There is a tradition in the theater of the ghost light, an exposed incandescent electric bulb on a light stand that is left burning on stage when the venue is closed. While most theater historians cite the light’s origins as a safety beacon in the pre-flashlight days, its name suggests a more ghoulish origin. Michael E. Moran Jr., executive director of Stamford’s Palace Theatre, enjoys telling the ectoplasmic version of the light that burns when his 61 Atlantic St. venue is empty.
“One story is that all theaters are haunted, and they leave on a light for the ghosts so they can come out,” he said. “We believe this is one of those theaters. Mary Vuono was the woman who had the Palace Theatre built in 1927 and there have been sightings of Mary’s ghost several times over the years. She’s been very friendly, just making sure that we’re taking good care of her home.”
An Italian immigrant, Mary Vuono was the wife of a Stamford construction company co-founder and president and ran the former Strand Theatre, adjacent to what would be the Atlantic Street site of the Palace Theatre. She owned the Palace for more than 50 years, until her death in 1978.
If Mary Vuono’s ghost is present, she has been enjoying a rich variety of shows as the theater celebrates its 90th anniversary year. The legendary rock band Chicago sold out the 1,590-seat hall in late September, while this month will see such diverse offerings as stand-up comic Lewis Black, Food Network personality Alton Brown’s multimedia “Eat Your Science” presentation and the Stamford Symphony Orchestra interpreting the classical compositions of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. And the Palace will kick off a new series of film screenings on Oct. 27 with the 1993 Bette Midler horror-comedy romp “Hocus Pocus,” with a $5 admission along with free pastries and cider.
“We’re going to get back into film,” said Moran. “‘Hocus Pocus’ will be our first, and we’re going to follow up in November with Warren Miller’s extreme ski movie ‘Line of Descent’ and in December with ‘Sing Along Frozen.’”
Conceived as a vaudeville theater that attracted major headliners, including Will Rogers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and The Three Stooges, today’s Palace in its schedule reflects demographic changes in Stamford and surrounding areas. A popular staple of the venue’s lineup are live shows based on popular children’s programming. PBS shows “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and “Wild Kratts” and the broadcast classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will be presented on the Palace stage in coming weeks. Moran is also aware of Stamford’s growing millennial population and is seeking their input for new shows.
“I’m getting constant recommendations from millennial audiences,” he said. “We did something not too long ago that we thought would be a very popular event for them: we brought the High & Mighty Brass Band in and removed the first nine rows of seats so we could have the standing, dancing, be close to the band environment. We want to do more of those, but we have to find those right acts.”
Moran, who came to the Palace in 2000 after working as director of operations for Crown Theatres, is confident that he can secure the right mix of programming. “Comedy is really the go-to for us,” he said, noting upcoming appearances by Chicago City Limits and Ron White. “It’s always pretty successful. It’s not expensive to do. You don’t have four tractor trailers showing up — it’s just a guy who shows up in a limousine.”
But Moran stays away from touring versions of Broadway shows, owing both to the Palace’s proximity to the New York stage and the focus of other Connecticut theaters, including the Shubert in New Haven and Waterbury’s Palace, in offering those presentations. And while the Palace had presented original live dramatic theater in the past, that is no longer the focus.
“We lean towards this as a presenting organization instead of a producing organization,” Moran said. “We operated the Rich Forum and that was designed as a producing organization, and they did five to six shows a year.”
Both the Palace and the Rich Forum are under the umbrella of the Stamford Center for the Arts. The Rich Forum, one block down from the Palace, is leased by NBCUniversal as a television production studio. For its part, the Palace relies on a mix of public and private sector input to support its approximately $3 million operating budget.
“We get money from state funding, city funding, individual donations, corporate funding and ticket revenues,” said Moran. “And we rent the building as well. Midtown Men were here on Sept. 30 as a fundraiser for Malta House, and Hunter Hayes will be here on Nov. 11 for a fundraiser for Dana’s Angels Research Trust. Oftentimes, this is the best facility from the New York state line to the Klein in Bridgeport, and people use it as a resource for their organizations.”
Moran, who admitted to being in “friendly competition” with rival venues in Westchester County and Connecticut, noted that the Palace does attract out-of-state audiences. Some in the audience at a recent concert by Christian singer Matthew West, for example, had ZIP codes from Westchester and the Springfield-Chicopee area in Massachusetts.
But the Palace’s executive director said that despite being in business for 90 years, the Stamford venue is still unknown to many people. “One of the greatest challenges we have is trying to reach the people who don’t know about us. I could have Jerry Seinfeld in this building and the following weekend someone would say, ‘I didn’t know you had Jerry Seinfeld.’ It’s a constant challenge. Stamford is a very transient community and it is really difficult to maintain that consistent wide net of marketing. But once we get you, we got you.”
At least one show biz legend is taken with the Palace. “Tony Bennett has been here a couple of times and on both occasions, he asked the quartet not to play and he sang a cappella,” Moran said. “And he commented on how phenomenal the acoustics in this building are. Hey, it doesn’t get better than that.”