Tarrytown Music Hall’s 135th Anniversary is a Lesson in Perseverance
By W.B. King—
What do Miles Davis, Mae West, Taj Mahal, Arlo Guthrie, Norah Jones, Ziggy Marley, B.B. King, Joan Rivers, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby and President Theodore Roosevelt have in common? They are among the countless artists and dignitaries who have graced the stage of The Tarrytown Music Hall over its 135-year history.
And while the 843-seat venue unfortunately went dark due to COVID-19 restrictions after Dweezil Zappa brought his “Hot Rats Live! + Other Hot Stuff 1969” tour to Tarrytown on March 12, 2020, the lifeblood of the theater — its leaders, employees and supporters — are busy keeping hope alive.
“I think the strongest positive experience in all this has been to see how the sense of community has only strengthened, how people are looking out for each other,” said Bjorn Olsson, executive director of The Tarrytown Music Hall. “In pre-COVID-19 movies about fictional pandemics, we would see rioting and societal collapse, but the reality has proven to be pretty much the opposite. Gives you hope.”
During a normal year, the Music Hall puts on approximately 180 shows and welcomes more than 90,000 patrons, which includes 25,000 school-aged children. But like countless business operations across the nation, social distancing restrictions has severely impacted the Music Hall’s bottom line.
“We have been completely closed to the public ever since March, so basically all our earned income has disappeared,” Olsson said.
An Unfolding History
Built by chocolate manufacturer William Wallace in 1885 for an estimated $50,000, the Music Hall was originally designed as a multi-use facility hosting events, such as roller skating tournaments, horse shows, balls and concerts. At the time, Tarrytown and surrounding villages were home to notable families like the Rockefellers, Goulds and Vanderbilts, all of whom socialized at the Music Hall – even competing against each other at the popular flower shows.
By 1901, the Music Hall became one of the first theaters in the country to show silent films. In 1915, Robert Goldblatt, a local benefactor, leased the theater and later purchased it in 1925. From that point forward, and until the 1970s, the Music Hall operated primarily as a movie theater.
“We don’t have a lot of records from the former ownerships of the theater, sadly. What we do know is that the devastating 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was followed by the biggest theater building boom in history,” said an encouraged Olsson, who added that Goldblatt operated the Music Hall during that fraught time period when dignitaries like President Woodrow Wilson would speak at the venue.
“Most of the legendary vaudeville/movie palaces we still treasure today were built in the 1920s and 1930s,” added Olsson.
If Not for the Love of Movies
No stranger to the stage, Olsson started his professional artistic career singing in the opera chorus in Gothenburg, Sweden, before switching to performing in musicals. Among fond memories from his theater days was singing the role of Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, which he did in four productions and in as many languages.
How Olsson found his way to Tarrytown is a serendipitous tale. In 2001, while on a European musical theater review tour, he met fellow performer, a singer and dancer, Karina Ringeisen. Two years later, the couple returned to Karina’s hometown, Tarrytown, where Ringeisen’s parents, Helen and Berthold, worked and lived.
Dr. Ringeisen was a faculty member at Hackley School and later taught humanities and modern language courses at Marymount College. When the latter institution closed in 2007, he retired as professor emeritus. Helen, a trained concert pianist, taught students locally.
“In the mid-1970s, Berthold spotted a run-down Victorian building on Prospect Avenue and convinced his wife to open The Mozartina Musical Arts Conservatory, the first music and dance school in Tarrytown,” said Karina Ringeisen, who added that Berthold sadly passed away in 2007. “Together, they renovated the main house and old carriage house. The school remains open to this day and Helen still teaches piano.”
One of the activities the Ringeisen’s loved was going to the movies – their favorite venue was the Music Hall. But by the mid-1970s, single screen movie theaters were being outpaced by multiplexes. The Music Hall soon fell into a horrible state of mismanagement and disrepair. The Village of Tarrytown had plans to tear it down, and as Joni Mitchell sang in “Big Yellow Taxi,” they wanted to pave paradise and quite literally “put up a parking lot.”
Feeling that the Music Hall was too special and important for the community, the Ringeisens, who were board members on the nonprofit organization, The Friends of the Mozartina Musical Arts Conservatory, dreamed of rescuing the doomed venue. They had one major problem: no funding.
With little options, the couple approached, a Tarrytown-based banker who Karina Ringeisen said could be easily confused with George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life. Byelick agreed to give the couple a mortgage to rescue the theater, but in order to secure the loan, they had to use their home, business and life savings as collateral. If the Music Hall failed, they would lose everything.
So just weeks before a wrecking ball was scheduled to slam into the historic theater, the Music Hall was saved by a group of like-minded people who had no experience running a venue. What they did have was a genuine love for the Music Hall, which was fitting since the deed changed hands to The Friends of the Mozartina Musical Arts Conservatory on Valentine’s Day, 1980.
“I basically grew up at the Music Hall seeing plays, such as Waiting for Godot and The Glass Menagerie and operas like Tosca and Don Giovanni,” said Karina, who also caught performances by musicians like Wynton Marsalis and Bruce Springstein.
“I fell asleep on the floor after the shows while my parents cleaned late into the night,” recalled Karina who today serves as the Music Hall’s theater manager. “I also remember waking up every morning (in my bed), wondering if the Music Hall would fail and we would lose our home. We came close several times.”
Generations of Stewards
When the Ringeisens assumed management of the Music Hall in 1980, they also inherited several years of back taxes and deferred maintenance bills. Making matters worse was that the building had no electricity or heat. When it rained, the dilapidated roof did little to stop water from entering the theater. In short order, the couple secured a grant for a new roof and took the necessary steps to place the venue on the National Register for Historic Places.
“They had no cash, so they rolled up their sleeves and did most of the work themselves — from the floor sanding and painting to grant writing and event scheduling,” noted Karina. “For the next 23 years, they shouldered all administrative, facilities management, marketing and custodial responsibilities on a volunteer basis, while balancing the demands of fulltime jobs and the parenting of a young child.”
When Karina and Olsson came to live in Tarrytown in 2003, they too rolled up their sleeves and began helping out with the altruistic family business. At the time, they made little pay as the venue’s first official employees.
“As most actors, I love historic theaters and immediately got involved in helping out as a volunteer, cleaning after shows and ushering,” recalled Olsson.
When Karina and Olsson began their respective tenures at the Music Hall, the annual operating budget was just $130,000. This was due, in part, to the Music Hall’s business model, which was renting out the venue to promoters, such as Mark Morganelli of Tarrytown’s Jazz Forum Arts, who Olsson said “now has a splendid jazz club down the street.”
In order to grow the Music Hall’s reach, Olsson said he and his wife eventually “took the plunge” and began presenting and promoting shows in partnership with Music Without Borders’ Founder and President, Steve Lurie. The move carried significant financial risk, but provided more control over programming.
“Today, we are a nationally recognized concert venue punching above our weight in terms of the talent we’re able to attract,” said Olsson, who added that the Music Hall’s budget has exponentially increased over the years and remains operated by The Friends of the Mozartina Musical Arts Conservatory.
“In partnership with Steve Lurie of Music Without Borders and many wonderful friends, volunteers, donors, members and patrons, the Music Hall’s budget surpassed $4 million,” said Karina. “Today [before COVID-19], it is one of the busiest theaters, a cultural destination and an economic engine for the region.”
In 2014, a $1.5 million exterior restoration project, which addressed the foundation, doors, windows, roof and drainage, was completed. And while these all-important efforts will secure the building for the next 100 years, Karina said a lot more work is needed.
“We are working and fundraising towards a master plan (about $75,000) after which an intensive interior and exterior restoration can take place,” she said. “Now, the fun and exciting part happens. Dreams take shape. The best is yet to come.”
Live Performances Possible in 2021
When asked what performances have stood out over the years, Olsson said that certain artists have really captured his attention like Rufus Wainwright, Pete Seeger, Brandi Carlile, Lea Salonga and Mandy Patinkin. But he added that there were so many other memorable nights.
“The two last concerts with the Levon Helm Band, which were the last ones he ever did before his death, were amazing evenings,” Olsson reflected. “And every show with The Mavericks is a party not to be missed.”
In mid-December the first round of COVID-19 vaccines were deployed to Americans, including residents of the river towns. This was welcomed news and a signal that live performances are possible in 2021.
“We don’t know yet what our first reopening show will be. We have basically been pushing bookings in front of us as we go, and still are,” he said. “With the wonderful news about the rapid progress in vaccine development, we hope we’ll be able to see some ‘distanced’ shows next summer, with mainstage shows returning in the fall — we can’t wait.”
When the Music Hall does reopen, Olsson assured it will be a safe environment for patrons, employees, volunteers and artists. And as has been the case with many businesses, he expects new “industry standards” will emerge.
Aside from a recent film shoot at the venue, the only income the Music Hall has received since shuttering its doors is through The Music Hall Academy, a collaborative effort with theater educator, Peter Royston. The Academy’s motto is “Art for Life” and provides young people with an artistic home where they can learn from theater professionals and members of the community.
Along with The Music Academy, Olsson and his team have also hosted a popular “Tune-in and Take-out – Night-In” virtual concert series, which encourages people to order in food from their favorite restaurants and watch a live performance virtually. Due to the success of the program, the Music Hall is currently seeking 52 “Angel” sponsors to support the Wednesday night performances for the 2021 calendar year.
“With the added streaming capacity, I think we will continue to see this as an integral part of live events going forward, both with ‘new artists series’ and as an added feature of some live events,” said Olsson, adding that the moral and financial support from the Music Hall’s cherished community has been wonderful.
“We are amazed how many people are willing to support us at a time when so many other desperate needs can seem overwhelming. Many also recognize that in order for our Main Street area to thrive again, with all our wonderful restaurants and shops, the Music Hall has to survive,” he said. “One patron, with his only income being social security, sent us the $50 he managed to save one month after enjoying a streaming show. These kinds of gifts are so truly touching and shows the emotions a wonderful old theater, and magic of the arts, can inspire.”
While Olsson said the future still remains unclear, the Music Hall’s 135-year history, including its ability to survive pandemics, the Great Depression and the Great Recession, among other obstacles, serves as inspiration.
“The Music Hall is older than most of its surviving peers. Entering the building you just feel the memories and experiences of generations of patrons reverberating from its historic walls,” said Olsson. “So many theaters have been lost. Only about six percent of surviving theaters were built before 1900, and we are even a decade and a half older than that. Few things are part of the collective memories of a town like their Main Street theaters, and we plan to be around for at least another 135 years with the continued support of our community.”