Arts & Entertainment – Bjorn Olsson’s Vision for The Music Hall: “A Living Room for The Community”

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by Morey Storck

In a wide-ranging interview, backstage at the Tarrytown Music Hall, Bjorn Olsson, Executive Director, discussed his thoughts about where the Music Hall founders and administrators started, what they learned, where they are, where they plan to go, and what he means by “A Living Room for The Community.”

Music Hall Executive Dir. Bjorn Olsson
Music Hall Executive Dir. Bjorn Olsson

Olsson became involved with the Music Hall in the early 1980s as a volunteer. He was a Swedish-born opera singer who met Karina Ringeisen while on tour in Germany. “She bought me a drink and I woke up in Tarrytown. Just like that, I was in the entertainment business. Decisions were made around the kitchen table,” he said. “We depended on a volunteer staff, primarily local music professor Berthold Ringeisen and his wife Helen. Actually, it was that dedicated group who really kept the daily operational part of the theatre functioning, including cleaning up after each show. It was a generation that had a clear sense of commitment.”

The Music Hall was built in 1885 by William L. Wallace, a local chocolate manufacturer, at a cost of $50,000. But, to adapt to changing times, interior space was continually altered. The Music Hall’s present configuration was done in 1922.

From 1930 to 1976, the theatre was operated by local benefactor Robert Goldblatt and showed films almost exclusively. But with the advent of television and multi-screen cinemas, the theatre failed. The village discussed plans to tear down the theatre to make room for a parking lot. But, in 1980, the Ringeisens and the Friends of the Mozartina Musical Arts Conservatory purchased the abandoned Music Hall to preserve it and establish a center for the performing arts. As Olsson explained, “It was just insanely gutsy. They had no experience running theatres. All they had was a great eye-to-eye, performer to audience venue, absolutely magnificent acoustics, and heart.”

The next 23 years were a struggle. The new owners had a deteriorating building on their hands and a dark theatre. It was considered non-operational because of a leaking roof, frozen heating pipes and insufficient electrical power, among other problems. However, they were able to secure a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and re-opened the Music Hall as a rental house. The extensive renovations necessary to merely open the theatre were made possible by a tax exemption from the Village of Tarrytown and by securing a bank mortgage that was backed by Ringeisen, who put his home and savings up as collateral.

“At that time, merely to stay afloat, they really depended on outside promoters. Selection of acts was rather random.

Helen and Bert ran the place as best they could, but it was hardly a professional organization,” Olsson said. “And, of course, there were those other monumental repairs that had to be done. But, slowly, an optimistic gleam of an idea began to take shape. What if we started to do our own shows? I actually went to business conferences to see how business was done.” Slowly, but deliberately, the idea took focus.

“We used to have promotional showcases here,” Olsson continued. “We also used to do operas, galas and concerts here. Not many people know this, but we can accommodate 65 musicians on our stage. Of course, the conductor can’t step backwards,” he laughed.

Olsson and Karina Ringeisen, now Theatre Manager, started presenting shows of their choice. “Not a multiple-bill show. That’s a production, starting from scratch. A presentation is someone else putting it together, and then coming to you with a product, an offer to the market. We say okay, we’ll give you X amount of dollars, and with that settled, they come in and do their concert,” Olsson explained. “There are also outside presenters with acts that lack exposure and need a theatre. Therefore, we rent to them.”

There is really no tried-and-true formula for picking a show according to Olsson. He tries to do his homework, like reviewing how many tickets they sold at comparable venues in the past. Some shows are very expensive, but no one wants a dark theatre. So, sometimes you lose money.” However, while they were searching for that perfect formula, along came Mark Morganelli and his Jazz Forum. From June 1992 to Fall 2013, he presented 150 concerts and recitals of various kinds of music. Today, their presentations range from popular singer-songwriters, jazz stars, stand-up comedians, U-Tube phenoms, and all-star concerts, to clubby bands and nostalgia acts.

“Since we replaced our 1920’s projection equipment and sound system, we can also show movies again. The first one that we presented after that investment was Gone With The Wind. After the showing, two elderly ladies came up to me and said that they sat in the same seats they had in 1939 when it was premiered at the Tarrytown Music Hall! Thank goodness for those back rows in the balcony. That’s how we make ends meet. By the way, we got quite a good price for that old equipment from a west coast collector.”

Demographics? “Let’s face it,” Olsson explained, “we lose the kids and young adults to the city for the bright lights and the adventure. But, after a couple of years and a couple of kids, many come back where the trees are, where they don’t have to drag the stroller up the brownstone stoop, where they can see a great show, have a great meal and be home before 11 p.m.” They are just starting to collect meaningful data, but so far their audience is 60% from Westchester as a whole, 10% strictly local, 10% New York City (when they realize it’s only 40 minutes away), and the rest from the tri-state area.

A Living Room For The Community

“Today, we have a handle on things. Not that we’re completely out of the woods, but we know where we want to go and how we’re going to get there. We want to spend more time and effort on this part of our mission: to provide quality programs in the performing arts for the general public, including performing opportunities for students and professional artists. And, that must include educational opportunities and facilities,” Olsson said.

“We want the Music Hall to become a comfortable meeting place, a living room, for the entire community, for neighborhood reach-out educational programs, for local musical and artistic talent encouragement, and for bringing in local businesses, and professionals to discover how to keep Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow vibrant and growing.

Currently, the Music Hall is a cultural destination, attracting over 85,000 people, including 25,000 children, on an annual basis. We also contribute over $100,000 of space to local non-profit organization.”

Current community events include: resident companies Random Farms Kids’ Theatre and Westchester Symphonic Winds, children’s fieldtrips to the Music Hall for national touring companies such as TheaterWorks USA and The Paper Bag Players, dance and arts recitals, “Tix for Tots,” and a $5 film series.

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