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Colonial Theatre to close at least a year, but future uncertain

Emerson College plans to renovate the theater while determining its future use.Aram Boghosian for The Globe/File/Globe Freelance

Talk about a show-stopper.

When the touring version of Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” ends its run at the Colonial Theatre in October, the lights won’t simply dim onstage. The downtown theater, owned by Emerson College, will close for at least a year as school officials consider new uses for the venerable 1,700-seat venue.

What the historic, richly appointed theater will become, and when, remains a mystery, with few clues and many questions.

“All options are on the table,” said Emerson’s vice president for communications, Andy Tiedemann. “Whatever direction we end up going, any option will make sure that the space can be used for performances.”


But, he added, “That’s not to say it will be used in that way, but the stage will be preserved.”

The stage preserved, but performances not necessarily part of the plan?

“We are looking at various uses for the theater, including operating it as a theater, but that also suggests other options, of not continuing to operate it as a theater,” he said.

On one point, there was no ambiguity. Tiedemann said the venue will not be used for student housing.

The Colonial, which opened on Boylston Street in 1900, is one of the oldest theaters in Boston. Adorned with colorful murals, chandeliers, and 5,000 square feet of glittering 24-karat gold leaf, it was last renovated in the 1990s.

Emerson purchased the Colonial in 2006 and has leased the theater, most recently to Citi Performing Arts Center, which signed a three-year contract to operate it starting in 2012.

Tiedemann said Emerson has been talking with consultants as it explores its options and plans to embark on much-needed repairs. He said the college had been thinking about repurposing the Colonial for nearly two years.

“We knew we had to take a step back. We know the building needs renovation, and we couldn’t renew a lease without doing the renovations,” said Tiedemann, adding that the repairs will cost millions of dollars. “The building’s air conditioning and heating system is well beyond its useful life.”


Josiah Spaulding Jr., president and chief executive of Citi Performing Arts Center, said the closure comes as no surprise. “I’ve known for over a year that Emerson was planning to reevaluate the building,” said Spaulding, whose organization also operates the Wang and Shubert theaters. “We went into a three-year lease knowing this was possible.”

While Spaulding said the Colonial “was working perfectly at the moment,” he allowed, “As an operator of 100-year-old theaters, we’re spending thousands and millions to keep these things going. It’s ongoing, all the time.”

Emerson has emerged in recent years as a major force in the city’s theater scene. It owns two other major downtown performance venues, the Cutler Majestic Theatre and the Paramount Center. It also operates a production arm, ArtsEmerson.

All told, Tiedemann said, the college has invested $500 million on property acquisition and renovation in the Theatre District. “Emerson has an established track record of preserving historic theaters and historic spaces,” he said.

But with an abundance of other downtown venues, including the Boston Opera House, Citi Wang Theatre, and Citi Shubert Theatre, not to mention the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, in the South End, the question arises: Does Boston have more large theater spaces than it needs?

“Commercial theater has not been as active in the Boston market as it has in the past, and that may be a factor in the various considerations that are going on within the Colonial today,” said ArtsEmerson founder and former executive director Robert Orchard, who now serves as a creative consultant for the organization.


“I do know that it has not been used very much, and that’s troubling for the college,” Orchard said.

News of the Colonial’s imminent closure came as a surprise to City Hall, where a representative for the mayor declined to comment on the situation because the mayor’s office had not been briefed on Emerson’s plans.

Tiedemann, who stressed that the college “hadn’t made any decisions,” said Emerson has kept its plans close to the vest because the college wants to present various options to the public through dialogue.

“It’s not something that we’re going, ‘Oh my gosh, our lease is up, what are we going to do?’ ” said Tiedemann. “We’ve had time to figure out what the options are, and we can now begin to have a conversation with the Emerson community, the city, and our neighbors about what Emerson should do.”

Tiedemann declined to elaborate on the renovations the college had in mind for the Colonial.

“There are different directions we can go in, and depending on which direction we go in we’ll decide to renovate,” he said. “The only specific example I have right now is the heating and cooling system.”

This is not the first time the college has shuttered the Colonial. Following failed 2011 contract-renewal negotiations with Broadway in Boston (then known as Broadway Across America-Boston), the theater went dark for roughly a year before Emerson signed its current contract with Citi Performing Arts Center.


That contract ends next month. But Spaulding said the college’s nonrenewal didn’t signal a breakdown in negotiations.

“Absolutely nothing has happened that way,” said Spaulding.

“We support them looking [at] and evaluating the space,” he said. “If they decide this is something they want to do, we have every expectation that we’ll be back in there doing it.”

More coverage:

Deal near to reopen the Colonial (Sept. 30, 2011)

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay