By Maddie Orton
It’s a familiar tale in many towns: once-grand movie palace falls out of vogue and into disrepair. The former Community Theatre in Morristown, now the Mayo Performing Arts Center, begins with that story, but its successful restoration makes it a laudable example of a revitalized venue. That’s according to a group that knows. The League of Historic American Theatres (or LHAT) named Mayo PAC its 2016 Outstanding Historic Theatre.
“The Mayo stood out with our panel of judges as just doing a great job, not only with preserving that beautiful building, but its connection and outreach to the community of Morristown and northern New Jersey,” said LHAT President and CEO Ken Stein.
Restoring this almost 80-year-old theater was a passion project for volunteers in the early ’90s. Chief among them was Bud Mayo. He’s the man behind the name Mayo PAC. When he heard a group was trying to buy the theater and reopen it, Mayo wanted to help. But what was once a Morristown hot spot was in rough shape.
“Mushrooms growing in the aisles, seats that were barely usable, paint peeling off every part of the place,” Mayo recalled.
Deciding to restore the historic theater was only the beginning of a lengthy process with no clear blueprint.
“Well it’s very difficult because oftentimes it’s easier to make the case to tear down and start over. But what we’ve found time and time again is that if you can be true to the historic space, you’re actually going to be more successful,” explained Stein.
That’s why the League of Historic American Theatres is available to organizations like the Mayo: to be a resource for everything from remediating lead paint and asbestos to conducting feasibility studies.
“You really need to know that it’s a building valued within your community, and that the community, once it’s opened, is going to continue to support it,” said Stein.
Mayo PAC President and CEO Allison Larena said that community support for the venue has made the space sustainable.
“Partnering with the community, and the community being behind the renovation and all that we do to upgrade this facility, to make the capital improvements, really has meant a lot for this organization. It really has,” she said.
Those capital improvements have allowed the 1937 theater to be able to host big-time acts from Broadway tours to major dance companies and concerts.
“It was certainly scary to make the next jump to the next level of performer so to speak because you have to pay them what it would cost to bring them here to the theater,” said Mayo PAC Board Chair Joe Goryeb. “And people came in droves to see the acts, so that we just felt more and more comfortable to continue to provide that level of performer here to Morristown.”
Larena said there’s been a positive economic impact on the town, too.
“We drive over $15 million of revenue back into the local economy, and we’re very, very proud to do that,” she explained.
Larena’s also very proud to bring back the award for Outstanding Historic Theatre on behalf of everyone who has made Mayo PAC what it is over the last eight decades and, she says, for those still to come who will help keep it a part of this community.