Out of the Ashes
North Shore Music Theatre's Cinderella returns 13 months after a terrible fire caused it to close on opening night.
There was good reason for the unusually lengthy delay, as Jon Kimbell, the theater's executive producer and artistic director, recalls. His voice is still filled with dread when he says, "I'll never, ever forget that night -- or what happened after." After Cinderella came down at 10:30, the cast and crew repaired to a nearby restaurant, where their celebration would last less than a half-hour. "I'd just started sipping my martini," says Kimbell, "but I didn't get to finish it, once word came in that the theater was on fire."
Kimbell immediately headed back to the theater, and saw production manager Mike Moore was already on the scene. Because Moore also serves as a local volunteer fireman, the fire marshal called him as soon as he learned that North Shore was ablaze. When Moore and the other firemen arrived, the building was so hot that they couldn't get inside. When that happens, firemen must take to the roof and chop holes from which heat and smoke can escape. "That would have finished us, because there wouldn't have been enough theater left to fix," says Kimbell. "But because Mike knew where the vents were, he could open them. That allowed heat and smoke to escape."
Kimbell then breathed a little easier: "I figured, all right, we'll have some smoke damage, so we'll get our soap and water ready." But, around 1:30 a.m. when the fire was officially declared out, he entered the building. "It looked like a Dali painting," he says, of the dripping mess of an interior. "The stage was gone. Four feet of water was there instead. The pit was filled, too. I thought, this is it for us -- at least for a while, and perhaps forever."
Needless to say, Kimbell didn't sleep much that night, and by 7 am, he was giving interviews on TV. He reported that Cinderella would have to be scuttled, news that he would soon break to the cast and crew. "Actors and musicians came out worst, because their contracts state that they don't get paid when an Act of God occurs," he notes. Kimbell also knew that the theater wouldn't be ready to host the following month's production Abyssinia, or even Camelot the month after that, which would affect dozens more actors and crew members.
But then he thought of what just might salvage those shows. Wasn't the Shubert Theatre in downtown Boston sitting empty? On Monday morning, Kimbell called Josiah Spaulding, president and CEO of the Wang Center, which controls the Shubert. "I told Joe that if we couldn't produce the rest of our season, we wouldn't stay alive," he recalls. "Unfortunately, we don't have an endowment. You'd think that a theater that had been around 50 years would have one, but we don't. We only stayed alive because we became a year-round operation."
As all non-profit theater companies will tell you, today's patrons don't subscribe the way their forebears did. Still, with nearly 15,000 subscribers to accommodate, Kimbell was lucky to have found a space big enough to house them all. On the other hand, North Shore plays in-the-round, and the Shubert is a proscenium house. Designer Beowulf Borritt came in and quickly reconfigured the Abyssinia set. For Camelot, Kimbell found that Paper Mill had a set of their production in storage, rented it, and had it brought up from New Jersey.
There was one other obstacle: The Shubert is located in Boston, a 45-minute ride from Beverly, where most North Shore subscribers live. "Plenty of our customers don't like driving into Boston," says Kimbell, "especially after the construction that's changed the city. So we had people drive to Beverly and then get on buses." Kimbell estimates that about 75 percent of the patrons bit the bullet, so six buses commuted per performance. "Our audience was loyal and sympathetic to our plight," says Kimbell.
Meanwhile, 20 contracting firms worked 24 hours a day to make sure that the The Full Monty would be able to open at NSMT's newly repaired theater, since the Shubert wasn't available in November. "They didn't believe it would happen, though," says Kimbell, before conceding that the show opened about a week later than originally planned on November 1.
So what caused the almost-fatal fire? "We still don't know," says Kimbell. "We know it started beneath the stage and above the sub-stage in between. Was it the fog machines, or the lighting equipment, or what we needed for all the magic in Cinderella? A portion of the sub-stage was shipped to Chicago for forensic study, but all they could determine was that no human error was involved." Nonetheless, the fire served as a reveille to Beverly, surrounding towns, and even far-away theaters. "I think we'd been taken a little for granted," says Kimbell.
"The theater community in Boston, thinking God-I-hope-it-never-happens-to-me, did a fundraiser for us. People realized we were important to the region's economic fabric. Our contributions increased, and we got hundreds of new donors; that gave us an opportunity to upgrade the seats and sound system, too. We also got an emergency grant from the NEA, and recently, the state of Massachusetts gave us a $500,000 matching grant. So the fire actually brought us up on the radar screen. It made me very emotional. After being here all these years, I took the place for granted, too. I don't do that anymore."