When will the curtain rise again for the Old Blair Auditorium -- Gazette.Net


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It’s like a horror movie.

Shoes and clothes left from a final performance are strewn about the dressing rooms. Mold has crept over the auditorium seats, stage curtains, and in the bathrooms. A rat lay dead at the women’s dressing room entrance, and parts of the ceiling have fallen down from water leaks.

Once a thriving theater, the Old Blair auditorium now remains silent and abandoned — idle for the past 10 years since Montgomery Blair High School moved to a new location.

But despite its disrepair, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett did not include funds for design of the auditorium’s renovation in his Fiscal Year 2015-2020 Capital Improvements Program budget recommendation, which finances construction projects such as schools, roads and infrastructure. And for the project advocates, that meant “killing” any chances to have the space open again.

But on Tuesday, Montgomery County spokesperson Patrick Lacefield said the county found $600,000 left over from completed capital projects to put toward the project.

That amount is needed to match $600,000 in state funds that was awarded in 2005 to the Old Blair Auditorium Project Inc., a nonprofit group that has lead the efforts to renovate the facility. The group has to have matching funds by May to keep the state’s cash.

With the combined funds the county will begin the design and planning studies, Lacefield said.

“That’s great news. I feel great. ... That’s like halfway [and] it is better than none of the way,” said Stuart Moore, president of the Old Blair Auditorium Project Inc.

When Montgomery Blair High School moved to a new location in Silver Spring, the county renovated the Wayne Avenue building to become two new schools — Sligo Creek Elementary School and Silver Spring International Middle School. Between the two schools was the auditorium, which was abandoned.

The last performance held there was the musical “Anything Goes” in 1998.

Students from the middle school hold their events in their own cafeteria, rather than use the auditorium. That has left the auditorium in limbo, and Lacefield said school officials have allowed the county to take the lead on the project to open the space up for community uses.

Moore said so far the nonprofit collected $57,000 in donations from the community.

According to county documents, in 2006 the estimated cost to renovate the place was $3 million.

The $600,000 in state bonds were extended five times, in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013. “The first three were to allow more time to get matching funds from the county ... so those last two extensions were to allow more time to expend the funds,” Moore said.

The $600,000 had been in the county’s capital budget but Leggett removed the money in his most recent capital budget proposal.

Without Tuesday’s announcement of found funding, the group was out of extensions and faced losing the state’s money.

Early designs for the project had the renovation project costing $3 million but over time that cost has escalated to $13 million.

In May 2008, Calverton-based architects Grimm and Parker met with residents, county officials and Montgomery County Public Schools officials to plan the auditorium’s renovation anticipating getting the funds to do the job. The facility would be renovated into a 750- to 800-seat, two-floor auditorium with four classrooms in the rear of the facility and cost up to $8 million depending on the design, up from the first estimate of $3 million.

“Somehow that turned into $13 million when they look at it again. ... It seems like a lot of awful increase and we are not sure why,” Moore said.

Representatives of Grimm and Parker could not be reached for comment.

Councilwoman Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said the county council has expressed support for the project. Branson sent a memo to councilmembers and the executive on Thursday requesting supplemental funding from the executive.

“It is a potentially revenue raiser in the community in addition to a great spot ... for kids and general community,” Branson said.

If renovated the auditorium could be available to students of both schools, as well as county arts and theater groups who could rent out the space.

The question now is when will the curtain rise again for the Old Blair Auditorium?

Jan Guttman, a Montgomery County Public School teacher, graduated from Blair in 1980 and was very active behind the scenes or on the stage at the Blair Auditorium.

“I was on three or four shows. ... It was a great place to be. ... The fact that is becoming into decay is inexcusable,” Guttman said.

She said that as a community member, teacher and parent she does not understand how the county abandoned the auditorium. For Guttman, in the long run, it makes more sense to fix it and start getting money back by renting the space.

Bill Judd, a Blair alum, volunteered as a sound engineer at the auditorium when it was still hosting performances.

In 1981, he was pulled from the first period of Electronic and Technology class thinking he was in trouble, but wound up helping to set up the stage for music legend Stevie Wonder.

“I have vivid memories because it meant so much to me,” Judd said.

He helped pulled the piano from under the stage, set up the microphone for the singer to speak with the students and other people in the audience.

Wonder visited the auditorium in January 1981 as part of his effort to have Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday established as a national holiday.

Judd went on to work for 12 years as a sound engineer for the Washington Redskins, and he credits his success to the experience he got working at the Old Blair Auditorium.

“We had fun there,” added Judd.



abarros@gazette.net