Let’s make McAllaster great again (and use it as a community theater!)

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The view of McAllaster Auditorium stage from the balcony. Photo/Carol Robidoux

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What’s larger than the Palace Theatre, a potential gold mine for a school district that’s always in the hole, and virtually invisible, despite its location in the center of the city’s downtown?

If you guessed the stately McAllaster Auditorium inside the Practical Arts building at Central High School, then you read my mind, because it’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.

I was wondering why McAllaster isn’t used as a community theater, in the spirit of Pinkerton’s Stockbridge Theatre, Nashua’s Edmund Keefe Auditorium or Timberlane High School’s Regional Performing Arts Center. All do double duty, for school and community functions, while generating revenue.

Imagine if McAllaster could do the same for Manchester School District, as a way of supporting the district’s arts program?

Imagine if students from all four of our high schools could come together for a district-wide theater arts collaborative, making McAllaster home base, and staging one major production each school year pooling talent from all four schools, including technical support from MST students?

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My high school drama teacher, Lou Volpe, left, and his alter-ego, as portrayed on NBC Rise by Josh Radnor.

As with most big ideas, this one has taken the long way to develop, germinating back in March when the NBC TV show “Rise” launched.  The show was based on a book called “Drama High” written about my high school drama teacher, Lou Volpe. The main character, Lou Mazzuchelli (played by Josh Radnor)  was based on the very real teacher who built a nationally-recognized drama program at my alma mater, Harry S Truman high school in Levittown, PA. It was more than a bunch of theater geeks expressing themselves; that experience shaped many young people into the confident and successful adults they would one day be, launching more than a few careers in the arts.

NBC just canceled the show based on “low ratings.” In the series finale, Lou is informed by the superintendent that the drama program is being dropped from the budget, for lack of funding.

Oh, how art imitates life. 

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Ed Sterling, Central High School’s music teacher and drama coach, retires with one regret. Photo/Carol Robidoux

I got to thinking more about all this while watching the talented Central High Maskers perform “The Wedding Singer” back in March. They pulled off the lighthearted musical comedy at McAllaster Auditorium. What they lacked in props and working microphones they made up for with enthusiasm and a dedicated student-led production team – including volunteer moms and dads – under the direction of longtime music director Ed Sterling, who also oversees the drama program.

It was Sterling’s swan song with the Maskers.

After 20 years  in the director’s chair, Sterling is exiting, stage right. He’s retiring with some deep-seeded frustration and one regret: That he couldn’t get anyone to join him in his quest to return McAllaster Auditorium to its highest and best use, as a community resource.

“I’m just a mere teacher,” Sterling told me when I stopped by the theater to talk to him about why there’s no love for the theater. His students were in the middle of a rehearsal for the theater department’s spring review. They were on autopilot, managing everything from the soundboard to the choreography. Ed and I sat in the comfy balcony seats that look like they’ve barely been used since they were installed, during the 2008 renovations.

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Students rehearsing for the Spring Review. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“When I got here, the stage was condemned. We had no theater lights. Everything we have done in here we did through begging, borrowing and fundraising,” says Ed. “Those seats were one of my greatest victories.”

The sound system was purchased with leftover band-booster money for an acoustical shell, which was installed by Ed and his students.  He picked up a used spotlight two years ago with some help from Central Pride to supplement the other spotlight, from the 1960s. The lighting came sometime later, from a UNH grant. After 20 years, Sterling says the timeline is a little fuzzy.

“It feels like yesterday,” he says.

But the one thing he’s able to pinpoint is the last time he had anyone’s ear.

“Seven years ago Dr. Bass was Assistant Superintendent, and he was working with us. Basically this theater is the equivalent of the Capitol Center for the Arts. We went through the whole process of researching other arts centers – we went to Timberlane High School, where they were doing what we wanted to do here,” says Ed.

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View of the stage from the balcony. Photo/Carol Robidoux

I found out that in its heyday McAllaster was the place to be seen, and according to Ed, all it would take to return McAllaster to where it could be utilized by outside groups again is access.

That would require installation of an equipment elevator.

“When they installed an elevator for handicap access for people they didn’t have the foresight during renovations to include an equipment elevator,” says Ed. That’s what happens when a project is done without someone with theater experience, he adds.

They couldn’t even book the U.S. Marine Band, conducted by Central High alum Jason Fettig, says Ed.

“Their stage personnel, by OSHA standards, are not allowed to move things up the stairways. Our own alumni can’t perform here for lack of an elevator,” he says. “That’s a disgrace.”

Ed has stopped asking for funding from the principal. He became the invisible man a long time ago.

No budget means the $3,000 spent for the rights to stage “The Wedding Singer” was paid for by proceeds from the production, which means they barely broke even, and there’s no working budget for next year’s production.

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Comfy seats, including the ones in the balcony that look like they’ve never been sat in. Photo/Carol Robidoux

And with Ed retiring, it’s uncertain how things will go forward.

For now, the plan is to keep Dan Pelletier on – he’s been Ed’s right hand man, working with the theater department when he’s not at his day job as part of the Palace Theatre technical crew.

Despite the annual wrangling between the city and the school district over budget shortfalls, investing in McAllaster Auditorium seems so obvious. At least, it does to Ed and me.

Not only would it be an investment in theater kids, but it would be a way of honoring the auditorium’s incredible history while creating a new economic driver for the school district — one  that could also generate revenue for other area organizations, create some jobs, and maybe even increase Manchester’s value to potential residents and businesses.

I expect there will be immediate naysayers, those who will argue that until the district has its academic ducks in a row, investing money in the theater is not prudent.

To those people I would say “where there is a will, there’s a way.”

We aren’t reinventing the wheel. The school/community theater model is working elsewhere already. And there are other New Hampshire districts investing in the arts — not just for art’s sake, but for academic reasons.

One case in point: Franklin school district just announced it’s using $125,000 in state grant money to save the district’s theater arts program from the chopping block while providing a program that they believe reduces the drop-out rate. Theater classes can be a saving grace for students who feel they don’t fit elsewhere.  

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McAllaster lobby features playbills and a defunct ticket booth. Photo/Carol Robidoux

Rather than thinking Manchester School District is too broke to fix it, why not seek out other kinds of funding streams – developer Steve Duprey took advantage of $1.6 million in new market tax credits when he purchased The Concord Theatre last December – a program designed to attract development to historically-underserved projects and communities. Central High School exists in part of the city where low-income kids could find a haven while learning about theater arts.

There are annual Community Development Block Grant funds that come into play.

When Building on Hope announced a $1.8 million renovation of the Police Athletic League building, the city kicked off the effort with $25,000 of Community Improvement Program funds.

Last year the city moved to establish a six-block cultural district around Victory Park. I presume that was meant to generate some grant opportunities. For some reason Central High School is not in the zone. Neither is the Currier Museum. Why not revisit that idea and expand the boundaries to include a couple of cultural treasures?

Or just try Googling “grants for schools and the performing arts” to see if there might be alternative ways to dream a little bigger here.

Ed is passionate about McAllaster’s qualifications for an upgrade – for decades it was the premiere live entertainment venue, and he tells me that The Maskers is the oldest functioning club at Central.

“Between the 1930s and 1960s they put on some amazing productions here, big production shows, like Gilbert and Sullivan, with more than 60 students on stage in full costume,” he says.

Fay McKay reprising her beloved “Twelve Daze of Christmas” via YouTube

He points out the historical significance of the gold stars hanging at the front of the theatre commemorating Central students killed in combat, including three at Pearl Harbor – one of them served as president of The Maskers.

And there are memorable alumni, like Faith Gelinas, a former Masker who graduated in the 1940s, and won the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, “the equivalent of American Idol,” says Ed, which launched her into stardom, touring with Engelbert Humperdinck and Liberace, and eventually a permanent gig playing Vegas.

In a huge nod to her high school theatrical roots, she changed her name to Fay McKay (playing off the McA in McAllaster, says Ed).

Although the district pays Aramark for maintaining the place, Ed says it is he and his students who do the heavy lifting, including paying $15 out of pocket every time a lightbulb burns out in the lighting arrays.

“I haven’t bought a band instrument in seven years. We are the last thing on the list,” he says, trying not to disparage the annual investment in athletics that is rarely questioned.

“We find the kids with no other niche and we open up a whole new world for them. The kids run the theater, they work the sound system and operate the microphones. We get zero from the school to do what we do,” he says.

“There are two sides to the brain. The theater program is a place where some kids just find they belong and are comfortable. All the sports in the world don’t do it for those who want to express themselves. Outside of this, there is very little for them – and there are no classes offered that prepare a child for standing in front of a board of directors one day quite like theater.”

And the way he sees it, mounting a production is the ultimate team sport.

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A photo of William McAllaster hangs in the lobby, longtime music director for whom the theater is named. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“Why can’t a student get a phys ed credit for three to four hours a week of dancing on stage?” Ed asks rhetorically.

There is no district-wide arts and music chair, which means no advocate for the arts.

“We lost that – and our budget – several years ago when we went into crisis mode, and we never came out.  There’s no one signaling for the district to put a little seed money into the theater program, yet they spend thousands to transport kids to sports events, and for equipment and jerseys,” Ed says. “Meanwhile, we’ve been doing more with less for so long that now they’ve forgotten about us.”

That lopsided sense of what matters is the real educational crisis, to Ed’s way of thinking.

Central High School isn’t the only school that struggles to keep the arts alive. There is a push-pull going on in public schools everywhere over control and funding.

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Central High School’s Practical Arts building – could be even more practical with an investment in McAllaster Auditorium. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“Right now our staff and student population has shrunk, and so the options for students has dwindled. Because of so many mandated credits, those who want advanced physics or bio can’t take band because of scheduling conflicts,” says Ed. “There’s so much talk in schools about project-based learning – what do you think we do every day? We prepare for a performance, we work together to put on said performance, and we have the performance. If that’s not a project, I don’t know what is.”

In the end, it’s up to the city to figure out what, if anything, they should do about McAllaster Auditorium.

All I know is there’s a theater in the heart of Manchester that could be so much more.

In 2022 it will be the McAllaster’s 100th anniversary. Wouldn’t it be something to celebrate with a fundraising performance by the U.S. Marine Band?



Carol Robidoux is publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com

About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!