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Historic Theater Space In Branford Begins New Chapter

It was a silent movie theater, a factory that made women’s undergarments and the home of summer stock theater productions in the 1930s and ’40s. Now, after decades of neglect, a newly renovated building in Branford has begun a new chapter as the Legacy Theatre.

The state-of-the-art transformation took 10 years in total, according to Legacy Theatre’s artistic director and co-founder Keely Baisden Knudsen, from conducting a feasibility study to buying the building, finding the right architects and builders, and securing the funding needed to complete the project.

Knudsen said throughout the process it was important to the Legacy team that the 127-seat venue hark back to its historic past.

Credit Courtesy: Legacy Theatre
Keely Baisden Knudsen, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Legacy Theatre.

“We contracted with a historic architect to make sure that the exterior of the theater was as indicative of the past as it could be in this modern age,” said Knudsen. “They took off the boards of the facade, and they numbered them, and they got each of those restored, and then placed back on the facade of the building. So, when you look at it you’ll see what it looked like at the turn of the century. But the interior has been completely redone.”

The tiny theater in the Stony Creek section of Branford has a rich history. It was originally a church in the 1860s. In 1914, the building was purchased and converted into Idle Hour Moving Pictures, a silent movie playhouse.

By 1923, the Parish Players, a local theater company, purchased the building, and for two decades live theater was presented in the space, including an interesting story involving Orson Welles and Connecticut theater legend William Gillette.

According to the Legacy Theatre’s website, three years before he directed Citizen Kane Welles directed a silent film called Too Much Johnson based on William Gillette’s 1894 comedy. The film was supposed to be incorporated into the live theater version of Too Much Johnson, which was being produced at the Stony Creek theater. The film was never used in the live play because the ceiling was too low to allow for projection of it. The show, which also starred acclaimed actor Joseph Cotton, ran for two weeks in Branford. The film stock was thought to have been lost in a fire, but in 2008 a copy of the footage was found in Italy and restored.

During World War II the space was converted into a factory that made parachutes for the war effort. After the war it continued as a factory, making women’s undergarments for Materna-Line Inc.

In the early 1960s, the building started a new chapter as the Stony Creek Puppet House, home of the International Puppet Museum. Over 50 life-size Italian puppets were used in a host of performances during its run in Stony Creek.

For the last two decades, the space was mostly unused and had fallen into disrepair.

With the building and adjoining artist cottage fully renovated, the Legacy is moving ahead with a full season of plays and musicals, a concert series featuring Broadway stars, as well as classes for actors of all ages throughout the year.

Legacy Theatre’s first show is a socially distanced production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, which opened earlier this week.

For more information on the Legacy’s upcoming performances and classes, go to legacytheatrect.org.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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