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Tarrytown Music Hall: Where history takes the stage

Bjorn Olsson is the executive director of the

Bjorn Olsson is the executive director of the Tarrytown Music Hall. "There’s just so much history and life in these old walls," he said of the theater. (Oct. 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

While other Westchester County concert venues are in a state of flux, Tarrytown Music Hall remains a constant, thanks in part to its rich history, an intimate setting and savvy programming that includes music, comedy, dance, theater and film.

Björn Olsson is the executive director of Westchester's oldest theater, while his wife, Karina E. Ringeisen, serves as its manager. Together, the Tarrytown couple are furthering a family legacy of theater preservation. Her parents, Berthold and Helen Ringeisen, were the driving force behind the Friends of the Mozartina Musical Arts, a nonprofit group that saved the Music Hall in 1980 when plans threatened to raze the building, pave the property and put up a parking lot.

While sitting in the orchestra section of the theater last week, Olsson told Newsday Westchester that although he and his wife began their association with the venue as volunteers, they took a more active role in recent years as they began to see its potential and to develop a deep admiration for its aesthetic.

"There's something about these old theaters that adds a certain magic to almost any performance," he said. "The performers actually perform better, and the audience just receives it better, too. There's just so much history and life in these old walls. ... [We hosted] one of those old, American blues musicians; he just stepped onto the stage, and he looked around, and he said, 'This place has bones.' And I never figured out a better way to say it."

The venue's storied past

In 1885, chocolate mogul William Wallace chose a hilly part of Tarrytown's Main Street to build the 2 1/2-story brick-and-stucco structure in the Queen Anne architectural style. Among the event venue's first patrons were members of the Rockefeller and Vanderbilt families. At the turn of the 19th century, the theater was among the first to show silent movies, and, in its heyday, everyone from Mae West to Woodrow Wilson made their way to its stage.

By the 1970s, however, the rise of TV and multiplexes seemingly rendered the venue obsolete, and it closed in 1976. When village officials considered knocking it down, the Friends of the Mozartina Musical Arts group stepped in to buy it on Valentine's Day of 1980.

But getting it back up and running required far more than just flipping on the lights. With a leaky roof, frozen heating pipes and a dearth of electrical power, the place was a fixer-upper, to say the least. Berthold Ringeisen believed so much in the reclamation project that he secured a mortgage -- and put up his own life savings and home as collateral. In lieu of a paid staff, Berthold and Helen volunteered their services for 23 years to renovate and operate the place, while continuing to work full-time jobs as a college professor and a piano teacher, respectively.

Over time, the theater that had been a work in progress became a self-sustaining culture center. Today, its staff includes full-time employees, freelancers and more than 200 volunteers.

Although Berthold Ringeisen passed away in 2007, Helen continues to sit on the Music Hall's seven-member board of directors. Lighting and sound systems have been upgraded regularly. And according to the Music Hall's website, the venue annually attracts an estimated 85,000 people from the tri-state area and beyond, generating more than $1 million in community revenue.

"In essence, it is an estimate of local spending by Music Hall patrons annually, mainly on dining," Olsson said. "We know that some 85 percent of our patrons spend money on dining and/or drinks in or around Tarrytown when they come for a show. If we estimate they spend only $15 on average, which is probably low, we get to the $1 million number."

The theater fires up fans, stars

And then, of course, there are the stars of the show, the performers themselves. Best known as a concert venue, the Music Hall in recent decades has showcased recognizable rock acts (Levon Helm, Fountains of Wayne, the Fab Faux), singer-songwriters (Ingrid Michaelson, Marc Cohn, Ani DiFranco) and R&B stars (Dionne Warwick, Smokey Robinson, Keb' Mo').

"A lot of artists like to play historic theaters," said music consultant Steve Lurie of Music Without Borders, which helps book the Music Hall's acts. "This has, still, the look and the feel of a historic theater, so it's got that really nice ambience ... And Westchester's got a lot of very passionate music fans. So, when artists perform here, a lot of their real die-hard fans show up. And the theater is not a small theater. And it's not a terrifically large theater, either, so it's really the appropriate size for a lot of the acts that we bring in here."

Lurie said he's also witnessed a few candid moments behind the scenes that might surprise fans -- like when he said he saw Levon Helm thanking Steely Dan co-founder and fellow Woodstock resident Donald Fagen for playing a show, "and then gave him a pair of shoes." Or the time when Grammy-winning gospel legend Mavis Staples, now 73, was "impersonating all the 'South Park' characters," Lurie added.

But the Music Hall offers more than its name might indicate. It also stages stand-up comedy (northern Westchester resident Nick Di Paolo, Tarrytown native Greg Fitzsimmons), dance productions ("Max and Ruby in the Nutcracker"), kids' shows (Laurie Berkner Band), film series (Summer Nights with Ingmar Bergman) and local orchestras (Westchester Jazz Orchestra, Westchester Symphonic Winds).

Committed to service, restoring downtown

"We also are really committed to the community part, as we are a nonprofit organization," Olsson said. "We love having the morning [crowds] come in here -- as many as 1,600 kids [per day] come in -- to see a show before lunch."

The theater, itself, has also been the star of the show. The HBO drama "Boardwalk Empire," starring Stone Ridge resident Steve Buscemi, shot here in May. Prior to that, some of the films to give the Music Hall the Hollywood treatment include 2010s "Henry's Crime" (Keanu Reeves, James Caan); 2006's "The Good Shepherd" (Robert De Niro, Matt Damon); 2003's "Mona Lisa Smile" (Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst); and 1996's "The Preacher's Wife" (Mount Vernon native Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston).

And the theater is managing to achieve all this, despite increased competition and a tough economic climate for nonprofits.

The Music Hall might not stage all the A-list acts or pack as large a crowd as The Capitol Theatre, a renovated and for-profit Port Chester venue that reopened Sept. 4 with a Bob Dylan concert and an audience exceeding 1,800 people -- more than double the Music Hall's capacity at 843. But the Music Hall does appear to be a stable force in downtown Tarrytown, especially when compared with the comparably sized Paramount Center for the Arts, a nonprofit Peekskill venue that suspended operations on Oct. 4 to reassess its financial strategy.

"There are a lot of places that, in recent years, have started to restore these old theaters, specifically to get their downtown back to the old vibrancy, because a lot of the downtowns had been abandoned," Olsson said. "For Tarrytown, you can see what we have here: We have an amazing, vibrant Main Street with tons of restaurants and stores and foot traffic ... That's not all our doing, but I think the theater's success certainly played into that."

Tarrytown Music Hall is just a 14-mile, 24-minute Interstate 287 drive away from The Capitol Theatre, but Olsson says maintaining his theater's identity has helped it survive and thrive, regardless of competition. Sales for fall shows at the Music Hall are up 30 percent compared with this time last year, he said.

"There's a soul, there's a history," he said. "It's been here long enough that it's shot roots into its community. This could not be [just] any theater; this is the Tarrytown Music Hall."

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