Few living people remember seeing Vaudeville, but when the United Theatre was first constructed in 1926, it was designed to host these raucous variety shows. The stately brick building stood on Canal Street in Westerly, and townsfolk would gather there for music and comedy. Vaudeville didn’t last, of course. The United turned into a movie theater, and then, unceremoniously, its doors closed in 1986. The theater has been empty ever since.
“I used to walk by the theater,” says Tony Nunes, a Westerly native who was born just too late to catch a flick at the United. “I’ve always been into film. It’s always been my personal passion. I always had the dream of winning the lottery and opening it again.”
Incredibly, that dream is coming true. The Westerly Land Trust purchased the abandoned building in 2006, and there’s been talk of resuscitation ever since. The project picked up speed in 2014, thanks to a nonprofit called the Ocean Community United Theatre, Inc. Spearheading the project are Dennis Algiere, executive vice president of the Washington Trust Company, and philanthropist Chuck Royce, among many others, who have nearly completed a $12 million capital campaign to finance the project.
When Tony read about the initiative in the local paper, he asked to get involved. He had studied communications and film at URI, and he knew the cultural importance of the structure. Tony now works for the Trust and is integral to the project. “They’ve given me multiple [titles] over the years,” he says, “but basically I lead the programming and marketing for the theater.”
Put bluntly, the United Theatre project is big – bigger than many Westerly natives even realize. It’s bigger, in fact, than the Washington Trust originally intended. The auditorium has already been converted into a 600-seater, with movable seating and a malleable stage.
“It’s a big open space in there,” says Tony. “That allows us to have complete versatility. We can do runway shows. We can do theater in the round. It doesn’t hold you to one stage, in one direction. We can do all kinds of things in that space.
The renovation will extend into the Montgomery Ward building next door, complete with classrooms, practice and screening rooms. The Rhode Island Philharmonic will host classes there. The Public’s Radio, based in Providence, plans to headquarter a South County bureau there. When the restaurant Twisted Vine closed, the Trust started incorporating that restaurant space into its plans. They are hoping for an accessible brasserie, where entertainment-seekers can grab sustenance before and after shows.
Originally, the United renovation was supposed to take place in phases. But with their financial goal nearly reached, the Trust hopes to open the entire facility in the fall of 2020.
The new United will even build a special walkway between the main theater and the Knickerbocker Cafe, the music hotspot located a block away. The Knickerbocker is just one of many established partners, including the Newport Folk Festival, Salt Marsh Opera, and Trinity Repertory Company. Since the United won’t be a “producing” theater, the space will be available for touring companies, along with local producers. Music, lectures, stage plays, dance shows – anything is possible.
“Westerly has done really well in the last decade or so with its downtown growth,” says Tony. “It’s still a big summer community. You have people going to the beach, and a lot of people are coming downtown. But we’re hoping the theater will be the catalyst for even more.”