The fast-moving show at McCarthy Arts Center the Monday morning of January 13 wasn't bringing down the house - but it sure sounded like it.
Workers with hammer-drills made a continual rhythmic racket as they installed upright platforms to anchor new seats that were arriving that morning for both the main theater and recital hall. Many dozens of huge boxes containing seat-parts rolled in on hand trucks from semis parked in the main Ross parking lot. Appropriately enough, the boxes were stacked nearly to the ceiling right in front of - the box office.
It was with mixed emotions that Chuck Tobin, longtime managing director of Saint Michael's Playhouse, watched the removal of his many inanimate companions for the last 38 or so years. "It's a little bittersweet," said Tobin, standing in the lobby Monday. "I've known the old chairs since I was a freshman in college here and spent every year of my life except two working with those chairs. I was 18 when I met them – they'd been installed the year before I came – and I'm 56 years old now... so it was a sad goodbye." But, Tobin is fast to add, "They had really served their purpose and it was time for them to go."
All three stage directors in the building Monday morning – Tobin, Fine Arts Chair Peter Harrigan and Theater Professor Catherine Hurst – could tell stories of creaking chairs that seemed to have a way of interrupting dramatic silences in plays, or squeaking inopportunely during quiet passages of music in the recital hall "The worst was during a children's show last summer and it seemed every seat was squeaking at once with all these fidgety kids in them," said Harrigan. Tobin said with so many springs gone on many seats, some would not flip up on their own, and a few customers after nearly every show would complain to him about lumpy or uncomfortable seats, asking when they would be replaced.
"These new chairs are absolutely beautiful, comfortable, practical, clean, pretty - and no gum under the seats."
The solution was years in the planning, said Guy Cote, an 80-year-old Vermont-based consultant for Irwin Seating Company – the Michigan-based manufacturer of the new seats. Irwin also did the original seat installation in 1975. Cote, on hand to oversee the installation Monday, told how he's played a role in many major theater-seat installations or renovations around Vermont in a 54-year career since his college graduation as an economics major elsewhere in the state – including for UVM's Royall Tyler Theater, Rutland's restored Paramount, and some high school auditoriums.
"While the order for this installation was made about six months ago, we'd been working at it for a couple years," said Cote. First, he purchased samples to specifications set by Saint Michael's, then came back for testing to be sure everything would fit. "I had the old drawings going back to 1975 so that gave me a good background," he said. Once they knew how many seats (and that they would all fit) he placed an order for them to be manufactured and shipped.
Slightly altered configurations in both the recital hall and theater will improve wheelchair-accessible seating and provide some larger seats for larger people - all to better comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the recital hall, those changes, along with the removal of the seats against the back wall, have slightly reduced capacity to 325, while the theater remains at the same capacity: 365 people. Cote said the new seats are durable fabric over foam over plywood, with vastly improved springs beneath that for extra comfort. He says that with modern engineering advances, the seats should never have a squeaking problem, even 40 years down the road. He estimated the new seats should last 50 years or more. The whole installation was to be complete by the end of Tuesday, Jan. 14 – about a two-day process total.
As for the upholstery covering the new seats in both McCarthy spaces, Harrigan describes it as "mottled, slightly tweedy" with bluish-appearing fabric for the theater seats and a purplish cousin for the recital hall, replacing the old bright red while introducing a classic St. Mike's official school color for a change.
The original theater seats also were done in blue upholstery, "but with yellow metal backs, so when you were sitting in the audience, you were looking at something slightly distracting," said Harrigan. The new seats, by contrast, have backs of a sort of black composition material that won't distract the eye. Since the old seats were steel-framed, they were recycled, in keeping with the college's green mindset, Harrigan said. Tobin grabbed a few of the theater seats as mementoes for his upstairs office overlooking the theater through windows. And the college's Alumni and Advancement offices have been working to offer sponsorship of seats for a certain gift amount, after which a small plaque with a name can be attached to a seat. Carpets in both McCarthy performance halls formerly were a lighter gray and now will be a medium-to-dark gray, Harrigan says.
Cote said this particular seat-installation crew out of Massachusetts was fairly fresh off an installation at New York City's Madison Square Garden and "one of the best crews available to do this type of installation all over the country and the world. It's a special skill set." He explained how the old seat anchors were pulled out and filled so that fresh holes could be drilled and lead sleeves installed to hold the new anchors in place. The decorative out-facing sides of rows on the aisle seats are done in attractive, real cherry-wood veneer.
The first Mainstage show that will go up in the new theater this April will be Godspell, directed by Hurst, although the Admissions office plans to hold some smaller events in the space during February. Hurst, Harrigan and Tobin all said they have felt student excitement over using the spaces with new seats and they're looking forward to working with students again in both renovated houses.
"These new chairs are absolutely beautiful, comfortable, practical, clean, pretty - and no gum under the seats," Tobin said. Later this week, groups such as Burlington Chamber Orchestra that rent the Recital Hall will be able to use the facility again for a rehearsal and weekend show. Said Cote, "The best part of this process is when it's all done and people are seated and using it again."