[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
January 18 - 25, 2001


Save the Palladium

Do Worcester's private and public sectors have the
will and imagination to save this venerable theater?

By Chris Kanaracus

Palladium Kids THE PALLADIUM isn't the most attractive building in downtown. It's brick facade is rather dingy, and not all of the lights on the marquee work. Sight lines in the balcony can be terrible. The admittedly gorgeous art-deco interior furnishings could use a good scrubbing. But appearances aren't everything. Each week inside the 2200-seat theater, originally constructed in 1927, national touring rock acts, local bands and even the occasional wrestling event draw hundreds, even thousands of fans. Shows in the smaller upstairs room are mostly all-ages shows featuring punk and hardcore groups, in part filling the void left by the departure of the Space and the Espresso Bar, both thriving all-ages venues in the 1990s.

Frankly speaking, the Palladium is one of the city's most valuable entertainment outlets, especially when it comes to the area's youth. The theater's current activity level is a far and distant cry from the mid-1980s, when we can recall "enjoying" second-run films like the sleazy Burt Reynolds vehicle Sharky's Machine, and sparsely attended concerts by washed-up rockers like Billy Squier. Sure, you can fault our taste, but not our point: the Palladium hasn't seen this much action in decades.

Funny thing, then, that on January 3, building owners John Fisher and John Sousa applied for a demolition permit. The men also share a law practice, which is housed in another building, 285 Main Street, next to the Palladium. Many speculate the pair wish to construct a parking lot in place of the theater, which would tie into a planned, $125 million courthouse slated for the parcel next to the Palladium, which now houses a parking lot and the Sh-Boom's/Polly Esta's nightclub. There's even been the unlikely notion raised that Fisher and Sousa hope to get the courthouse project moved to their land; currently, the state and Sh-Boom's property owner Philip O. Shwachman are at a legal impasse (see sidebar).

But luckily for the Palladium, its concertgoers -- and downtown as a whole -- the building is listed on the Historic Register, and as such, the demolition permit must be approved by the Worcester Historical Commission. A hearing is scheduled for January 18, but it is expected the Commission will hold off on a decision for six months, during which time ways to preserve the building could -- and should -- be explored. At a time when Worcester is seeking to reinvigorate its downtown, and when completed mega-projects like Union Station and the Worcester Medical Center haven't produced tangible results, you'd think saving existing successes like the Palladium would be a top priority.

That's the idea, anyway. But as we all know, Worcester's governmental wheels turn slowly. Very, very slowly. Is six months close to enough time? According to city manager Tom Hoover, "Hopefully. . . being as it's one of the most visible buildings we have in our downtown, I would hope something could be done." During a short conversation at City Hall on January 9, Hoover said he had instructed interim development officer David Moore (who is also the city solicitor) to contact Fisher and Sousa to talk shop. Other than that, city-led efforts to save the Palladium seem to be in their infancy.

It would, ahem, behoove Hoover to attempt to save the Palladium through city means, if only to continue the groundwork of former chief development officer Everett Shaw, who formed the 50-member Centre City Development Corporation, a citizen-and-official staffed body focusing on downtown revival. The committee released an extensive action plan last year, of which a highlight is the establishment of a "cultural corridor" between the Worcester Art Museum to the north and the ongoing efforts to establish an arts district in Main South. The notion is already being trumpeted by highway signs on I-290, despite the fact no cultural corridor visibly exists -- yet. Certainly, though, swapping the Palladium for a parking lot won't help the cause.

It's a little early to hang anybody out to dry over this. But who would want to see yet another gaping hole on North Main Street, which is already dotted with vacant storefronts and more parking lots than you can shake a tire iron at? Things are getting so bad, one's tempted to slap up a few signs declaring the area "Worcester's Historic Parking District."

All jokes aside, it could be that the Palladium has six months to live. What possible solutions are out there, if any?

Comments from the building's owners and its manager/promoter, John Peters of Sudbury-based MassConcerts, don't inspire much hope. "Realistically, there aren't many old theaters that are profitable. It's a unique building. With the cooperation of the city, we could make it work," says Peters, who holds no ownership stake in the Palladium but books and manages its operations.

Profitability has become more difficult, says Peters, since a November 25 fire in a broom closet during a concert by Grateful Dead spin-offs Ratdog. Since the fire, the city has required five firemen be placed on duty during every show, in part to keep tabs on a currently unused area of the building that contains offices, storage rooms, and the like. With hourly rates of $27 and up apiece, a detail like that can be expensive. If the entire evening lasts four hours, that's more than $500 out of pocket, before electrical and heating costs, regular staff and security, and pay for the entertainment. Not a big deal, perhaps, if the show is a lucrative one like last November's sold-out Prince concert. But levy that against the draw of an average all-ages punk show in the Upstairs room, and you may as well run a charity ball. Indeed, one such show in December was canceled, says Peters, since putting it on would have resulted in a net loss.

Palladium Kids The city also required that an improved fire detection system be installed, at a cost, says Peters, of more than $15,000. "They're working on it right now. After that we don't have to have a fire detail," says Peters.

Fire detail or not, says Peters, the Palladium is profitable but not overly so. "Worcester is a tough market. If the cost of doing business goes up too much, at some point I'm going to say forget it. Most of those shows I put there I got through my own connections. I could just as easily place them somewhere in Boston."

"My guess is that if I ever decided not to do business there, I don't think [Fisher and Sousa] would bother keeping it."

For his part, Fisher says he and Sousa would prefer to avoid demolishing the building. When contacted, Fisher was friendly but brief, citing the sensitivity of the situation. "We're trying to keep our options open. In my opinion, this building is a community asset and it ought to be saved. Money is not the biggest consideration here. There's a lot of other headaches involved with running a business like this one."

Indeed. The public record shows Sousa and Fisher have sunk their share of time, cash, and patience into the building over the years. After purchasing the building for a reported $1.3 million in 1990, they spent a reported additional $500,000 for renovations and with Ohio-based promoter Steve Jarvis, re-opened the building as a mega-disco, dubbed Clubland, in 1991. The concept was initially successful, but bombed after just 13 months. Then again, clubs reinvent themselves all the time; it's the nature of the business.

The Palladium, though, didn't bounce back. Some still haven't forgotten the highly publicized incident in 1992, when interim theater manager Michael Arnold, who the Telegram & Gazette identified as being from the Cleveland area, allegedly took off with more than $10,000 in box office receipts from a B.B. King concert and has yet to resurface. Sousa and Fisher were forced to pay the blues legend out of pocket. Then, a small group of employees, fearful the theater would be closed and they wouldn't be paid, barricaded themselves into the theater for a couple of days. After Fisher and Sousa managed to remove the employees (who were paid in the end), they indeed closed the theater. It remained shuttered for four years.

In the intervening period, Sousa and Fisher grew so desperate for a viable tenant that they briefly entertained the idea of converting the Palladium into an upscale strip club. Needless to say, City Hall (and just about everyone else) went ballistic.

In 1996, according to Telegram & Gazette reports, the owners took out an additional $160,000 mortgage, partnered up with Barasso and re-opened as a dance club catering to area college students. Peters, who so far seems to be Sousa and Fisher's most successful tenant, came aboard in 1999 and shifted the theater's concept to its current one of mostly rock bands.

The 1999 city assessor's report lists the current assessed value of the 255 Main Street property at just $397,100. Keep in mind, though, that the selling price for the building is often much higher than, and at times even double, the assessed value.

Whether they've taken a paper loss on the Palladium or not, tearing down the building is a solid option for Fisher and Sousa, according to Robert McCauley, former host of the "Real Estate Roundtable" on WTAG (AM 580) and a candidate for the District 4 city council seat, currently held by Janice Nadeau. "If you take the building down, the assessment [value] goes down. . .it's only based on the land. So the taxes would be less. Then you've reduced your liability, so you don't carry as much insurance." A parking lot, says McCauley, would be an ideal investment. "You get yourself a nice cash flow, little to no maintenance, very few employees, and then you sit on it and wait for the real estate market to cycle around again so you can sell it."

Beyond money woes, what certainly hasn't been easy for Fisher and Sousa, at least in recent years, is their relationship with city officials. Even before the November fire, the city filed a cease-and-desist lawsuit against Fisher and Sousa for assorted code and health violations, in November 1999.

Judging by all of that, it's unsurprising that this isn't the first time Fisher and Sousa have talked about bailing out. An interesting mini-drama played out in the Telegram & Gazette during May 1998. In a May 27 article, Fisher announced the building was up for sale, and would be demolished if not sold by year's end. Two days later in another article, former partner and manager Michael Barasso claimed business was fine, and no sale or demolition would occur.

Palladium Kids So, are Fisher and Sousa crying wolf in an attempt to get the city off their back? Widespread speculation around town has it they are, although the parties spreading the rumor are hard pressed to quantify it. In any case, Fisher and Sousa aren't talking.

The stretch of North Main Street the Palladium is located on contains some of downtown's only signs of nightlife. But that's not to say we've got something like Boston's Landsdowne Street or Cambridge's Central Square on our hands; there are still only five clubs within the area in question, which begins at the corner of Thomas Street and ends at Exchange Street. And in late December the Firehouse Cafe, located around the corner on Commercial Street, closed shop.

To that end, you might think that with the thousands of fans the Palladium often draws on weekends, surrounding clubs and restaurants must enjoy valuable, even crucial spin-off business that would be sorely missed, should the theater be torn down.

As it turns out, neighboring club owners are salivating at the prospect a close competitor might move out, due to a parking situation that, surprisingly, they say is tight.

"We don't really gain business from them at all," says Shawn Smith, manager of the Sh-Boom's/Polly Esta's nightclub at 255 Main Street. "In fact, some nights we might lose business. If [the Palladium] sell[s] out a concert, that's about 3000 people. The parking situation down here is tight to begin with. . . these are public lots around us. Overall, though, it's not a major issue for us." Smith goes on to say his business could benefit if the Palladium were torn down. "If the building does come down, we might actually gain from them. Right now we're in competition with them on 18-plus nights."

Justin Kazmierczak, a part-owner of Surfside Sam's (formerly the Kazbar and Grille) an establishment located just a few doors down from the Palladium, echoes many of Smith's sentiments. "Most of the shows they do [at the Palladium] are 18-plus, heavy-metal shows." Generally, says Kazmierczak, his bar draws a slightly older crowd, who come for cover bands such as the popular Spit Shine.


As this story developed last week, much of the talk within Worcester's political and arts circles centered around Fisher and Sousa's motives for tearing the building down. The most prevalent, and perhaps even the most logical, theory has it the pair want to create a parking lot, but in the January 3 edition of Worcester Magazine, Historical Commission member Richard Clifford was quoted as saying, "We really need the courthouse, and sometimes things have to be sacrificed."

Clifford's comments certainly seemed provocative. Right next door, of course, is the parcel of land where officials hope to build a new, $125 million courthouse. The courthouse project is currently tied up in legal wranglings with property owner Philip O. Shwachman, and the local delegation is said to be worried further delays could scuttle its funding. Could Fisher and Sousa be making a play for the courthouse?

Fisher declined comment, but after a little snooping, we found that such a scenario isn't likely. The parcel on which the Palladium now stands is too small, and moving the courthouse site would probably require the purchase of three more smaller, neighboring parcels, including a parking lot owned by the Bowditch & Dewey law firm. In fact, the area in question had been considered several years back by a courthouse siting committee, but was rejected for those reasons.

That's not to say, of course, that Fisher and Sousa couldn't score big anyway, were they to build a parking garage or lot next to the courthouse. Then again, the downtown parking market may be in a slump, contrary to what some believe. Last week, the Worcester Redevelopment Authority announced that it's Worcester Center Boulevard garage had produced only about half its expected revenue of $120,000 between its November opening and the present: dire news, to say the least.

Kazmierczak agrees the parking situation in downtown is tight, especially on weekends. "[Parking lot operators] all rape you down here. They starve all week, then when there's a show at the Centrum or the Palladium, they charge 10 or 12 bucks." Even Surfside's ownership, he says, is only guaranteed two spots in the parking lot behind the building, which is owned by the Bowditch & Dewey law firm.

Owners of the popular Irish Times restaurant and bar, located directly across the street from the Palladium, declined comment.

While neighboring business owners are indifferent at best towards the Palladium's potential demise, at least a few tears are being shed at City Hall. "I don't think anyone wants it torn down," says at-Large city councilor Tim Murray, who is seen as a front-runner in this year's upcoming mayor's race. "The challenge comes now to the private sector."

"It'd be nice to see the city step up to the plate a little more. The city can't do everything. It's awful. It's the last thing we need. It's funny, people are always saying, "Government shouldn't get involved in things like that." We can play a role to find the solution to this, but the city can't do it alone."

Sadly, Murray is probably right. Short of purchasing the building -- which based on Worcester's track record is a long shot -- all the city can do is advocate for the Palladium, and help to find corporate or private sponsors.

Leaders of non-profit, private sector groups which focus on saving buildings like the Palladium express regret over the news, but also pragmatism. "It's very hard, but if the owners of the building make the decision, if they decide they want to demolish the building, then it's very difficult to stop them," says James Igoe, executive director of Preservation Worcester. In the mid-1990s, the Palladium made PW's top-10 list of endangered properties.

"Thankfully, we do have the ordinance. We're fortunate we have [it], because they could start [demolition] the very next day." Of course, as Igoe adds, six months isn't a very long time to explore possible alternatives.

"This is a question of philosophy versus reality. Philosophically, it would be a travesty to lose such a wonderful building. But in reality, funding is the issue. Is there any reality in finding a sponsor or funding?"

That reality may indeed be tenuous. In recent years, corporate sponsorships have become rare commodities in Worcester due to a paucity of, well, corporations. Even the highest-profile entities have faced difficulties. Take the Summer Nationals, the annual hot-rod show at Green Hill Park that draws a reported 100,000 fans to Worcester each year. Last summer, Nationals promoter Bob Moscoffian threatened to leave town if the city didn't help him secure more sponsorships, claiming he was losing money.

Also, Worcester's arts community seems to have its hands full these days. ARTS Worcester, the non-profit organization heading up the planned Arts District, has focused its energies about a mile down Main Street, where its headquarters are located and the former Odd Fellows Hall will soon be renovated into artists lofts.

The other alternative -- that the city itself purchase the Palladium -- seems equally doubtful. Just six or so blocks south down Main Street, you'll find the former Showcase Cinema. Owners National Amusements closed the four-screen movie theater in May 1998 along with another theater at Webster Square citing slow ticket sales. The move left just the 12(now 16)-screen Worcester Showcase North multiplex in the Greendale section of town.

The "Downtown Showcase," as it was affectionately known by many, has remained shuttered since, albeit not razed. Signs announcing its availability for sale remain on the windows. At one time, city officials discussed using the space as a small performing arts venue. The idea is a natural, considering the building's overall good condition (at least based on our last visit there) comfortable lobbies and waiting areas, and large upstairs screening hall, which has excellent sight lines and a stage ready to go. In a September 1999 Telegram & Gazette article, former chief development officer Shaw spoke at length about the possibility of the city itself shouldering the cost of converting the building, well before the Centre City plan. Jennifer Maguire, spokesperson for National Amusements, says the building is still being marketed for sale. "We have had interested parties in the past, but not at this time," adds Maguire.

The point of all this? It's been nearly three years since the Showcase Cinemas closed, and there have been no takers, whether public or private.

Even if a corporate donor was found, though, the Palladium needs a lot of work. But from a redevelopment or restoration sense, you're talking about a fairly large sum of money. Preservation Worcester's James Igoe estimates a full-blown restoration of the Palladium would cost several million dollars. Fisher declined to give an estimate of his own.

A private buyer might seem unlikely to some, but that's exactly what happened with Northampton's 1350-seat Calvin Theatre. The Calvin's history reads much like the Palladium's. According to the Valley Advocate, it was built in 1924, was a successful movie theater for several decades, and eventually fell into disrepair and misuse by the mid-1990s, showing -- you guessed it -- second-run movies. In 1995, its owners put it up for sale.

Many in Northampton expected the Calvin would be demolished, but in 1997, Holyoke businessman Eric Suher purchased the theater for $475,000. Suher was already somewhat of a local entertainment mogul, as he also owns the popular Iron Horse Music Hall and the Pearl Street nightclub.

Suher quickly began a remarkable restoration process on the Calvin, transforming the somewhat dilapidated structure into a replica of its former movie-palace glory. The Calvin re-opened in late 1998, and in just over a year has become one of Western Massachusetts's most vibrant performing arts venues.

Worcester doesn't have an Eric Suher. But neither does it have anything like the Calvin, where the programming runs from college-kid-friendly jam bands to distinctly highbrow fare such as last summer's startlingly beautiful performance by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock.

Thus, the use of the Palladium, should it be saved, presents another dilemma. Perhaps another rock promoter like Peters will sign on. In lieu of that, thought, it's hard to predict whether Worcester could support a facility like the Calvin, especially in the Palladium's location, where nearby Mechanics Hall may provide too much competition for events targeted at older crowds, not to mention the pressure Mechanics Hall's influential backers might put on City Hall to block such a transition.

But we'd certainly like to see someone try something; losing the Palladium is something Worcester -- both for its arts and culture profile and for the vitality of downtown -- can't afford to lose.

Chris Kanaracus can be reached at ckanaracus[a]phx.com.

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