Thomas Lawrence Toscano
HUNGRY FOR MUSIC
In preparation for Opera OGGI NY's second season, I went looking for more performance venues. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (the now uber-chic neighborhood) where I was living at the time seemed like and excellent choice, given it's culturally diverse population, and, unlike now, many of the original residents were still there. Meaning there were quite a few ethnic strongholds mixed with many, many artists, some of which had been there for 30, 40, 50 years. It was an extremely vibrant community and yet we all knew that great changes were in the air. I had moved to Williamsburg, Aug. 2005, soon after returning from the Manifestazione Verghiana, in Vizzini. For three years I had explored the neighborhood thoroughly from Kent Ave and Broadway while Kio and I walked north each day instead of south which was our previous direction while living in Greenpoint. Our roaming usually amounted to 2 miles a day, at least, so after all that time we were very familiar with both that part of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Each day, I would walk on Berry St. either coming or going to our place on Kent Ave. Each day I would see the tell tale signs of a stage and a theatre with the very specific fire escapes, and the requisite number of multiple doors. This arrangement was on the south wall of the building approximately 40 feet off the ground. As I passed the front of the building one would see the SS Peter and Paul sign and in stone, McCaddin Memorial Hall, all without realizing there was a theater!!!
It was originally created to honor Mr. McCaddin who was a very successful businessman owning a chain of funeral homes, and he was one of the trustees of Williamsburg. It boasted a pool, a bowling alley, a library, beautiful marble stairs and a large lavish entrance way, approximately 11 class or meeting rooms and at the center was a 600 seat theater. Half in the orchestra and the rest in the balcony. The grand opening took place in 1898, and concerts were produced along with lectures and quite a number of political rallies. I heard a rumor that Caruso had sung in this hall, but, I was never able to substantiate it.
As you will read in the article, I flipped when Fr. Rick showed me the stage and accepted my terms for us to produce opera during the 2008-2009 season. We had a phenomenal time working on the hall. Discovering all the hidden treasures in the attic above the enormous expanse of the hall. A gigantic attic, which was a set unto it self, was where we found the controls to the antiquated chandelier which could be lowered by a hand crank. So, myself and Jose Llufrio took to refurbishing the foot lights and chandelier, my dear friend Eddie helped out with the stage floor and many miracles occurred including getting the use of one of Billy Joel's piano's for the moving costs.
The performance of L'Oracolo were wonderful and the following semester we had another moving performance of Suor with many new cast members. Given that we were performing in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and eventually Queens and the Bronx, repeat productions were always for new audiences and often times with a mix of new and former cast members.
The opening performances were rather cold, since the heat didn't work very well and I remember that most of the audience had their over coats on. Nonetheless, once we started their discomfort was left in the past and I knew my choice and our efforts was a blessing as they were brought to their feet at the end of our performance.
We had the greatest of hopes for this hall, imagine such a place within 40,000 new residents which was the projected increase in that neighborhood given the construction project on the books. However, in the Spring, The Unusuals stepped up their production schedule --- This offbeat cop show, turned the first floor into a police precinct and filmed below us. I did everything not to interfere in their work, however, after Suor, we were told that we'd have to play it by ear, in terms of hall availability. Seeking more security than that, and after our investment in the hall under a different promise, we opted to wish all well and reluctantly moved on to other venues.
While we were preparing for performance it was a magically revealing experience. The hall came to life more and more I could sense a palpable change in the hall and yes, in my own individual perspective felt the hall coming alive. Halls, are instruments, for they are the amplification of our music. The great halls, are revered, too many halls such as the one I'm speaking off are too often deeply disrespected and sent not only into disrepair but, used as gym as is proven by Jake Mooney's the article. And, yes, it was great to see our story in the New York Times!
Theaters and Halls are precious - once gone - they are virtually irreplaceable. If you ever get a chance to sit alone in a theater ( something I've done countless times) listen deep and long, you may be very surprised as to what you find.
Here's the rest of the article. I meant every word I said and still do. Thanks for being with me. Thomas