Celebrating 100 Years of Theatre

“I fell in love the moment I walked into the Avalon Theatre,” recalls Ellen (General) Vatne, who spearheaded the resurrection of cultural and community mission of the space. “I could feel it was full of magic. It was originally designed to celebrate the heart and soul of the community and 100 years later it continues to do just that.”

Since its inception in 1922 the Avalon Theatre has been known as the showplace of the Eastern Shore. This year marks the 100th anniversary of this spectacular one-of-a-kind treasure. It is regarded as one of America’s finest Art Deco theatres still in operation thanks to a century of serious conservation efforts.

“It is — and always has been — the people that make this facility a gem,” maintains Vatne, who currently serves as the Founder Emeritus Trustee of the Avalon Foundation. “The theatre is fueled by those who work here, volunteer their time, perform on stage and, most especially, this community that has always supported the theatre.”

Built for $100,000, the theatre instantly became an important cultural hub, noted for architectural details like a proscenium stage, dramatic 24-foot dome and stylish lobby. In its earliest days, vaudeville acts dominated the theatre while a ballroom with live orchestra commanded the second floor. The Avalon also became the go-to place to watch silent movies, and in 1928 even served as the venue for the world premiere of a Cary Grant and Fay Wray film called The First Kiss.

Avalon Theatre, circa 1933


From left, Virginia Griffith, Eileen Blaine, Margaret Holt, Cleo Gary, Isabelle Perkins, Catherine Wright, and Virginia Eason.

The Avalon Theatre was so successful that in 1938 it attracted the attention of the New York-based Schine Chain Theatres, which saw an opportunity to stake a claim to this vibrant cultural center. The change in ownership catapulted the theatre into the modern era, reflecting the public’s newfound interest in talkies.

When the Depression hit and the theatre saw its clientele diminish, the Avalon got creative: It began giving away colorful Depression glass and launched a fun giveaway called “Bank Night” where moviegoers were incentivized to buy tickets. These efforts kept the theatre alive during that difficult time, so that post-Depression it was once again a thriving venue.

For decades the Avalon flourished as a movie theatre, but by 1985 shuttered its doors after its customer base dwindled, largely due to the competing realities of multiplexes and cable TV. That’s when several local businessmen, including Will Howard, the son the original Schine Theatre manager, stepped in to renovate ¬¬and reinvent the space. This group added a third story with a wrap-around terrace overlooking downtown Easton, created distinct restaurants on three levels and, most importantly, shored up the aging structure. At the same time the Town of Easton completed a thorough renovation of the historic theatre and dug a basement level that today houses the green room, dressing rooms, as well as the MCTV studio. Following the major renovation of the building the theatre itself was sold to nonprofit organization called Mid-Shore Center for the Performing Arts.

Then Mayor George Murphy saw the Avalon and the vitality of the downtown as inextricably linked, explaining at the time “The Avalon is a graceful old lady who fell into despair and is being brought back to life.”

In 1990 the building reopened with three restaurants and a theatre that focused on community arts programming. However, this vibrant vision was short-lived. As the theatre floundered financially, so too did two of the three restaurants in the building. The theatre was put up for auction in 1992 and when no bidder stepped forward, the Easton government purchased the property, determined to save this important cornerstone in the heart of downtown.


Avalon Theatre, circa 1990


Cecile's Restaurant

Flash forward to 1994 when Vatne and John General struck a deal to lease the theatre from Easton. With this agreement, The Avalon Foundation, Inc. was born. “My heart told me I had found my calling: Making the Avalon the showplace of the Eastern Shore once again,” Vatne shares. This despite the fact that her heart sank upon seeing it in shackles. “The town had chains on the front door because it was being rented out on an ‘ask’ basis,” she recalls. “I was so sad because I knew this theatre could again become the beautiful gathering place it had once been.”

Thanks to the previous restoration efforts the theatre itself was in excellent shape so that the rebirth of the Avalon was able to focus primarily on procuring high quality programming from the surrounding community and from nationally recognized musical acts, like Charlie Byrd, Richie Havens and Rickie Lee Jones. This move once again vaulted the theatre to its position as the Mid Shore’s cultural beacon.

The Avalon has been evolving ever since. In 2009 the second story ballroom was converted into an intimate venue called the Stoltz Listening Room. Dedicated to the parents of Avalon supporter Keith Stoltz on their 50th anniversary, this popular space typically hosts nearly 100 shows each year. Original album cover art shot by acclaimed photographer Peter Turner for legendary musicians like Chet Baker, Hubert Laws & Oscar Peterson line one wall of this sophisticated space, making it a magnet for music aficionados.

In 2020 the Avalon Theatre completed its latest renovation, restoring the Art Deco design details, increasing seating capacity to 400 and modernizing systems. Notably, one element that needed little refinement was the theatre’s acoustics. Long lauded by musicians for its exceptional sound, the theatre’s original acoustic elements, such as structural angles and flared walls, remain noteworthy.

Walter Storyk Design Group (WSDG), a global architectural and acoustic engineering firm, was brought in to advise on the project. Despite the design dating back to the 1920s, little more that fine-tuning was needed to bring the Avalon into the modern age. “The historic theatre’s acoustics were already wonderful. In this regard our role was more as stewards than surgeons,” John Storyk, a founding partner of WSDG, notes.

While many other historic theatres have floundered, closed or been demolished, the fact that the Avalon has thrived for a century is a testament to the dedication of the community, which has come together time after time in service to and in appreciation of this important space.

“The Avalon Theatre is where our community convenes. It is through shared experience that we are reminded of our common humanity and the spectacular heights to which the human spirit is capable,” Al Bond, president and CEO of the Avalon Foundation, says. “While tastes and genres change, the magic continues.”


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