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Norwood Theatre’s rebirth a labor of love and community

“Next to Normal’’ cast members rehearsed a scene before last weekend’s performances on the revamped Norwood Theatre stage.

Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe

“Next to Normal’’ cast members rehearsed a scene before last weekend’s performances on the revamped Norwood Theatre stage.

NORWOOD — When Susan Lewis first walked into the Norwood Theatre with her 13-year-old son, Stephen, in the summer of 1997, she had no idea she would be running the place 15 years later, after spending millions to buy and rehabilitate it.

“Ask people, and they’ll tell you,” the Westwood resident said recently. “Serendipity happens a lot around that theater.”

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Erica McLaughlin, the theater’s events coordinator and lone full-time employee, seconds that notion. She says she’s met a number of people who formed strong bonds at the theater and still keep in touch decades later. Countless unexpected friendships, romances, and at least one marriage can trace their beginnings to the 86-year-old establishment.  

“This theater is a real community,” said McLaughlin, who was hired full time about a year ago but whose ties to the theater go back to when she began performing there as a 5-year-old, and eventually coaxed her two siblings and even her parents into joining her on its stage.

“There are lots of families with stories like that,” she said.

Lewis’s story goes far beyond the typical involvement. She said she and her late husband, Brad, were taken by surprise when Stephen told them he wanted to audition for a part in “Anything Goes,” a 1987 Broadway show being produced by a local ensemble at the Norwood Theatre.

“He had never voiced any interest in performing, but it was the beginning of a part of him that he didn’t know existed,” she said. All three of her children would go on to perform at the theater.

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Lewis became hooked as well; she said she sometimes spent up to eight hours a day as a volunteer helping with makeup and costumes in those years.

“I just loved the program,” she said. “I saw what it brought out in my children, who are now adults.” Her sons Stephen and Matthew even acted alongside now-famous Newton resident John Krasinski in a 1998 production of “Bye Bye Birdie.”  

The Norwood Theatre was designed by local resident William G. Upham and built across from the town common in 1927. Over the years it changed hands a number of times, and was maintained and repaired to varying degrees. Lewis said by the 2000s the building needed a lot of work, and soon rumors of a potential sale caught her ear.

She eventually bought it from the Fiddlehead Theatre Company in 2009 for nearly $1 million,  and began what she hoped would be a four-month restoration in early 2010. 

“I’m no stranger to renovations,” Lewis said, after designing and renovating three homes, “but the theater was a different animal. It was a multimillion-dollar project” and ultimately took more than 2½ years to complete. She declined to say how much she has spent to overhaul the property.

“It was important to me that I use my own personal funds to renovate the building,” said Lewis. “It was my contribution to the arts and the community.”

(Coincidentally, another area theater was also recently renovated, although on a smaller scale and funded differently. All 360 seats at the Company Theatre in Norwell were replaced, along with new carpeting and repainting of the walls and stage area. Founding member Zoe Bradford and artistic director Michael Joseph said they raised $67,000 from patrons, and got a matching grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and completed their renovations in three weeks.)

The Norwood Theatre, which seats 731, reopened on Aug. 31, its 85th anniversary.

Contractors installed an elevator, lowered the basement several feet, added bathrooms and seating, built a dance studio, put in a high-tech geothermal heating and cooling system, and created an orchestra pit beneath the stage. Workers restored as much of the theater’s original details as was practical, and used period reproductions for newer fixtures to retain the feel of the 1920s throughout the building.

Renovation of The Norwood, a historic theatre built in 1927, was completed in 2012.

Rose Lincoln for the Boston Globe

Renovation of The Norwood, a historic theatre built in 1927, was completed in 2012.

The proscenium arch that frames the stage, for instance, is the original carved plaster, and a painting contractor needed three weeks to strip, repair, and refinish it, said McLaughlin.

In the balcony outside the projectionist’s booth is the theater’s original Standard Simplex 35mm projector, which was discovered during the renovation.  The 1920s equipment doesn’t work, but it adds to the old-time feel of the building.

The facility is completely handicapped-accessible; Lewis says she hopes to start a program for children and adults with physical limitations.

She also said she is aiming to keep the theater’s doors open every day of the week, “but right now the goal is to provide entertainment every Saturday evening.”

Since its reopening last summer, the theater has booked Sinatra and Beatles tribute bands, comedians, and an illusionist, and has screened classic films. The revamped space hosted its first live musical production, “Next to Normal,” last weekend, and more are being planned, McLaughlin said.

“It started out as a movie theater, but now it’s more of a performing arts center,” said McLaughlin, adding she is often stopped by local residents wanting to share their reminiscences of the old theater.

“I hear a lot of ‘first kiss’ stories,” she said.

The revamped theater has a concession stand with an array of snacks and popcorn, and — a popular new feature — beer and wine are available during most events . It sometimes hosts corporate functions during the week, and has begun partnering with other nonprofit organizations to hold fund-raisers.

For Valentine’s Day, it will be showing “Casablanca,” the classic 1942 romantic film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with screenings Feb. 13, 14, and 15.

On March 2, “A Celtic Crossing 2013” will feature singer Pauline Wells and Boston Irish music band Devri, joined by special guest fiddler Patsy Whelan, in a fund-raiser to benefit the Cops for Kids with Cancer charity.

To learn more about the theater and its events, visit www.norwoodstage.com.

Jim Morrison can be reached at jamesandrewmorrison@ gmail.com.

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