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Emerson rules out dining hall for Colonial Theatre

Dina Rudick/ globe staff

The show will go on at the Colonial Theatre.

Emerson College president Lee Pelton said Thursday that the school has scrapped a controversial plan to transform the vaunted theater into a flexible dining hall/performance space, opting instead to renovate three nearby buildings along Boylston Street and Boylston Place to create a student dining center.

“I am happy to confirm that we will keep it open as a commercial theater,” Pelton said by phone. “We’re going to work as hard as we can to find a solution that meets both the fiduciary requirements of the college as well as continuing to provide quality arts programming.”


Pelton said the decision, which was unanimously approved by the college’s board of trustees, came at the suggestion of an ad hoc task force charged with evaluating the school’s dining options and the future uses and needs of the 1,700-seat Colonial, which closed its doors indefinitely last fall.

“We’ve been committed to a deliberative, analytical, and rigorous process with respect to dining,” said Pelton, who noted that the new 18,000-square-foot facility would seat 550 people, significantly more than the college’s current main dining hall. Housed across 122-124 Boylston St. and 19 Boylston Place, the center is expected to be completed before fall 2017.

The college continues to evaluate its options for the 115-year-old Colonial Theatre, which Emerson purchased in 2006. Pelton said the school has been in conversation with “a variety” of arts groups in recent months and would be considering proposals.

“I cannot predict what the specific program will be nor the specific organization or companies or groups that will occupy that space,” said Pelton, who declined to name any of the groups that had expressed interest in the theater. “One thing is certain: It will remain a theater and venue for the performing arts. That’s the bottom line.”


The announcement comes amid a series of broader shifts on the city’s performing arts landscape. The Boston Lyric Opera, for example, is looking for a new venue after it declined to renew its lease for the Citi Shubert Theatre.

“We, together with potential partners, have approached Emerson for potential use of the Colonial to produce opera,” said Esther Nelson, general and artistic director for the lyric opera. Nelson declined to name the opera’s “potential partners,” but added that they were in ongoing conversations with Emerson about the Colonial.

“There would have to be some capital investment required to make it a potential venue for us,” said Nelson, whose company has been using the Colonial to rehearse for upcoming performances at the Shubert of Jules Massenet’s “Werther.” “For instance it would need a bigger orchestra pit.”

Gary Dunning, president and executive director of Celebrity Series of Boston, said that he was always looking at new potential venues.

The interior of the Colonial Theatre is pictured prior to a performance by Fiona Apple on October 23, 2013. Ben Stas for The Boston Globe

“We’ve been part of the discussion with other arts organizations in town about what are the possibilities for the Colonial,” said Dunning. “Does the possibility exist to form some sort of consortium for the Colonial? It’s hard to say, because everyone has competing agendas and needs.”

Emerson came under fierce criticism last fall when the Globe revealed the college’s proposal for transforming the lavishly decorated theater, which once served as an essential pre-Broadway testing ground for such musicals as “Porgy and Bess,” “Follies,” and “The Philadelphia Story.”


The plan, which Pelton said was but one of several under consideration, sparked a public outcry, with an online petition signed by thousands. Emerson’s performing arts faculty also denounced it as “a betrayal of our values as artists, our mission to be leaders in performing arts education and our collective responsibility as stewards of theatrical history.”

“I am very grateful for individuals and groups who have expressed to me their allegiance to the Colonial Theatre,” said Pelton. “I do not and did not take their perspectives for granted, and I’m very grateful to have received and to have heard their commitment to the Colonial.”

Marlena Yannetti, head of dance at Emerson College and a vocal critic of the proposal to transform the Colonial, said she was extremely pleased with the outcome.

“I’m thrilled they have listened to us,” she said. “What they’ve decided to do makes a lot of sense, and it reflects Emerson’s values regarding the performing arts and the need to honor a theater with such an incredible history.”

The announcement was also met with approval at City Hall.

“We are pleased that Emerson continues to invest in the Theater District and we are grateful that they listened to the concerns of the arts community,” Laura Oggeri, chief communications officer for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, said via e-mail.

Pelton declined to give a precise timeline for when the Colonial would reopen, adding that the theater remained in need of significant repairs.


“HVAC is an immediate need, but there are others,” said Pelton, noting that many of the seats are in disrepair and that there may be issues with the carpeting. “There are certain repairs that must be done quickly, but there are other renovations that one could push out into the future.”

He added that although Emerson had no plans to alter the theater, it was considering whether some of the dressing rooms could be renovated and repurposed as student rehearsal spaces.

“We still haven’t closed the door on whether or not we would create a black box,” he said, referring to a small enclosed performing space. “I don’t want to speculate because the programming will determine many of these issues.”

Pelton added that Emerson, which has been a driving force in the resuscitation of the city’s Theater District, valued the Colonial’s history and beauty.

“Our main focus right now is identifying the programming,” he said. “We want to move forward with some urgency.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay