The Flynn has been at the center of Vermont's cultural landscape for almost 80 years—from its earliest days as a vaudeville house through five decades as a premier movie theater to its present incarnation as the region's leading performance center and arts education organization. Today, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts is recognized internationally for its significant artistic, educational, and community outreach activities; superb technical capacity; beautiful ambiance; historic setting; and world-class presentations.
As we approach the Flynn's 30th anniversary as a performing arts center and 80th anniversary as an historic theater, we celebrate a rich legacy of connecting our community with the arts.
The Birth of an Entertainment Palace
It was the time of the Great Depression and the country was trying to rebound from the stock market crash of 1929. The presence of the University of Vermont and active textile and lumber industries buffered Burlington somewhat from the ravages of precipitous economic decline. "Bootleggers" scoffed at Prohibition. The face of George Washington was unveiled on Mount Rushmore. The Graf Zeppelin took to the air. Hamburger was 35 cents a pound, an entire steak dinner cost just $1.25, and Ford's new Deluxe Coupe could be driven out of the showroom for $545.
Floodlights danced across the sky above Burlington to herald the arrival of Vermont's newest and largest "entertainment palace" on Wednesday, November 26, 1930. By 7 pm on the night before Thanksgiving, a long line of people waited for the new Flynn Theatre to open its doors, thankful for the arrival of a magnificent, state-of-the-art facility in which to enjoy both touring stars of vaudeville and the increasingly popular "talkie" motion pictures. (Movies—the "silents"—had been around for a quarter of a century, but the "talkies" were barely four years old.)
Holding special golden tickets and leafing through a beautifully printed opening night program guide, Vermont Governor John Weeks and Burlington Mayor J. Holmes Jackson were among the dignitaries who addressed the opening-night crowd and enjoyed a Wurlitzer organ recital by local musical legend Art Brown. The evening also featured the screening of three adventure and comedy shorts and the full-length feature film, the comedy Big Money, starring Eddie Guillen, Robert Austin, and James Gleason. Following the show, invited guests of the new theatre’s founders retired a few doors down Main Street to the Park Café to continue the celebration over a banquet of turkey with all the fixings.
The Flynn Theatre—destined to become Vermont’s foremost film palace and center for the performing arts—was born.
The new entertainment complex—built at a cost of $500,000—was the brainchild of entrepreneur (and theater namesake) John J. Flynn and his investors in the Queen City Realty Company. Originally designed for vaudeville—with the largest proscenium in the state, a sophisticated "fly" system for set changes, sloped floor seating, excellent acoustics, and a central downtown location—the Flynn's focus shifted quickly to film as the Golden Age of Hollywood dawned and "talkies" became the rage. Newsreels became a major news source for theatergoers in those days; those same film aficionados "followed the bouncing ball" to sing along with their favorite Hollywood musicals. Our Gang comedies were popular fare and Hollywood icons including silents-to-talkies greats Anita Page and Lillian Gish, sultry Veronica Lake, John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart graced the Flynn screen in those early days, in films ranging from War Nurse to The Big Trail to The Maltese Falcon.
A Community Gathering Place
Adapted from Dashiell Hammett's novel, written and directed by John Huston, and starring the incomparable Bogart and Peter Lorre, The Maltese Falcon was a masterpiece of gritty film noir. Screened at the Flynn at the outset of World War II, the film classic ushered in the war years at Vermont's leading movie house.
The Flynn was a major gathering place for the community during the war years as Vermonters sought respite from worries about loved ones fighting in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. War bonds were sold at Flynn events to help support the soldiers overseas. War-weary theatergoers flocked to films like Shadow of the Thin Man, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy (playing at the Flynn the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor) and the "gorgeous girl-filled Paramount musical" called Out of This World ("with new songs by Bing Crosby!"), which hailed the Japanese surrender at the war's end. The war was also the first to be documented from beginning to end on the "big screen" at the Flynn, thanks to the Pathé newsreels and other filmed reports from the front that regularly preceded the feature films.
Americans returned home to relative prosperity and renewed optimism about the country’s future. Popular enthusiasm for great films was undiminished and the Flynn continued to flourish as Burlington's leading movie house in those heady post-war years. But the 1950s saw the rise of both a new form of home entertainment—television—and of suburbia, presaging the demise of large-scale urban movie houses.
The Rise of a Performing Arts Center
As prime-time television shows like Your Show of Shows, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and The Ed Sullivan Show captured the allegiance of America's families—urban, suburban, and rural—the days of the enormous downtown movie theaters grew increasingly short. "Multiplex" cinemas—each housing two, three, and even five small theaters under one roof—sprouted in suburbs throughout the country. Many larger theaters similar to the Flynn, no longer able to function economically, fell victim to conversion and demolition. But thanks to a visionary group of Burlington community leaders, spurred by the region's leading musical theater company, the Flynn was saved from that fate.
After operating for more than 40 years under the aegis of the Maine and New Hampshire Theatres Corporation, the Flynn Theatre was sold to Raydon Cody in 1972. Seven months later, the theater changed hands again when it was acquired by Merrill Jarvis of the Merrill Theater Corporation, a longtime Vermont company that operates the Roxy and Ethan Allen cinema complexes in Burlington to this day. When Jarvis took over the Flynn, he found the original curtains and "fly" system for set changes still in place after many years of disuse. Recognizing the Flynn's potential for live performance, Jarvis replaced the large, fixed movie screen with a moveable one, renewing the theater's capability for presenting live theater and music. Less than two years after Jarvis took over the Flynn, live performance returned to the theater for the first time in many years.
The Lyric Theatre Company was founded in 1974 by a group of about 30 Burlington area residents interested in the production of live musical theater, predominantly classic Broadway fare. One of Lyric's founders, Howard Delano, had been an usher at the Flynn as a youth and he convinced Merrill Jarvis to allow the nascent community theater group use of the historic theater. Lyric Theatre's debut production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was performed at the Flynn in May of 1974. For the more than 30 years since, Lyric has presented two musicals a year on the Flynn MainStage.
Heartened by Lyric's successful, initial foray at the Flynn, other organizations in the community began to think of the theater as an important resource for live performance. Merrill Jarvis, however, still regarded the theater as primarily a movie house, so groups other than Lyric often found themselves playing "second fiddle" to the movie schedule. When the city of Burlington revived old talk of developing a civic center in 1977, the former Champlain Arts Council surveyed area residents and local performing groups about existing theatrical facilities in the community. The survey showed widespread public support for a mid-sized facility that would meet a broad spectrum of needs. Interest in restoring the Flynn as a performance space was also documented. In the fall of 1978, Jarvis rejected a purchase offer of $250,000 from a group of community activists. But those interested in seeing the Flynn reborn as a performing arts center were not to be deterred.
Spearheaded by Lyric Theatre, a non-profit corporation called the Flynn Theatre for the Performing Arts, Ltd. was formed in 1980. The group's first act was to forge a purchase agreement with Jarvis, including a $5,000 down payment. The balance owed on the final purchase price of $325,000 was slated to be paid on March 1, 1981, but the deadline was later extended to July 1. In the interim, the new Flynn board approved a carefully negotiated agreement that called for a $65,000 down payment and a 12-percent mortgage on the remainder, amortized over 30 years. Meanwhile, Lyric was joined by other volunteers in a community-wide fundraising effort coordinated by the project director, Andrea Rogers, who retired in June 2010. The closing was held on July 1, 1981. In August, Tony Micocci was named as the theater's first managing director. Rogers continued as capital fund director, leading the community in the ongoing task of fundraising to restore the now-faded theater and make it available to local groups and national touring companies alike. On September 26, 1981, the Flynn reopened for live performance with a gala presentation by a diverse group of area artists, including the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.
A dynamic new era in the performing arts in Vermont had begun.
Connecting Our Community with the Arts
Restoration of the grand old Vermont theater—a hallmark of Art Deco design and architecture—began in earnest as soon as the Flynn Theatre group took over the building on July 1, 1981. Basic system upgrades and the addition of a rear stair tower were completed by the end of the year. Calamity struck in January 1982: the theater sustained serious water damage from burst sprinkler pipes, closing down operations.
In mere days, however, the Flynn was able to dramatize its plight and parlay public concern into a reinvigorated fundraising effort that enabled critical backstage improvements to proceed. Simultaneously, the organization opened a regional box office — an important new revenue source that served the ticketing needs of numerous local arts and entertainment presenters. A rescheduled date was also set for the first performance ever to be presented by the Flynn Theatre organization itself: just two months after the disastrous flood, the Vienna Choir Boys delighted a sellout crowd.
The dramatic comeback convinced citizens that the Flynn was a viable and vital community resource. The second phase of community-funded renovations from 1982-84 included the addition of backstage dressing rooms and bathrooms; enhanced stage lighting; installation of a large loading ramp and door to better accommodate major touring productions; theater-wide rewiring; restoration of the proscenium arch; installation of a new roof over the main lobby; renovation of office and ticketing spaces; and repainting of the main theater walls with documentation of the historic stencils so essential to the theater’s Art Deco splendor. In the midst of these efforts, the Flynn was recognized by the Art Deco Societies of America as one of the country’s 10 most important Art Deco restoration projects.
The Flynn's own programming—as well as use of the theater facilities by numerous other arts organizations—continued apace. In its first five years, the Flynn hosted more than 350 performances presented by 50 different organizations, including longtime allies in the arts whose partnerships with the Flynn continue to this day: Lyric Theatre, Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Vermont Youth Orchestra, and the UVM Lane Series.
The Flynn set a solid foundation for what would become a national reputation for presenting renowned and emerging artists in theater, jazz, and dance—presentations virtually unheard of in a region with such a relatively small population base—and performances that solidified Burlington's standing as one of America's top cities for the arts.
In its first full season of presenting in 1982-83, the Flynn introduced dance lovers to the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and instituted a new annual holiday tradition for families—the Nebraska Theatre Caravan's performance of A Christmas Carol. The next year, longtime Vermont favorites the Canadian Brass made their first appearance at the theater and the Flynn co-produced the first Discover Jazz Festival, capping the inaugural outing with a captivating MainStage performance by the great Sarah Vaughan. Later in the Eighties, the Paul Taylor Dance Company; Bejart Ballet; jazz piano giants Marian McPartland and Keith Jarrett; a cappella and gospel greats Sweet Honey in the Rock; and the zany Flying Karamazov Brothers made memorable first Burlington appearances at the Flynn and helped set the direction for future programming. During this period, a group of investors also formed a limited partnership to purchase the former Hagar Hardware warehouse, later donating it to the Flynn to provide needed storage and backstage support space.
A $1.5 million, five-year capital campaign, launched in 1985, was highly successful, fueling significant improvements in the Flynn's physical plant, including restoration of the main lobby, more than 1,000 restored seats on the main floor, new draperies, acquisition and clearing of an adjacent lot for improved show loading, new exterior doors, and rest room improvements. As the 1990s dawned, the vast roof over the main theater and stage was replaced. The building adjacent to the Flynn at 147 Main Street was acquired at this time, allowing expansion of the Flynn's administrative offices and creation of additional space for burgeoning educational activities such as masterclasses and workshops.
On the presenting front, the Flynn's Student Matinee Series was introduced in the 1987-88 season, during the two-year tenure of Tom Dunn, Tony Micocci's successor as programming chief. More than 10,000 students and teachers attended performances that first year, including productions of Charlotte's Web, Frankenstein, and The Hobbit. Attendance soared to 15,000 in 1988-89 as performances by the American Indian Dance Theatre and others were integrated into the curriculum at schools throughout the region. Successful fundraising initiatives also enabled the Flynn to create the Community Access Fund—the forerunner of today's PACT (Providing Accessible Community Tickets) program—to provide free and discounted tickets to selected events to social service organizations, group homes, and senior centers.
With Tony Micocci moving on to a prominent leadership role at New York's City Center and Tom Dunn assuming a position at IBM, Philip Bither came to the Flynn from the Brooklyn Academy of Music as the new artistic director in 1989. The next year, the theater initiated its first teacher training workshops and inaugurated the On-Stage Series to present select Vermont and visiting artists in an intimate studio setting. A special partnership also developed between the Flynn and Burlington's Wheeler School, enabling an economically deprived and culturally diverse city neighborhood to take the fullest possible advantage of the Flynn's program offerings. Over the next decade under the leadership of Joan Robinson, the Flynn's school programs were to triple in size and achieve national stature.
Ten years into its development, the Flynn Theatre was garnering a widespread reputation for its commitment to the artistic development of internationally renowned creators. During the summer of 1992, acclaimed choreographer Trisha Brown and her company worked on the MainStage for three weeks, developing a new dance commissioned in part by the Flynn. During that time, numerous educational and outreach activities were offered to the community. The residency and commissioning relationship with Brown set the standard for the Flynn's close working relationships with some of the most important artists of our time, including choreographers Bill T. Jones, Liz Lerman, and David Dorfman; jazz trumpeter and composer Lester Bowie; and Afro-Cuban jazz original Mario Bauza.
Solid community support continued to fuel the Flynn's significant expansion of programming and educational offerings. Business guru Tom Peters, influential author of In Search of Excellence, drew a sold-out house of community leaders for an invigorating lecture in 1990, raising $50,000 to jump-start the decade's fundraising efforts. In 1993, the Flynn announced its largest capital campaign to date: it concluded successfully 1995 with $4.5 million raised. The funds helped the theater to stabilize financially, create an Education Development Fund, consolidate critical properties, and make additional improvements to better serve performance, education, and administrative needs year-round, including technical improvements, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, new balcony seating and flooring, and a host of other enhancements. Alas, the Flynn's growth in artistic and educational programming rapidly outpaced this phase of the facility renovation, prompting another capital campaign that raised $3.5 million by 1999, leading to the birth of a comprehensive, fully restored and expanded performing arts center in 2000.
The MainStage remained a showplace for world-renowned creators in theater, dance, and music throughout the 1990s: Flynn audiences enjoyed rare public performances by iconic dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Broadway and television legend Mandy Patinkin, jazz saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins, and others. Bluegrass master Alison Krauss grew from teen prodigy to international star while performing at the Flynn several times during the decade. And the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival grew from modest beginnings into a celebrated, week-long event (called "one of America's best jazz gatherings" by DownBeat) that is the centerpiece of the Flynn's commitment to jazz programming and education. Late in the decade, Arnie Malina replaced Philip Bither as artistic director, shaping and guiding the Flynn's expanding programming initiatives into the new century.
As a millennium ended and a new one began, two performances shone brightly in a newly renovated, expanded, fully restored facility. The late Gregory Hines, tap dance superstar, charmed theatergoers at a special Grand Opening Gala performance at the reinvigorated Flynn Center in September 2000. The Concert for a Landmine Free World, featuring folk, country, and American roots music standouts Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Steve Earle, Bruce Cockburn, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, sold out two December performances, raising more than $100,000 in support of international efforts to decommission and ban landmines.
A New Flynn for a New Century
Having successfully completed a 10-year strategic plan and two successive capital campaigns, the Flynn "reopened" as a comprehensive performing arts center, renamed the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, in September 2000. The Flynn Center incorporated two performance venues—the original theater, fully restored to its Art Deco splendor, and FlynnSpace, a small performance setting that has significantly expanded the Flynn's programming options. FlynnSpace has provided a home for the Vermont Stage Company and become the community's venue of choice for intimate live theater, performance art, jazz, acoustic music, comedy performance, and more. Patrons now enjoy an expanded Flynn Center that includes beautiful education and dance studios housing year-round FlynnArts classes in music, theater, and dance for children and adults; a greatly enlarged main theater lobby; a visual arts gallery; and additional administrative and support spaces.
In 2000, the Flynn became the only organization in the country to receive millennial grants from both the Ford Foundation (for programming leadership) and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (for jazz programming). These awards included five years of programming support and challenge grants for an endowment. The Flynn's Endowment Campaign helps to sustain excellence in programming and support the care of our facilities.
In 2005, the Flynn won the first MetLife Innovations in Access Award for its work with AXIS Dance Company, a groundbreaking ensemble of dancers with and without disabilities whose six-and-a-half-week tour of New England was initiated by the Flynn. The AXIS ensemble participated in a wide range of community-based activities during a weeklong residency at the Flynn in October 2004, engaging people with disabilities, community and business leaders, and regional artists in creative opportunities and discussion about disability issues.
In 2005-06, the Flynn celebrated its 25/75-year anniversary and conducted a $6 million endowment campaign, setting the stage for building the endowment through bequests and other planned gifts. The Flynn received the 2007 Outstanding Historic Theatre Award as “a compelling example of contemporary programming excellent in a beautifully renovated space that thoughtfully engages its community…an inspiration to other cities.”
In June 2010, Founding Director Andrea Rogers retired, and the Flynn built upon her legacy as John Killacky took over the reins as CEO and Executive Director. Much transpired during Killacky's first year at the Flynn: a grant from the Kresge Foundation allowed a Patron Enhancement Project to commence, which included enclosure of the loading dock and new seats in the main hall. In 2012, longtime artistic director Arnie Malina retired, and the Flynn welcomed Steve MacQueen as the fourth artistic director in its history.
Today, close to 200,000 people annually attend performances on the Flynn MainStage and in FlynnSpace. An average of 45,000 young people attend more than 30 performances in the Flynn Student Matinee Series each year. Students and teachers benefit from greatly expanded in-class workshops provided by Flynn teaching artists, and the Flynn is a strategic partner in the new Integrated Arts Academy at Burlington’s Wheeler School. Thousands more people discover their creative selves in FlynnArts classes and summer camps offered year-round in the Flynn studios and diverse community settings. The Flynn Center also continues to nourish the creative spirit in international, national, and regional artists, hosting residencies, commissioning new work, and providing rehearsal and performance space for the development of new projects.
The great vaudeville and film house built by J.J. Flynn and his partners over 80 years ago is today recognized nationwide for the beautiful preservation of that original Art Deco masterpiece; for world-class artistic programming in theater, dance, and music; and for educational programs that reach far into the community to advance teaching and learning.