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Goodspeed Reverses Speed

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Like the heroine in a Clyde Fitch 19th-century melodrama, Goodspeed Musicals has been pulled between rival suitors. Just when it seemed a done deal that the Tony Award-winning theatre on the banks of the Connecticut River would be rescued by "heroic" Middletown from "villainous" East Haddam, the sides switched. Not only has Middletown failed to come up with the funds to help build a new $40 million venue, but its East Haddam neighbor, 17 miles to the south, has decided not to abandon its most famous inhabitant after all.

The conflict came to a head after Goodspeed had already spent almost half a million dollars on a design scheme for a four-acre piece of East Haddam property. The idea was to build a modern, 700-seat facility that would not only supplement the original 398-seat Goodspeed Opera House but would also allow the theatre to mount shows scaled to larger houses elsewhere in the country. The bottom line—the need to find additional sources of revenue—necessitates giving productions extended life by touring them and perhaps moving them to Broadway. (Goodspeed has sent 14 shows to the Main Stem, including "Man of La Mancha" and "Annie.")

Changes in the state government following the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland are a major part of the problem. For all his alleged wrongdoing, Rowland was a major arts supporter, allocating millions to the improvement of cultural institutions. The big question for arts organizations now is will the new governor, M. Jodi Rell, step up to the arts plate.

"The financial picture in Hartford has changed dramatically," said Goodspeed spokesman Dan McMahon. "But we do have a supporter in state Sen. Eileen Daily, who says she'll fight the move of any business from one town to another. She has a vested interest."

According to Brad Parker, East Haddam's first selectman, "We are meeting and working with Goodspeed. My guess is that at the next Planning and Zoning meeting [Tues., Jan. 11], regulations will be adopted that will permit them to build a theatre. We're working at finding ways to avoid a negative environmental impact. I am optimistic. The easiest way to put it is, if they want to build in East Haddam, they'll be able to. I've had several meetings in the last five or six weeks with the people from Goodspeed, and that seems to be the direction they're going in at this point in time."

Naturally, Middletown's mayor, Dominique Thornton, herself an arts and preservation advocate, is disappointed. "Of course we'd still like them here," she said. "The word they've given me is it's now out of their hands. From what I gather, they haven't gotten the kind of welcome in East Haddam that Middletown, which opened its arms, gave them. The people who live in East Haddam like it quiet; they're not going to like a big theatre with people coming and going every night, packing their streets."

Paradoxically, the opera house, the tallest wooden building on the 400-mile Connecticut River, was built to help lure visitors to Goodspeed Landing. Completed in 1877, it eventually fell into disuse; it closed in 1921 and was turned over to the state as a garage for highway vehicles. The place appeared doomed to demolition until snatched from the jaws of destruction by concerned Connecticut citizens. Restored to its Victorian beauty, it reopened June 18, 1963, with a production of Jerome Kern's "Oh, Lady! Lady!"

For all the building's charm, its stage is small and support systems (rehearsal space, scenery and costume shops, actor housing) need to be both expanded and linked. Even with a new theatre, however, the old opera house would not be abandoned altogether.

"One of the other issues is parking," said McMahon. "Parking in the wetlands area behind the proposed new theatre would have been really objectionable. So Eileen Daily had $3 million appropriated from the state to build a parking structure, a garage that could go behind the Town Hall."

As of now, East Haddam is bent on furthering Goodspeed's ambitions. "There is new momentum and we are able to say, yes, we will reconsider East Haddam," said McMahon. "Just last month, the town's Economic Development Commission came out with a statement in support of the project and the Planning and Zoning [Commission] is very close to making the changes we need. We're going to have to actually begin putting together our engineering and architecture plans and going through the zoning process and wetlands process and historic-district process—and see if it will work."

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