The Bedford Playhouse is not Farr’s first foray into theater rehabilitation. He previously worked to restore the Avon Theater in Stamford into a cinema showcase and cultural hub.
“When I went down to look at the Avon in 2003, it was a war zone in downtown Stamford,” he said.
“I just went down there six months ago and I was just standing out in front of Bedford Street laughing because there are bars, restaurants, people walking around, and I thought to myself, Avon had a hell of a lot to do with that.”