“I fell in love the moment I walked into the Avalon Theatre,” recalls Ellen (General) Vatne, who spearheaded the resurrection of cultural and community mission of the space. “I could feel it was full of magic. It was originally designed to celebrate the heart and soul of the community and 100 years later it continues to do just that.”
Since its inception in 1922 the Avalon Theatre has been known as the showplace of the Eastern Shore. This year marks the 100th anniversary of this spectacular one-of-a-kind treasure. It is regarded as one of America’s finest Art Deco theaters still in operation thanks to a century of serious conservation efforts.
“It is — and always has been — the people who make this facility a gem,” maintains Vatne, who currently serves as the founder emeritus trustee of the Avalon Foundation. “The theater is fueled by those who work here, volunteer their time, perform on stage and, most especially, this community that has always supported the theater.”
Built for $100,000, the theater instantly became an important cultural hub, noted for architectural details like a proscenium stage, dramatic 40-foot dome and stylish lobby. In its earliest days, vaudeville acts dominated the theater while a ballroom with live orchestra commanded the second floor. The Avalon also became the go-to place to watch silent movies, and in 1928 even served as the venue for the world premiere of a Cary Grant and Fay Wray film called The First Kiss.
The Avalon Theatre was so successful that in 1938 it attracted the attention of the New York-based Schine Chain Theaters, which saw an opportunity to stake a claim to this vibrant cultural center. The change in ownership catapulted the theater into the modern era, reflecting the public’s newfound interest in talkies.
When the Depression hit and the theater saw its clientele diminish, the Avalon got creative. It began giving away colorful Depression glass and launched a fun giveaway called “Bank Night” where moviegoers were incentivized to buy tickets. These efforts kept the theater alive during that difficult time, so that post-Depression it was once again a thriving venue
For decades the Avalon flourished as a movie theater, but by 1985 shuttered its doors after its customer base dwindled, largely due to the competing realities of multiplexes and cable TV. That’s when several local businessmen, including Will Howard, the son the original Schine Theater manager, stepped in to renovate and reinvent the space.
This group added a third story with a wrap-around terrace overlooking downtown Easton, created several office condos and, most importantly, shored up the aging structure. They also dug a basement level that today houses the theater’s green room, dressing rooms, as well as the MCTV studio. At that point the theater itself was sold to nonprofit organization called Mid-Shore Center for the Performing Arts.
The Town of Easton threw its support behind the renewal project, understanding that it was vital to the viability of downtown. “The Avalon is a graceful old lady who fell into despair and is being brought back to life,” then Mayor George Murphy explained at the time.
In 1990, the building reopened with three restaurants and a theater that focused on community arts programming. However, this vibrant vision was short-lived. As the theater floundered financially, so too did two of the three restaurants in the building. The theater was put up for auction in 1992 and when no bidder stepped forward, the Easton government purchased the property, determined to save this important cornerstone in the heart of downtown.
Flash forward to 1994 when Vatne and her then husband John General struck a deal to lease the theater from Easton. With this agreement, The Avalon Foundation, Inc. was born. “My heart told me I had found my calling: making the Avalon the showplace of the Eastern Shore once again,” Vatne shares. This despite the fact that her heart sank upon seeing it in shackles.
“The town had chains on the front door because it was being rented out on an ‘ask’ basis,” she recalls. “I was so sad because I knew this theater could again become the beautiful gathering place it had once been.”
Thanks to the previous restoration efforts the theater itself was in excellent shape. The rebirth of the Avalon was able to focus primarily on procuring high quality programming from the surrounding community and from nationally recognized musical acts, such as Charlie Byrd, Richie Havens and Rickie Lee Jones. This move once again vaulted the theater to its position as the Mid-Shore’s cultural beacon.
The Avalon has been evolving ever since. In 2009 the second story ballroom was converted into an intimate venue called the Stoltz Listening Room. Dedicated to the parents of Avalon supporter Keith Stoltz on their 50th anniversary, this popular space typically hosts nearly 100 shows each year. Original album cover art shot by acclaimed photographer Peter Turner for legendary musicians like Chet Baker line one wall of this sophisticated space, making it a magnet for music aficionados.
In 2020, the Avalon Theatre completed its latest renovation, restoring the Art Deco design details, increasing seating capacity to 400 and modernizing systems. Notably, one element that needed little refinement was the theater’s acoustics. Long lauded by musicians for its exceptional sound, the theater’s original acoustic elements, such as structural angles and flared walls, remain noteworthy.
Walter-Storyk Design Group (WSDG), a global architectural and acoustic engineering firm, was brought in to advise on the project. Despite the design dating back to the 1920s, little more that fine-tuning was needed to bring the Avalon into the modern age. “The historic theater’s acoustics were already wonderful. In this regard our role was more as stewards than surgeons,” John Storyk, a founding partner of WSDG, notes.
While many other historic theaters have floundered, closed or been demolished, the fact that the Avalon has thrived for a century is a testament to the dedication of the community, which has come together time after time in service to and in appreciation of this important space.
“The Avalon Theatre is where our community convenes. It is through shared experience that we are reminded of our common humanity and the spectacular heights to which the human spirit is capable,” Al Bond, president and CEO of the Avalon Foundation, says. “While tastes and genres change, the magic continues.”
For a complete list of 2022 performances, visit avalonfoundation.org.