MANCHESTER, NH — Wednesday night’s grand opening of The Rex Theatre felt like a homecoming — the old Rex Theatre has been revived, refurbished and refreshed, and it fits into the vibe of Amherst Street like a long-lost puzzle piece.
The theatre is an intimate and versatile space for music, performances, and community connections to be made. Construction for the project was on budget and on time, no small feat considering the shambles the place was in not even a year ago.
The return of the Rex (Latin for “king”) completes the royal metaphor in our Queen City thanks in large part to the Palace Threatre which will oversee operations of the Rex as one of its holdings.
Mayor Joyce Craig arrived just before 7 p.m. and was invited to say a few words during the formal “thank-yous” at the start of the celebration. She acknowledged the support of city aldermen who played “a key role” in bringing the project to life, and also gave a nod to her predecessors, former mayors Sylvio Dupuis and Bob Baines, which she called “great role models” for her, crediting them for their vision for the city over the years.
WZID radio personality Neal White served as master of ceremonies, who introduced Palace Board of Trustees President Mark LaPrade, Nathan Saller, President and CEO of Bellwether Community Credit Union, which signed on as primary sponsor of The Rex for the next 10 years, and a special thank-you to Palace CFO Paul Ramsey.
Will Craig, chairman of the Manchester Development Corporation Board of Directors, said it was “amazing” to be in the room tonight. He recalled the first time he stepped into the ramshackle former nightclub three or four years ago with City Director of Economic Development Melanie Sanuth. They wore Haz-Mat suits and pried their way into the basement where they came upon a mannequin and thought it was a dead body.
“To say I’m amazed is an understatement,” he said.
He also asked for a moment of silence to remember fellow MDC member Skip Ashooh, who passed away Oct. 24.
After the formal remarks, Mayor Craig spoke about the energy in the room.
“It’s just an exciting night tonight,” Craig said. “Everybody is converging and coming here because they’re just is so excited to have this in the heart of our city, and it really is providing life to a place that was just so desolate before. I’m so grateful for the partnerships that brought this here.”
Gray Chynoweth who, along with Liz Hitchcock, had delivered a proposal for the theater prior to the Palace, was enjoying hors d’oeuvres while chatting with Palace CEO Peter Ramsay and State Rep. Matt Wilhelm.
“Ideas are worth a pinch and execution is worth a pound, and we’re so proud about what Peter has done for the resurgence and revival of the Rex Theatre,” Chynoweth said.
Hitchcock seconded his emotion, adding, “Creativity and community can get together and do really amazing things, and that’s what’s happened here.”
Ramsay, doing his best to balance without crutches following minor foot surgery, said “It’s a wonderful community effort from a lot of different people and it makes Manchester a better place’.”
Wilhelm, who also pitched an unsuccessful proposal for a music venue several years ago, said the outcome is all that matters.
“There were a lot of people who came from different worlds to help with this. It took four years — actually, you should talk to Mayor Baines about the fact that the city was trying to buy the rights to this building when he was mayor,” Wilhelm said. “There have been a lot of people who’ve moved the ball along and passed the torch. Tonight’s where it all comes together.”
He gave credit — as many did — to the mayor and the aldermen and especially to the Palace Theatre.
“It’s a trusted institution in our city. It’s really well-positioned to make a project like this happen. But they didn’t have to do it, they wanted to do it and they knew it would make the art scene even stronger in the city,” Wilhelm said. “That it happened, that’s the most important part and it’s going to be something the whole community can enjoy, that in and of itself is the reward.”
Schmoozing nearby was former Manchester Mayor Bob Baines, who recalled efforts to recover the building during his time as mayor, between 2000 and 2006.
“Peter and I talked about trying to get the Rex Theatre back and we were unsuccessful in getting the attention of the owners and they weren’t interested in talking to us. It just went by the wayside, and then when Matt Wilhelm came up with the Old Sol proposal, I remember I was working at Dyn at the time and I was so excited about that. And then when Liz and Gray and came forward I got really excited again, and then that fell apart — and now here we are,” Baines said.
“The Palace stepped up, MDC [Manchester Development Corporation] Joyce’s leadership, the aldermen’s leadership. Without that, it wouldn’t have happened. This would have been torn down and it would have been a small parking lot. Just think, the next three nights 900 people will be coming to downtown Manchester who wouldn’t be coming here without The Rex Theatre, and that’s going to continue. This is going to be a hotspot – a lot of young people in Manchester want to come here and a lot of talent agents are contacting the Rex because this is a perfect size venue for comedians and some musical acts.”
Festivities continue through the weekend, with American Idol alumni Alex Preston and local chanteuse Alli Beaudry performing Oct. 31 to a sold-out crowd, followed by Friday night’s headliner, The Jimmy Lehoux Band, and New England comic Jimmy Dunn performing Saturday night.
Stay tuned for more bookings to be announced, or check the Palace Theatre website here.